This is the second post in what may be a three-part series on Democrats in the 2016 elections. The first post dealt with how progressives react to disappointment.
This is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. In presuming her eventual victory for the purposes of this article, I am not trying to persuade anyone to vote for her. In fact, I was never keen on her ‘inevitability’ and remain grateful to Bernie Sanders for improving the race with his voice, and for many of the same reasons that invigorate his ardent supporters. I know the litany of complaints that ‘the left’ (a hilarious generalization for anyone who spends an hour in progressive organizing) has to make about Hillary Clinton. Some of them strike me as purist, hyperbolic, and even deranged, but by no means all of them, so I will refrain from litigating on her behalf. Yet the time has come to look ahead and examine her potential to surprise us by outperforming our low expectations.
Remember when Clinton sat in front of the Select Benghazi Committee for eleven hours and got a poll bounce because the GOP had accidentally made her look presidential? Did you hear Hillary’s voice cracking from the arduous campaign trail as she finished her speech Tuesday night with the last energy that was left in her? This is about how managed expectations and top performance can have a tremendous impact on the media’s narrative, crush intransigent opposition, and bring evolutionary, if perhaps not revolutionary, change. This is about whether there is room for hope despite the rising tide of foolish, blithe authoritarianism in America. Can we overcome the inertia of lesser hopes, or will centrifugal and polarizing agents tear the nation apart before they allow any social or political progress in our lifetimes?
The business of setting, and then meeting or exceeding, expectations is a key component of winning political strategies. Rachel Maddow has recently examined this aspect of campaigning on the Republican side: Jeb Bush raised the value of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement, then lost face when she gave it to Marco Rubio. John Kasich, on the other hand, predicted only that he would “do better than squat” and took fifth place in South Carolina, staying in the race even though he still trailed Bush. We have many examples of expectation management in this cycle. Donald Trump, who now seems certain to win the GOP nomination against the will of the party, has presented us with some object lessons; so have Hillary and Sanders.
1. Hillary Clinton didn’t get over Bill’s healthcare bar
Excuse me while I indulge in an all-too brief history of the greatest political fight that took place in our lifetimes.
In 1993, Hillary Clinton headed a White House task force appointed to fix the American health care system. It was dead by September. Though it was really Bill’s plan, the task force’s recommendations were propagandized as HillaryCare. On talk radio, the plastic sample ID card that Bill Clinton showed Congress — the one that would enable every American to see a doctor when they get sick or hurt — was the Mark of the Beast. The health care task force remains a right wing shibboleth to this day. Republican obstruction gave Democrats with industry ties leverage to undo the legislation. It also produced harmful backbiting as policy fights fed the Beltway press with rumors.
Compared to policy development in other administrations, it was exceptionally open and inclusive, but those very efforts to bring people in excited objections that the White House wasn’t open and inclusive enough. In setting up the working groups (which were only supposed to develop preliminary options and information, not to conduct negotiations), the White House left out representatives of interest groups. It also did not invite the press to sit in on the discussions, again because they were preliminary. The interest groups and the media then created the storm of indignation that the process was secret. The real mistake was creating the task force and working groups in the first place and putting them in the vortex of publicity that Hillary’s appointment guaranteed. Normally, presidents consult advisors in private without incurring any criticism. No one would have complained about secrecy if the White House had simply done business the usual way — entirely behind closed doors, without any formal external participation.
Not that what anyone wrote or said remained confidential. Some members of the working groups were only too happy to give the media copies of internal memos that they had written or received, leading to stories that typically began, “The White House is considering a proposal to …” — when, in fact, the proposal was not receiving any serious attention, which may be why its authors leaked it.
Hillary Clinton’s political brand is still damaged by the healthcare fight because Bill had set up expectations that his administration could not meet and put her name on them. He made an unforced error; she is still paying the price.
For the next sixteen years, health insurance reform was unthinkable as the price of insurance skyrocketed under Bush, whose pharmacy entitlement was a gift to the drug industry. Then along came Barack Obama, who got the vote out and came to office with a mandate for change. Republicans once again said no, while Democrats undermined the effort as before. There were town halls, Tea Parties, and endless tortured process, with progressive elements shouting ‘kill the bill!’ when Obama failed to force a public option on unwilling Senators. Finally, a bill was signed, approved but altered by the Supreme Court, and Americans had almost-universal coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
The price was a midterm wave of authoritarianism, complete with a ‘Freedom Caucus’ of debt ceiling brinkmanship which has stifled all progress ever since.
