The Democratic Civil War Is Getting Nasty, Even if No One Is Paying Attention (New Yorker)

The Democratic Civil War Is Getting Nasty, Even if No One Is Paying Attention

On the morning of October 5th, President Trump was on one of his Twitter
rants from the White House, denying as “fake news” an NBC report that
his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had called him a “moron” and
threatened to resign. Elsewhere in Washington, the drama over whether
Tillerson was actually on his way out threatened to overwhelm other news
stories for a second straight day. But, when I arrived at the townhouse
of Stanley Greenberg, the veteran Democratic strategist, on Capitol
Hill, later that morning, it was not the distractions of the Trump White
House that had him worked up. Greenberg was still fuming about Hillary

Clinton was guilty of “malpractice” in how she conducted her 2016
Presidential campaign, Greenberg told me. Even worse, he said, Democrats
were repeating the same political mistakes a year later. “Look at
Virginia right now,” Greenberg said, as soon as we sat down in his
second-floor office. “We have a candidate”—Ralph Northam, the Democratic
gubernatorial nominee—“running as Hillary Clinton. He is running on the
same kind of issues, and has the same kind of view of the world. It’s
the Republicans who talk about the economy, not the Democrats.” This was
the approach that doomed Clinton against Trump. The electorate was angry
in 2016 and remains angry now, Greenberg said, and Northam, a Norfolk
doctor, didn’t get it. Neither did Clinton and the team of Obama
veterans who staffed her Brooklyn headquarters. “If you live in the
metro areas with the élites, you don’t wake up angry about what’s
happening in people’s lives,” Greenberg said.

His rant was notable for a variety of reasons, not least because
Greenberg was the pollster who helped Bill Clinton win the White House
in 1992, and he has been a participant in every Democratic nominee’s
Presidential campaign since, including Hillary Clinton’s. His criticism
illuminates an urgent question for the Democratic Party, not just in
next week’s governor’s race in Virginia but in the midterm elections of
2018 and beyond. Could Trump, as deeply polarizing and unpopular as he
is, even be reëlected?

Greenberg and other prominent Democrats still furious about last year’s
Clinton campaign think it’s entirely possible, unless the Party figures
out, and fast, a way to tackle the problem that sealed Clinton’s fate in
2016: how to appeal to the disaffected white working-class voters who
provided Trump’s unlikely win a year ago.

“That debate,” Greenberg told me, “which would have been pushed off had
she won, is immediate.”

For months, Greenberg has been stewing over how Clinton conducted her
campaign, and he finally unloaded, in The American Prospect, a
small-circulation progressive journal founded back on the eve of Bill
Clinton’s Presidency. Greenberg’s
article—in the form of a
book review of
the best-selling insider account of the Clinton campaign, published
earlier this year—came out in September and drew relatively little
notice. But here was Bill Clinton’s pollster accusing Hillary Clinton’s
campaign of strategic errors, mismanagement, and failure to heed the
advice of him and others to appeal to the Party’s traditional
working-class voters in the Midwest. Compounding the errors, Clinton’s
team conducted no state polls in the final three weeks of the campaign,
relying instead on flawed data analytics to predict turnout and the
vote. As a result, it didn’t even know that final disaster loomed.
“Malpractice and arrogance contributed mightily to the election of
Donald Trump,” Greenberg concluded.

Greenberg disclosed in the piece that he was speaking as more than an
outside critic. He had served as “invited noodge” throughout the 2016
campaign, Greenberg revealed, secretly critiquing Clinton’s speeches for
months at her request, pushing for more attention to be paid to the
economic struggles of the white working class, and advising her campaign
chairman, John Podesta. In our interview, Greenberg elaborated, saying
Podesta had sought his counsel after it became clear that Podesta was
failing to sway Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook—a young,
data-driven veteran of Barack Obama’s two winning Presidential
runs—whose strategy was to focus on turning out loyal Obama voters
rather than persuading wavering Rust Belt voters. “It came out of his
needing to win the argument internally,” Greenberg told me. Both Podesta
and Greenberg had worked for the Bill Clinton White House, where Podesta
served as chief of staff, and had been allies ever since.

In the weeks after Greenberg published his critique, I spoke with
several other veterans of the Bill Clinton years who shared his
appraisal of Hillary’s campaign—and said that their advice had also been
ignored. “They viewed people like me and Bill Clinton as yesteryear,”
one, who ran his campaign in a key Midwestern state and played a public
role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign there as well, said. “They thought
the world has changed, politics has changed. But their analytics were
flawed. They were treating this like a third term for Obama, and it was
a big mistake.” The internal critics, they told me, had also included
the former President, but he was, as Greenberg put it when we talked,
“frozen out.”

