Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Glass Ceiling Collapses

The night started out so promising, didn't it? Hillary Clinton jumped out to early leads in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And not just small leads, mind you, huge leads. At one point she led by as many as 250,000 votes in Pennsylvania. With likely favorable outcomes out in the Southwest, the word landslide was being uttered by pundits on both sides of the political aisle. Clinton's turnout machine was working and the map was reflecting it.

And then...

Then the unthinkable started happening. A sea of red began slowly rising up and those leads began to vanish. In the end, not only were the aforementioned states gone, but long-time blue ones like Wisconsin and Michigan, as well. As improbable as it seemed only a few hours earlier, Donald Trump had won the presidency.

Nobody saw this coming. Well, almost nobody. I seem to recall there was one person who, back in August of last year, warned that this day might happen.

Political pundits can say it's only August all they want. In a few days, it will be September. I guarantee you we'll be talking about Trump well into the fall, winter, spring and summer. The man is here to stay. He's running for president, he's loaded with cash (HIS OWN CASH, MIND YOU!) and he's got the ear of a lot of people who seem to think he can deliver them and the country from the elites who have destroyed it. 
His message, if you listen carefully, is not just a conservative message. In many ways, it's a far more blunt version of the same populist message Bernie Sanders has been delivering to sellout crowds all over the country. Yes, he's a racist, or at least he's pandering to that element. With Trump, you never know. But it would be foolish for anyone to believe that he is merely the fruits of the Frankenstein monster the GOP created. 
The truth is no one created Donald Trump. He's been making outrageous statements all his adult life. What he really is is an opportunist. And like all opportunists, he has seized upon this granddaddy of an opportunity. He's no flake; he's for real. And if both political parties don't start taking him seriously, in about sixteen months, Chief Justice John Roberts will be swearing him in as the 45th President of the United States.

Yeah, that person was me and, sadly, nobody took heed of those words; not the GOP nor the Democrats. And I suspect that the reason for that was that no one ever fully understood the movement Trump tapped into. The depth of the frustration that many people feel in this country came to the surface with a vengeance yesterday. Only last Friday, I was adamant that this election was not "in the bag" and that a Trump victory was still VERY possible.

If Clinton loses, it won't just be her failure, it will be an epic failure of the system as a whole. Put succinctly, the institutions that have been tasked with the job of running the Republic since its inception have been all but discredited. The Congress is hopelessly gridlocked; the Supreme Court a hostage to ideological divisions between both major parties, the FBI now apparently in cahoots with the Trump campaign. The antipathy and contempt many have towards the government is not limited to just one party or one voter demographic. Bernie Sanders ran on a platform that railed against a rigged system and some of his supporters, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still insist the nomination was stolen from him. 
What is abundantly clear is that a lot of people are pissed. And people who are pissed are often unpredictable and far more prone to act impulsively. There's no doubt that between the two candidates, Trump's supporters are far more enthusiastic about him than Clinton's supporters are about her. And that enthusiasm gap could prove costly next Tuesday. 
The rise of anti-intellectualism poses a grave threat to the nation and regardless of what happens next week it is not likely to cease. The normal checks and balances of democracy are under assault and an alarming percentage of the population is poised to hand over the keys of the kingdom to a man who praises a despot and has the temperament of a four year old.

So how did it happen? Well, first off, let's dismiss the ridiculous notion that somehow Hillary's base abandoned her. From the returns, we know that wasn't the case. Yes, there was a drop-off among African Americans, but without Barack Obama on the ticket that was to be expected. More Hispanics, though, voted in this election than in 2012, so it was almost a wash. Her ground team did its job; she got the turnout in South Florida, Philly, Raleigh-Durham, Detroit and Milwaukee that she needed.

The difference wasn't her turnout, but his. White voters came to the polls in record numbers in rural communities, turning blue counties red and red counties even redder. While Clinton was getting margins in the high 50s to mid 60s in the most of the cities and suburbs - she actually outperformed Obama's 2012 numbers in Philadelphia - Trump was getting margins in the low to mid 70s everywhere else. What he accomplished in western Wisconsin was nothing short of astonishing.