Health insurance reform has thus preoccupied and enervated two Democratic administrations in a row. “I don’t want to start over,” Hillary says. Rather than waste a third, she would uphold the ACA and make what advances she can to strengthen or improve it. This sort of modest hope — this lowered expectation — is problematic for progressives. But it also sets up a series of policy fights for a general election strategy against a Republican who would ‘repeal and replace’ the ACA. The Clinton campaign can put people on camera talking about the importance of their health coverage and what Trump, or any other Republican candidate, will do to their insurance, thus personalizing the damage that the GOP would inflict on American families.
In other words, Clinton can set expectations of her opponent.
2. How Bernie Sanders lost on Super Tuesday
If you are a passionate supporter of Sanders, I congratulate and commend you for all you have done. Seriously, I am glad that your candidate has come this far, yet everything I told you here and in social media about party rules and the electorate and delegate math and Super Tuesday has turned out to be true, and will stay true regardless of how much you feel the Bern. Feeling him is not the same as electing him.
Sanders was able to identify states where he could win — Oklahoma and Colorado — and out-organized her in both, so he could feel confident in victory there. But claiming a win in Massachusetts when the polls showed Hillary leading there was a big mistake. I’ll leave it to others to examine the political science of the voting in Massachusetts, but as Maddow noted during MSNBC’s coverage of the returns Tuesday night, Sanders had predicted he would win Massachusetts. Dour headlines now say his path to the nomination is even narrower than before, feeding into perceptions that the surge of interest in Sanders has ebbed.
Quickly correcting himself during his speech Tuesday night, Sanders lowered expectations, saying that he would win “hundreds of delegates.” Indeed he has won hundreds of delegates, but not hundreds enough. His opponent now has over a thousand, more than doubling his total. But it was a claim he could make with confidence after an unexpected blow.
Sanders is not expected to win the Democratic nomination, and that expectation has self-fulfilling qualities. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman recently lamented this feedback loop by complaining that CNN was too focused on polls instead of candidate records. It’s a valid criticism, but limited, as it’s made in the spirit of complaint that Sanders just isn’t winning the polls. Democrats nationwide have made up their minds, further talk will not change minds. and the holdouts just aren’t breaking for Sanders. In particular, Obama voters don’t see Sanders as the candidate who can maintain his legacy.
However, Clinton exceeded expectations this week. With a commanding lead among black voters, Hillary has also improved with white voters, and her Latino edge is manifesting in the data while her opponent’s expected revolutionary masses still have not materialized.
And about those masses.
Chris Matthews recently asked Sanders to set expectations for his presidency. How, he wondered, would President Sanders get to sixty votes in the Senate for single-payer healthcare in the age of stonewalling Republicans? The answer, according to the candidate, is that he would organize a crowd of one million people to march on Washington, which is already the most marched-upon city in America. There was a whole crowd of abortion rights activists in DC just the other day — surely Republicans are terrified of the pro-choice lobby now?
Sanders complains that Matthew is wrong to treat politics as ‘winner take all,’ but that’s exactly how the Electoral College works, and his inferior delegate count today is exactly where that sort of ‘ignore the paradigm’ thinking gets you. His entire theory of the campaign is turning out to be wrong, just like his pretty picture of crowds on the National Mall magically breaking the will of Republican lawmakers from red districts is a fantasy.
On the other hand, the electorate that Clinton has expected — with low turnout and lowered expectations — is the one that’s actually showing up to the polls. She now has an opportunity to beat Sanders in Rust Belt states Ohio and Michigan, where polls show that she has a strong lead. Florida is also a stronghold, so Clinton can now safely predict three big victories and win all of them. If she really crushes him in those contests, Sanders becomes a protest candidate.
While Sanders shows no sign of capitulating yet, the objectionists who expect to carry on the struggle until the bitter end, hoping to wage a Ron Paul-style convention-floor fight, will be disappointed. Holding out for the California results would be an act of pure denial, and Sanders is intelligent enough to know when he’s beat. The earlier he pivots to attacking Republicans, the more leverage he has in the terms of his surrender.
