The Corner

Politics & Policy

Bill Clinton’s Lesson for the GOP

Two news stories that I ran across while researching my recent column on the Latino vote rang a faint bell in my mind. It didn’t hurt that each story reinforced the other.

One was that Bill Clinton had urged his wife’s campaign to shore up the Democratic vote among blue-collar workers (usually but inaccurately described as “the white working-class vote”) in the rural and small-town areas of the South and the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. His advice, however, had been dismissed. As Politico reported:

Bill Clinton’s viewpoint of fighting for the working-class white voters was often dismissed with a hand wave by senior members of the team as a personal vendetta to win back the voters who elected him, from a talented but aging politician who simply refused to accept the new Democratic map. . . . At a meeting ahead of the convention at which aides presented to both Clintons the ‘Stronger Together’ framework for the general election, senior strategist Joel Benenson told the former president bluntly that the voters from West Virginia were never coming back to his party.

Of course, these were the very voters and the states, including both West Virginia and Wisconsin, which delivered the Electoral College to Trump.

The second story was that President Obama, unlike Mrs. Clinton, had recognized the importance of such voters as early as his primary campaign in 2008, and set out to woo them. In a post-election press conference this year that is more critical of the Hillary Clinton campaign than it may sound, he stressed how he personally had gone into their towns to show that he wasn’t such a bad sort.

Here, according to the Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog, is Obama on exactly how it was done: “I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. There’s some counties maybe I won, that people didn’t expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.”

A personal visit from Hillary might not have quite the same impact, of course, but one sees what the president meant. You have to show you’re on the side of the voters if you hope to win their support. The 2016 Clinton campaign directed most of its messages to Latinos and other minorities. It gave only perfunctory attention to what had been until quite recently the bedrock foundation of Democratic support. The candidate herself didn’t even visit Wisconsin. Again, those states and voters, vulnerable to Trump’s economic populism, drifted toward his camp without a strong countervailing pull from the Clinton campaign.

What is mysterious about these stories is why they also rang a faint bell with me, namely déjà vu. It’s only been four years since 2012, but in the closing days of that election the Obama campaign had become nervous that the same constituencies might be swinging toward Mitt Romney.

To be sure, Romney was about the worst possible candidate when it came to winning the blue-collar voter. He had been successfully demonized by the Obama campaign as the Man Who Fired You — a vulture capitalist who closed companies and robbed pensioners. He was uncomfortable discussing such issues as the impact of immigration on low paid U.S. workers, and after briefly raising it in the first debate, he backed away onto more familiar economic territory. There was already enough distress and discontent in the Rust Belt to make the voters there willing to look at alternatives to Obama’s stalled economy. The race was still just about winnable for the GOP. But with Obama wrapping up the various minority constituencies, Romney could succeed only by winning over more of these blue-collar voters and increasing his share of the total white vote to something like 60 to 61 percent.

I wrote about how all this finally played out in the 2012 election in the London Spectator as follows:

Bill Clinton was summoned to help Obama prevent the last-minute defection of previously safe Democratic strongholds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. In the final hectic days of the campaign, a tired and hoarse but still vigorous ex-president criss-crossed what had suddenly become three or four ‘swing’ states on the east coast and in the Midwest. It was an old-fashioned street hustings climax to a campaign more often fought with television ads and social media. It worked. Romney got only 59 per cent of the white vote and, accordingly, he lost narrowly. Clinton gave the kiss of life to Obama’s ailing ambition [to change the post-Reagan trajectory of American politics]. The President phoned to thank him immediately after Romney’s concession, which must have been a bittersweet occasion for Clinton.

Not as bitter, however, as the morning of November the 9 this year when he must have realized that his wife had lost in large measure because his own advice and experience had been ignored.

That episode raises a lot of questions and needs some explanations. Whatever else we may think of Bill Clinton, he’s certainly an insightful politician. Why was he ignored on something on which he had proved his insight and utility in practice only four years ago? Maybe the campaign team thought that the electorate had changed so much in the last four years that the emerging Democratic majority had already emerged and therefore it didn’t need these unfashionable sons and daughters of toil. If so, that’s a case of fighting the next election but two and losing the present one — an odd error into which political campaigns fall again and again. (John Judis, one of the pioneers of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory, had already abandoned the theory in 2015.)

Maybe the Clintonians believed their own propaganda, however, and really didn’t want to rely for victory on the votes of racists, sexists, homophobes, and other deplorables. If so, the first lesson of that is: Get out more and meet people, as Obama and Bill Clinton both did, rather than interpreting them through the snobbish lens of social media and an ideologically slanted social science. Blue-collar workers are quite as complicated as you are, and they hold their own mix of self-interested and altruistic motives. Very few are racists; almost all don’t like being stigmatized as such. Which leads to the second lesson: Don’t diss your own supporters until you’re absolutely sure either that they’re not needed or that they’ve already left. Especially don’t tell them that they’re demographically doomed (and Good Riddance), because they might decide to sling one last stone at you. Their extinction, incidentally, is likely to last many more decades — since as I pointed out in the Latino vote piece, this misnamed “white majority” is really a mainstream America that is being constantly reinforced by the addition of voters who don’t have the minority “identity” assigned to them by the Census Bureau.

Republicans need to learn exactly the same lessons. Listening to the GOP’s base is something the party’s leaders have been adept at avoiding. That avoidance reached a neurotically heroic stage in the primaries when almost all of the candidates ignored the plain evidence that both legacy Republicans and potential Reagan Republicans wanted a smaller number of immigrants chosen on different criteria. Trump listened, and as a result there are now millions of Trump Republicans. This achievement is a real but vulnerable one, as the popular vote (however counted) shows. Republicans can drive them away with the same kind of non-listening campaign as the Democrats have done. But if the next Republican candidate, whether Trump or someone else, can present both a record of achievement that answers their anxieties and a manifesto that promises to continue doing so in the future, probably in softer language than Trump’s this time, he will have the chance to cement a new and dominant coalition in American politics. Ramesh Ponnuru has an article on the home page in which he outlines a very reasonable compromise between Trump and Ryan that would go a long way to achieving just that. And contrary to much commentary from both gloating liberals and despairing “economist” right-wingers, it can be a largely conservative coalition if we show some common sense — and do not allowed ourselves to be led astray by the ideologues of open borders liberalism.

For the Robby Mooks and Joel Benensons of the Clinton campaign have their counterparts in today’s conservatism. And they are equally gifted in the art of not listening.

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