CNN contributor Van Jones correctly called it a "whitelash." The white population of the country rose up and, for lack of a better explanation, took back the country they believed had been stolen from them. It was a thorough rebuke of the free-trade, pro-immigration, multiculturalism and pluralism that is becoming more and more prominent throughout the nation, as well as the world. The surging Latino and African American populations that by the middle of this century will represent the new majority in the U.S. were seen as a threat to their hegemony, as I've said on many occasions. Trump had become a folk hero to many of them.

Donald Trump has said many outrageous things throughout this campaign, but there was one thing he said last year that many people dismissed but came to fruition yesterday. He said his campaign brought in millions of new voters who had not participated in the voting process. Well, let's just say for the sake of argument that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Maybe Trump's supporters weren't shy, but they sure as hell did a good job of hiding themselves from sight until election day. I've never seen so many pollsters get an election so thoroughly wrong in my lifetime. Only Dewey - Truman can compare.

But I go back to an argument I made months ago, namely that Hillary Clinton never did what every political candidate needs to do to win: make the case for herself. Yes, she spoke about bringing people together, women's rights, making college tuition affordable, rebuilding the middle class. Those are all good causes, to be sure, but Bernie Sanders could've said it just as well, and did. When push came to shove, the basic campaign theme of Clinton appeared to come down to shining a giant spotlight on Trump and watching him self destruct.

And for a while that strategy seemed to be working. Only a week after the Democratic convention, Clinton had an eight point lead on Trump, who seemed more interested in picking a fight with the parents of a gold-star soldier than winning the presidency. People in his own party started abandoning him while Democrats sat back and watched, giddy at the prospects of a November victory.

But the first signs that this strategy had its inherent risks were in early September. Trump had managed to go a couple weeks without making a fool out of himself, while Clinton stopped campaigning. Then came the now infamous "deplorable" comments at a fund raiser, followed by her collapse at the 9/11 memorial. Within a week of that fall, her poll numbers had plummeted to such an extent that the race was ostensibly tied. The RCP 4-way average showed her up by only a point.

She would get a reprieve during the first debate when, once again, Trump couldn't resist being baited into a back and forth over, of all things, a former Miss Universe winner. He engaged in a childish tweet storm over it and Clinton's poll numbers quickly recovered. Then came the Access Hollywood tape of him bragging about groping women and his sad performance at the second debate. By the time of the third debate, Clinton held an almost insurmountable lead. The only question that remained was not whether Trump would lose, but whether he would cost Republicans both Houses of Congress.

Then, with just eleven days to go before the election, FBI Director James Comey announced that the Bureau had found emails on Anthony Weiner's computer that he felt were "pertinent" and that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton's server. By that point the polls had already begun to tighten, primarily because Trump, once more, was behaving himself. No inappropriate tweets at 3 A.M. He stayed "on message." And the message was that Hillary was crooked and the system was rigged.

While he visited traditionally Democratic-leaning states like Wisconsin and Michigan, team Clinton began to sweat. They had the same data that the pollsters had and they knew this race was tight, way too tight. So they barnstormed Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, desperate to shore up a blue wall that was showing definite signs of cracking. Nate Silver, a couple of days before the election, gave her only a 65 percent chance of winning. Not even Comey's announcement that they had found no new evidence on Weiner's computer to warrant bringing charges against her helped. The perception voters had of Clinton was now thoroughly baked into the equation.

The spotlight that she had hoped would shine brightly on Trump in the final days of the race was now squarely shining down on Clinton, and it proved costly. Not even an impassioned plea from Obama in Philadelphia on election eve night helped. The damage was too great to overcome. Without a reason to vote FOR her, many decided to vote against her.

