Hillary Clinton’s new memoir of her failed presidential campaign is titled “What Happened.” A better title would be “What Happened?” because Clinton apparently has no idea.
Clinton has blamed her loss on an ever-changing cast of characters – Russia, WikiLeaks, James Comey and Bernie Sanders. Now she has put the blame on a new scapegoat: millions of bigoted white nationalists.
Clinton told Jane Pauley of CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” that Donald Trump won because he “was quite successful in referencing a nostalgia that would give hope, comfort, settle grievances, for millions of people who were upset about gains that were made by others,” Clinton said. When Pauley asked, “What you’re saying is millions of white people?” Clinton replied, “Millions of white people, yeah. Millions of white people.”
In an interview with NPR on Tuesday, Clinton was even more explicit. Trump’s message, she said, was “discriminatory, it was bigoted, it was prejudiced. And yet it fed into part of the electorate that just wanted to have a primal scream. They didn’t like what was going on. . . . They really responded to his racial and ethnic and sexist appeals.”
So Clinton believes she lost Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the presidency because of the bigotry of middle America.
One problem with her analysis: Millions of those white people who voted for Donald Trump also proudly voted for Barack Obama. There are nearly 700 counties in the United States that voted twice for Barack Obama, one-third of which flipped to Trump in 2016. According to Nate Cohn of the New York Times, “almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016, either supporting Mr. Trump or voting for a third-party candidate.” Are all those Trump-Obama voters bigots? Millions of once reliably Democratic voters pulled the lever for the first black president, yet they were suddenly whipped up into a racist furor by Trump’s “racial and ethnic and sexist appeals”? Give me a break.
As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has pointed out, many of these working-class Obama-Trump voters were not even white. “The Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class problem,’ ” Greenberg wrote recently in the American Prospect. “They have a ‘working-class problem’ . . . Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials.”
Why did so many Obama voters defect to Trump? It wasn’t race or immigration. According to a survey by the liberal super PAC Priorities USA Action, the top seven priorities were (1) protecting Social Security and Medicare; (2) creating good-paying jobs for American workers; (3) making sure Americans have access to affordable insurance; (4) cleaning up corruption in government; (5) cracking down on outsourcing; (6) making sure the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes and (7) keeping Wall Street in check.
That is hardly a white nationalist agenda.
Another reason these Obama voters defected to Trump is that they kept hearing from Clinton and the Democrats how great the economy was doing. Yet, according to Priorities USA Action, “50 percent of Obama-Trump voters said their incomes are falling behind the cost of living, and another 31 percent said their incomes are merely keeping pace with the cost of living.” When Clinton touted Obama’s economic progress, she seemed hopelessly out of touch.
Clinton still can’t seem to tell the difference between a white nationalist and working-class voters who are upset because their family incomes are stagnant or falling, they feel shut out of the labor force, and their communities are mired in substance abuse and despair. These “forgotten Americans” had legitimate grievances that Democrats ignored. That sent a message to working-class voters that Democrats are not focused on fighting for them. So they defected.
Add to this Clinton’s inability to connect with her party’s liberal base (the so-called drop-off voters who turned out for Obama but failed to show up for her) – plus the Clinton Foundation and her repeated lies about her personal server, which led large majorities of Americans to conclude that she was dishonest and corrupt – and you had the toxic brew that produced her electoral defeat.
Clinton says she is done with electoral politics, so it really does not matter if she understands “what happened.” But there is little sign that Democrats today understand, much less are doing what is necessary to win back these working-class voters in the heartland. Instead, they have declared themselves “The Resistance” – further alienating these voters who put Trump in office, while hoping that they can turn out their liberal base in the next election. That’s precisely the strategy that failed in 2016. We’ll see if doubling down on failure works in 2020.
Special To The Washington Post · Marc A. Thiessen