This was, I realized, one of the hidden stories of the 2016 election. A
former top adviser to the Clinton campaign said that Greenberg’s gripes
were a “misplaced diagnosis for why we lost” and noted that Bill Clinton
had been a vigorous participant in the campaign’s strategic discussions.
Hillary Clinton herself alluded to Greenberg’s critique, though not the
campaign’s internal debates over it, in her recent
dismissing as “baloney” Greenberg’s argument that she “went silent on
the economy and change” in the key final days before the election. But,
even if the fight is in part an exercise in after-the-fact
finger-pointing, the campaign’s internal struggles over how to talk to
the Trump base in the formerly Democratic states of Middle America are
just as relevant, polarizing, and unresolved today as they were a year
ago. Should Democrats bet their future on attacking Trump and pledge, as
the California billionaire donor Tom Steyer now wants them to do, to
pursue Trump’s impeachment, at all costs, if they win back the House
next year? Should they give up on the white voters who went for Trump in
2016 even though many had been reliably Democratic in the past? Was
Clinton’s defeated primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, right to try to
pull the Party to the left?

Without a resolution to these questions, the next Democratic nominee may
well end up caught in the same trap in which Hillary Clinton found
herself, stuck defending the legacy of the two-term Obama Presidency,
even as the economic dislocations of the Obama era fuelled the rise of
populism on both left and right.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, in Washington these days to pay
attention to the Democrats’ war within while what appears to be the
full-fledged implosion of the Republican Party unfolds. After all,
hardly a day goes by when the President of the United States isn’t
publicly attacking leaders in his own party, and being attacked back.
And this week brought a new obsession: the first indictments in the
special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the brewing fight over the Democratic
Party’s future gets so little airtime. In the wake of Trump’s win, it’s
easy to blame Hillary Clinton for being a flawed candidate with a tin
ear for politics. Or to rationalize Trump’s unexpected victory as an
accident of history. But I haven’t talked with a single Democrat or
independent analyst who doesn’t think that the Party remains in serious
danger of another electoral catastrophe.

Recently, another former Bill Clinton adviser, the onetime White House
political director Doug Sosnik, published an
op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that, as the headline put it, “Trump is
on track to win reelection.” Sosnik contended that Democrats needed to
immediately start figuring out how to appeal to voters in Pennsylvania,
Michigan, and Wisconsin, where a shift in votes for Trump won him the
election. I mentioned the Sosnik article when I recently ran into a
Washington operative who had also served as a key White House aide to
Clinton. “Of course, Trump could win,” he said. “We’re the party that
doesn’t have a message that speaks to the country or stand for anything
other than being against Trump.”

When Democrats handicap their prospects for 2020 these days, the list of
potential candidates is huge and invariably includes septuagenarians
like Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden—both of whom appear
eager to run—as well as an array of younger, relatively unknown
officials, like Kamala Harris, the former California attorney general
who is now a first-term senator. While the Democratic National Committee
is now being led by Obama’s former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has
promised a technocratic approach to the problem of resurgent
Republicans, the energy in the rank and file remains with the Bernie
bros and Sandersistas, who are determined to pull the party to the
left—toward a future of universal health care and free college for all.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, could appeal to this fervent
new activist base, and conceivably win the nomination in 2020. But more
centrist Democrats worry that she couldn’t do so without forever
alienating not only the Trump base but also the Wall Street moneymen who
have provided the Party with key financial backing ever since Bill
Clinton introduced his New Democrats to the nation, in 1992. As for
Trump’s angry white working class, no one’s sure if there are any
Democrats at all in the mix for 2020 who can really speak to them. And
to the extent that there are such politicians, figures like Biden or
Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, no one’s sure there’s a real place for
such a candidate in a party moving left quickly.

“The Democratic Party today is divided over whether it wants to focus on
the economy or identity,” Greenberg said when we talked. That is, as he
pointed out, just what the Clinton campaign was fighting about a year
ago. Greenberg and others who came out of the Bill Clinton era—like the
former President himself—had never really let go of the economy-first
mantra that got them to the White House in a different time, and they
felt that there was a generational conflict with the Obama operatives
who held sway over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 strategy. It was a fight that
dogged the Clinton campaign all the way until its final days, when
Greenberg and his allies inside the campaign pushed unsuccessfully to
close with a focus on her plans for the economy.

“The caricature of this debate is, Bill Clinton says you have a problem
and the numbers people say you don’t,” Jake Sullivan, who served as
Clinton’s top policy adviser for the campaign after working with her
closely at the Obama State Department, recalled. But it wasn’t that
Hillary Clinton’s team disagreed over the problem, he insisted, just
over what to do about it: “Everybody recognized we had a huge
working-class, non-college white issue. The question was, How do you add
up to victory? Do you attack it head-on or by compensating elsewhere?
That was the fundamental strategic debate.”

And it still is.


via New Yorker

November 1, 2017 at 10:30AM

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