3. What Tulsi Gabbard expects from Clinton
Last weekend, a Democratic National Committee co-chair resigned her position and endorsed Sanders, criticizing what she says is Clinton’s role in “wars of regime change” waged by the United States. Gabbard has repeated that phrase several times for Rachel Maddow, both on her Monday night show and during Tuesday night’s election coverage. It crystallizes the pacifist left’s critique of Clinton, so I expect Gabbard will keep repeating her performance.
I hope that Clinton will take the opportunity to address this talking point, because to me it’s probably the most obscenely and weirdly orientalist. It is fine to talk of nonintervention until there is a Rwandan genocide in progress, and then suddenly inaction is no longer so popular. After every nonintervention, we hear calls of ‘never again’ — until the next set of ethnic tensions or resource competitions dissolves yet another state into chaos, whereupon Americans go through four stages of expectation.
- DO SOMETHING
- BUT NOT TOO MUCH
- IN FACT, DON’T DO ANYTHING
- BUT DO SOMETHING RIGHT AWAY
Frankly, there will be wars in the Middle East, in Africa, and Asia no matter what. The next president won’t stop them from happening because these conflicts won’t need any American’s permission to start, especially not while the planet is heating up, producing droughts that spread food and water insecurity.
Tulsi is setting up expectations for Clinton, who can easily exceed those expectations. While Tulsi pretends that all wars are Clinton’s fault, the candidate can talk about the national security implications of her clean energy plan and the Pentagon’s view of climate change as a huge driver of future wars. While Tulsi complains about Syria, Clinton can discuss the Syrian peace process, the future of the Assad regime, how dangerous it is to do nothing while the world burns, and how statecraft sometimes means operating in an environment where there are no ‘good’ choices. Clinton can run verbal circles around Gabbard by recounting the decisions that she made and the advice she gave as Secretary of State. Polls show that Clinton’s experience handling international affairs is a plus with voters; she should use it to her advantage.
On the other hand, I don’t expect that Tulsi will ever have to explain to Rachel Maddow why she has echoed right wing calls for Obama to adopt the dog whistle of ‘radical Islam’ against ISIS. it’s true: Tulsi can recite the full catechism of Islamophobia right down to denying the roles of the youth bulge and stagnant economies in the deterioration of Arab societies. “The administration is misidentifying the enemy and their motivation,” she sniffs.
“The administration still has not accurately identified our enemy,” she said in January after the president’s State of the Union address. “We must acknowledge that 9/11, as well as the recent violent attacks in Paris and elsewhere around the world, are rooted in Islamic extremism.”
A few days later, she asserted that the president and his cabinet are “completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people.”
In a Fox News appearance, she called Obama’s mentality toward the extremists, “mind-boggling.”
It wasn’t just a one-off event, either. Gabbard also criticized Secretary of State John Kerry on CNN for labeling the Islamic State as “criminal” instead of ‘radical Islam,’ becoming a darling of Fox News.
On Tuesday night, Lawrence O’Donnell practically gushed over Gabbard’s service as an officer in the occupation of Iraq, but no one challenged Gabbard on these points. We should not expect Lawrence or Maddow to ever ask Gabbard why she has consistently minimized violence against Muslims in India, such as the time when she worked hard to kill a bill condemning violence in Gujarat. Nor can we expect that MSNBC hosts will ask Gabbard, America’s first Hindu elected to Congress, about her links to the Indian BJP political party. There is zero chance that MSNBC will bring on Zaid Jilani, the pro-Sanders blogger at Alternet who first brought Gabbard’s disturbing views to my attention, to engage with her on the problematic labeling of ‘radical Islam’ for at least a few minutes before they harmonize over their shared love of Sanders.
I do expect that Tulsi Gabbard has a dim future in Democratic politics, but maybe she’ll exceed my expectations. Now that MSNBC has an opening on weekend mornings, she could make the leap to her true calling as a breathless, maverick opinionator.
4. On our disappointment with Democrats
Gabbard has a longstanding quarrel with Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and I can see why, because she’s been an incredible disappointment as chair of the Democratic National Committee. Party-building efforts have been halfhearted when they have existed; the debate schedule was a bad joke. And how did someone with Gabbard’s attitudes ever become a DNC vice-chair, anyway?
But my biggest frustration with DWS is her amazing ability to undermine Democratic victories. She was one of a handful of Democrats who tried to organize against President Obama’s Iran deal, which is currently changing the politics of that country for the better. More recently, DWS has been lobbying for a bill to delay the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new rules on payday lenders by two years. I can’t think of a more parasitical industry than payday loans, or a policy proposal less likely to inspire the ranks.
