In an otherwise excellent Politico article advising Democrats how to avoid the fate of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer offers his team some self-soothing revisionism regarding the 2016 election:
When all is said and done, the 2016 election might end up being a black-swan event. The combination of Russian interference, Comey intervention and multiple third-party candidates make that election a hard one to extract guidance from.
Guess what? Every election is conducted under a unique set of circumstances. Every election is a black-swan event. But that doesn’t mean you should rewrite history to excuse your side’s performance.
The so-called “Comey intervention” has become a security blanket for Democrats unable to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton was merely acting in the same reckless and corrupt manner she always had. In reality, Democrats were incensed that the FBI director didn’t bury evidence pertaining to an ongoing congressional investigation of their preferred candidate. They had demanded Comey operate as a political actor even before Trump won.
Comey, a bureaucrat who likely had zero interest in angering the consensus front-runner for the presidency, had no choice but to inform Congress of this evidence. Not only because Department of Justice rules stipulate that relevant congressional committees should be apprised of new evidence when it appears, but because Comey had promised Congress after letting Clinton off the hook in July 2016 that he would notify it if new evidence emerged.
New evidence did emerge, and there was nothing Comey could do about it. A high-level Hillary staffer, Huma Abedin, was in possession of classified emails that should have been handed over to the FBI. Moreover, her high-profile husband, Anthony Weiner, then under investigation for carrying on with an underaged girl, had access to those emails. If Comey had kept silent and that story had leaked out in bits and pieces later, it surely would have destroyed his career (and badly damaged Clinton).
What’s more, it takes some chutzpah to claim Comey doomed Clinton by revealing that story when he had previously intervened in the campaign to save her from becoming the first major-party presidential candidate to have to run under an indictment. The mass of evidence in the broader Clinton email scandal showed, at the very least, that her staff had engaged in lawlessness and obstructed justice in ways that make the actions of George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn look piddling in contrast.
What about the Russians? Well, they did not “meddle” or “interfere” in the presidential election as Pfeiffer claims. They tried but failed to interfere in the election, and probably could have changed votes, but didn’t. Such an attack by a foreign power is a serious issue, but there is absolutely no evidence that a few Facebook ads or John Podesta’s hacked emails changed voters’ minds about the election.
Nor is there any evidence that Clinton was uniquely hurt by third parties. Democrats might hate Jill Stein, but she won 1,457,218 votes, or around 1 percent of the vote. The Libertarian Party ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld pulled in 4,489,341 votes, a better-than-usual performance for the party driven by antagonism toward the decidedly non-libertarian Trump. The Never Trump McMullin/Finn ticket won 731,991 votes from, one assumes, mostly disgruntled Republicans. Another 203,090 votes went to the Constitution Party, which definitely doesn’t sound like a group that would appeal to most Democrats. In short, if anyone was hurt by third-party candidacies, it was probably Trump.
In reality, there is plenty of guidance we can extract from 2016. “How did the party lose one of the most winnable elections in recent history?” Pfeiffer asks. Well, Trump’s populism connected with voters in places such as Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, voters who had been throwing Democrats out of office for almost the entirety of Obama’s two terms. Clinton was a uniquely terrible candidate undone by her own grating personality, her insincerity, and her policy positions, all of which the party was aware of when it nominated her.
Pfeiffer offers three really good pieces of advice to Democrats for winning in 2020: “do not make this election solely about Donald Trump,” “find ways to frame this economy on your own terms,” and “get out of the liberal Twitter bubble.” But like most members of his tribe, he still hasn’t come to terms with the reality of 2016.