Yes, she won the popular vote, but that's mainly because of states like New York and California where she ran up the totals. If you look across the country, it was painfully obvious that Trump, and not Clinton, had redrawn the electoral map. Team Clinton thought they could pick off some traditionally red states like Arizona and Georgia; instead, it was team Trump that picked off traditionally blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

So now what? Where do Democrats go from here? Well for starters, they will not have the majority in the Senate, which means President Trump can pretty much do anything he wants, from appointing conservative justices to defunding the Affordable Care Act. Dodd / Frank? You can kiss that goodbye, along with the Iran deal and the Paris Climate Agreement. And if you thought George Bush's tax cuts were ridiculous, just wait until Trump implements his tax cuts. If you'd like a bird's eye view of how the U.S. economy will likely look like in about two years, go visit Kansas, where Governor Sam Brownback has thoroughly destroyed that state's economy. Yes, people, elections do have consequences.

As for myself, I think it's time I admit a painful truth. I was wrong about Hillary Clinton. Not about her credentials or her capabilities. By any and all accounts, she was the most experienced candidate in the race and, had she won, I believe she would've made a very effective president, perhaps even a great president. But she was the wrong candidate at the wrong time. And she had zero passion behind her. Yes, I voted for her, but I can hardly say it was an emotional vote. Like many people who voted for her, it was more about keeping Trump out of the White House than putting her in. I suspect some held their nose while they pulled the lever.

Bernie Sanders, by comparison, was a rock star. I had poked fun at him and his supporters throughout the Democratic primaries for what I referred to as magical and unrealistic thinking. At one point, after listening to him make promise after promise at one of his rallies, I remember asking if a pony came with that. Watching Clinton, though, was about as emotional as watching paint dry. Her politics may have been more grounded in reality, but it was equally banal.

Even before the WikiLeaks emails started coming out, few if any knew what Clinton stood for, other than winning the election. At the Democratic Convention, her husband Bill spent the majority of his speech explaining to the country who Hillary was. I'm sorry, but if you need your husband to make your case to the nation, that in and of itself is a bad sign. The leaked emails, far from defining her, simply reinforced what many people already suspected about her: that she was the prototypical politician who weighed every decision based on how it would be interpreted by the public. That might be smart politics, as it is smart business, but in this change environment, it was the kiss of death for many voters.

Look, do I think Sanders could've beaten Trump? His supporters would say yes, but I'm not so sure. I think Bernie would've presented a totally different set of challenges for Democrats, namely how he was going to explain to an electorate wary of higher taxes how he was going to pay for his college tuition and healthcare plans. And then there was the matter of his being a self-described socialist. My guess is in a general election, Trump might've eaten Sanders alive. Unfortunately, all we can do at this point is speculate.

For Democrats to retake the White House in four years, they must do two things, in my opinion. First, they must acknowledge the pain and resentment that is in this electorate, while at the same time admit that they had a hand in that pain. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the Democratic Party became synonymous with corporate greed and corruption. In the eyes of many voters there was little difference between them and the GOP.

If they take the tact that Trump is some kind of anomaly, then they are going to be in for a very long and pronounced drought. Think 1980s, only worse. At least Democrats had control of the legislature back then. As of now, Democrats are a party on the run: outnumbered in both the federal and state governments by considerable margins. And their prospects in two years are grim, as five Democratic senators will face reelection in Red states. Knowing how poorly Democrats fair in midterms, it is entirely possible they could lose all five.

The second thing they need to do is come up with a nominee in four years who has something other than an impressive resume going for them. That person must be able to connect with the common voter in a way that isn't condescending and can offer hope. We may have laughed at Trump for the "simple" and blunt manner in which he spoke throughout this race, but he made a connection with the electorate that Clinton could only dream of making. Assuming he fails as president, and the likelihood is that he will, the Dems will have the opportunity of a lifetime before them. They must capitalize on it.

As Graham Parker once sang, "Passion is no ordinary word." In politics, as in life, it's the difference between winning and losing.

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