DWS is a friend of the Clintons, yet also a shrewd politician, so she won’t take it personally if Clinton disavows her payday loan lobbying. Although I don’t expect Clinton to heed my counsel, in this election atmosphere, Clinton should want to be seen taking a Democrat — any Democrat, but especially a connected, high-level Democrat — to the woodshed for messing with key Obama administration achievements, not to mention Elizabeth Warren’s signature agency.
Clinton wants to create an expectation that she will protect the CFPB and hold administrative doors open for Warren, who is the key endorsement in this race. To beat Donald Trump, who shows no sign of slowing down on his way to the Republican nomination, Clinton can’t just focus on bringing minorities to the ballot box. She needs to draw some white working class voters, too. Sanders and Trump are both doing well because they appeal to what David Atkins calls the “smash everything” coalition that is all done watching factories downsize and jobs get shipped overseas. Clinton needs to create an expectation that she will protect workers, but that will be hard to do, since the Clinton name is still associated with NAFTA and other Third Way compromises of the American worker that took place in the 90s. To win some working class votes, she needs to tell those people who to blame for their problems, and she needs Warren by her side telling that story in tandem.
Since Warren practically asked Clinton to run in the first place, I don’t expect it will be terribly hard to convince her.
5. Inverting strength and weakness
I said before that Hillary should talk more about her time in the State Department, and why America cannot divorce itself from a difficult world, and the challenges we face in the coming decade. She should also start talking about trade deals, and how they go wrong, and the ways her thinking has changed. Instead of running away from her record, she should run toward it, imperfections and all, to accept the blame along with the credit. Tell us why it’s good to know Henry Kissinger if you want to understand the global diplomatic scene. Explain how being friends with someone does not mean you approve of everything they have done, and how that applies to both Kissinger and, say, Iran. How do you build trade relationships that protect the environment and labor rights rather than just padding profit margins? And yes, she should explain why she chose to back the regime in Honduras. She should talk about it all.
On that same note, she should tell us what she said to Goldman-Sachs in her speaking engagements. It’s not even necessary to release full transcripts; she can just talk about the themes on which she spoke. (Video of one of those events, in which Clinton discusses empowering women, is available here.) Rather than try to prove a negative, she can share her impressions. What did her audience make of what she said? What has she learned from representing New York in the Senate, and from meeting the financial overlords who inhabit Wall Street, that regular people ought to know? She knows powerful people: can she tell us their secrets?
And while she’s building up an expectation that she knows the score, has our best interests at heart, and can make our economy less lopsided, Clinton will be able to run a positive campaign. That would be an important contrast against GOP frontrunner Trump’s dreary and dirty race full of trash-talk, but any Republican opponent will inevitably go negative against her. And whenever men attack Hillary, it always elevates her. (See: Benghazi Special Committee.)
Manipulating Trump into saying outrageous things is easy, and he’s saying no shortage of outrageous things already. In his Tuesday victory speech, Trump opined that Clinton is a criminal who belongs in prison, and he’s ending the week by comparing penises with Marco Rubio and cracking oral sex humor about Mitt Romney. But the Clintons are also developing a negative strategy of their own, according to the New York Times:
“The case against Trump will be prosecuted on two levels,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008. “The first is temperament,” and whether he is suited to be commander in chief, Mr. Garin said, echoing conversations that have dominated Democratic circles recently. The second “will be based on whether he can really be relied on as a champion for anyone but himself.”
The Clintons know what they’re doing — for one thing, they’ve begun doing the opposition research that Trump’s Republican rivals have inexplicably failed to conduct at all — but I think Garin’s points deserve consideration for our purposes.
Managing expectations means attacking what seem like Trump’s greatest strengths, starting with his wealth. That doesn’t mean an opposition campaign should aggrandize him, because Trump is mainly famous for being rich, and when rivals reinforce that image they merely serve his purposes. On the other hand, Trump exaggerates his net worth to inflate his fame. Trump’s explanations for not releasing his tax returns are dubious at best, and likely just a flimsy excuse to avoid showing Americans how shamefully poor he is compared to, say, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs. Detractors have been saying for years that Trump is a puffed-up fraud, and a well-crafted opposition campaign should portray him that way.
It should also shine a bright light on Trump’s many business failures, with a special focus on examples like Trump Mortgage and Trump University. In both of those cases, Trump raised expectations sky-high only to fail in spectacular fashion: he started up his mortgage venture in 2006, talking it up to absurd levels. When he shut it down a year later at the beginning of the mortgage crisis, Trump denied that he had ever expected to make money in the mortgage business, or been enthusiastic about it at all. There is a Daily Show segment in that, and a wealth of similar material to portray Trump as a man who makes huge promises and never delivers.
But Trump University is a step beyond that — a clear case of fraud, and perhaps racketeering. Participants were lured with promises of great fortunes, and the personal interest of Herr Trump himself, to hotel ballrooms where salesmen convinced as many suckers as possible to raise their credit limits and pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of a real estate investment course taught by people with no real estate investment experience. It’s worth noting that his confidence game took in lots of people who might otherwise vote for him. Here’s a short ad the American Future Fund has produced with one of Trump’s scam victims:
Trump is scheduled to be cross-examined right as the primaries finish, meaning that he could potentially end up walking away with the nomination only to end up embarrassed by testimony in lawsuits. Rather than depend on the vagaries of the legal system, however, an oppo campaign should start hitting Trump as a serial underperformer, a failure who is not as rich or successful as he claims to be, and who steals from hardworking people to play rich guy.
Trump’s wall is a perfect example of an expectation he cannot meet. For one thing, he keeps raising expectations for it, making it bigger and gaudier and harsher. Clinton should mention his wall, and wonder how tall it is now. Has someone in Mexico or the Vatican said something today which might offend Trump? Has his boasting raised it higher than the Washington Monument yet? Meanwhile, an oppo campaign can expose how Trump manufactured the customer approval rating of his ‘university,’ tying the two stories together.
There are lots of potential games to play with Trump. And Clinton should look at games for inspiration, because Trump is using communication strategies borrowed from professional wrestling and reality television. In fact, wrestling has more in common with politics than we might like to admit, but the characters Trump imitates are the brashest and most shameless, who just as often end up losers.
6. A revolution of small victories
Back in July of last year, before Trump exceeded the low expectations of the Republican establishment, a national poll showed him losing to Clinton in a huge blowout. Of course, Clinton doesn’t want to promise a 400-vote Electoral College win and then ‘only’ hit 370. But the old data is an indication of how much room may still exist for a crushing general election victory. Clinton wants to set the bar at just winning, then try to win bigger.
There are pessimists and skeptics who fear that Trump could win — I am one, on most days — yet most polls still show both Clinton or Sanders beating Trump, and thus far he’s only mobilized a tiny sliver of the electorate. The GOP has a poisoned reputation with Latinos, and Trump’s wall-building braggadocio only makes that worse. Nate Silver says that conservatives will not necessarily fall in line behind him, either, and well-known conservative voices are objecting, even preferring the eventual Democrat over Trump. Although he may be unstoppable in the Republican Party nomination process, the general election will be a completely different environment. Democracy Corps says that this season “is full of opportunity for progressives.”
The strongest attacks that we tested centered on his character and leadership qualities: that he is an ego-maniac at the expense of the country, that he is disrespectful towards women, and that he cannot be trusted to keep the country safe and handle our nuclear weapons.
The strongest Democratic messages that shift Tea Party, Observant Catholic, and Moderate voters away from the Republican nominee are ones focused on investment and modernizing America; on reforming corporate governance so growth works for middle class, not just the CEOs; and on getting beyond social issues to address America’s problems.
That last paragraph sounds an awful lot like Elizabeth Warren introducing Hillary Clinton on the big stage in Philadelphia, doesn’t it?
Without setting high expectations, the Clinton campaign should instead focus on racking up a long series of small victories — flipping a state, securing an endorsement, enlarging a ground game. As her position improves, so will our expectations. If she doesn’t let them get too expansive, meeting or exceeding a set of realistic goals, then Clinton not only wins the presidency, but makes history. Furthermore, if she emerges from this contest with unexpected allies in the Republican Party, then their legislative strategy of refusing to compromise will be that much harder to reinstate.
It is even possible that by dampening expectations for her presidential platform, then meeting or exceeding them in office, the cumulative changes might even be seen as revolutionary. It will certainly be more than critics on either side expect of her.