Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 2016 Clinton brand and a third Obama term

I must admit that I'm surprised at the intensity of the division in the Democratic Party over Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Maybe it's because of my own recollection of the 2008 Presidential race, in which I preferred Obama to Clinton but was never an adoring fan. The single biggest reason I preferred Obama to Clinton was that he had publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq while Clinton had voted in favor of it in the Senate. On what turned out to be Obama's signature domestic achievement as President, heath insurance reform, Clinton's proposal included mandatory participation and Obama's did not. That made it look more "left" to me if only because the mandatory participation was essential to making any such program practical. And, in fact, Obama included that feature in what became the ACA/Obamacare.

I also was dubious about Obama's no-red-America-no-blue-America "postpartisan" talk. With very good reason, as it turned out. (See: "Grand Bargain") My thought was that despite her inclination to "triangulation" to appeal to conservatives, she would surely not be under any illusions about the Republicans wanting to make nice with her. Nor would she be overly optimistic about the treatment she would receive from the mainstream press.

Also, George Bush was still President. After the theft of the Florida vote via the Supreme Court in 2000 and the success of the Cheney-Bush Administration in creating a new kind of nationalistic, warmongering consensus after the 9/11 attacks, Democratic partisans and activists were especially eager for Democrats to show some fight. And I applied Lincoln's description of Gen. Grant to Hillary: she fights.

We have a different political scene today. We've had a Democratic President for eight years. Obama is popular. But the Republicans have effectively blocked him from enacting any major new programs and have even blocked a lot of regular governmental business from getting done. Obama has also spent eight years trying to blur rather than distinguish the Democratic "brand" by framing issues in Republican terms. And, in the case of his repeated efforts for a Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security and Medicare, he actually proposed reactionary measures that the Republicans could hang around the necks of the Democrats even while wanting to go further in that direction themselves. And the Republicans made good use of the Social Security issue against the Democrats. Proposing cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits was one of the greatest gifts that Obama could have given to the Republican Party.

Hillary Clinton is still a "fighting Dem." But in 2016, she looks much more comfortable fighting the progressive Democrats than she is in fighting Republicans. She'll fight Trump, of course. But her latest branding of "Stronger Together" so far involves talk like "work across the aisle" and "budget deficit." After eight years of Obama de-branding the Democratic Party, this kind of talk is potentially far more damaging to Democratic chances in 2016 than it was in 2008.

Put another way, Clinton's current strategy looks like it was focus narrowly on the binary choice between her and Donald Trump for President. But not on building a mandate for distinct Democratic policies and programs. Or even a Democratic framing of the issues!

Jim Naureckas takes a jaundiced look at the idea of Bill Clinton's Administration as some kind of Democratic mini-Golden Age in Bill Clinton Brought Democrats Back to Life: A Zombie Idea That Won’t Die FAIR 05/23/2016:

Bill Clinton came into office with 258 Democratic House members, which was at the time a fairly typical number. The Democrats had controlled the House every Congress but two since 1931; even when the Republican presidential candidate won in landslides in 1972 and 1984, the GOP didn’t manage to win more than 192 House seats.

Then came Clinton’s triangulation, which, as Shribman writes, allowed Clinton to pass “major parts of his agenda, from a trade deal with Mexico and Canada to welfare reform to a crime bill.” The NAFTA trade pact in particular alienated a key part of the Democratic coalition–the labor unions. This led directly to the 1994 midterm massacre, in which the Democrats lost 52 seats and control of the House; since then, the Democrats have only controlled the House twice.

Likewise, Clinton came in with 57 Democratic senators, and lost nine of those seats in the 1994 midterms. Since then, the Senate has mostly been Republican-controlled; it wasn’t until 2009 that there were more than 50 Democrats in the Senate.

The Democrats had big losses on the state level under Clinton as well. From the late 1950s onward, Democrats had a big advantage in state houses that continued almost unbroken through the Nixon and Reagan eras. That ended in 1994; since then, party control of state legislatures has on balance favored Republicans.
That means, for instance, that a Democratic candidate in 1992 concentrating on the binary Presidential choice - actually Ross Perot was a significant third-party candidate that year - was acting in a significantly stronger position for the Democratic Party as a whole than what we have in 2016.

Even if Obama hadn't worked so hard to blur the Democratic Party brand, we've had a Democratic President for eight years. Historical pattern isn't destiny. But 1932-1953 was the last time the Democrats held the Presidency for more than two consecutive terms, under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Here is the partisan White House record since then:

1953-1961: Republican
1961-1969: Democratic
1969-1977: Republican
1977-1981: Democratic
1981-1993: Republican (though Al Gore actually won the 2000 election)
1993-2001: Democratic
2001-2009: Republican
2009-2017: Democratic

During that time, segregation put up a ferocious fight to survive, suffered major defeats and went into eclipse, migrated from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the South, and is now once again ascendant with the Republican Party nationally committed to it.

But for all the shifts, there is still something to the idea that a non-trivial people have a tendency to go tired of the same party in office. And with the Presidency the biggest of all political prizes, the voters are offered intense pitches invited them to "throw the bums out," as the old saying goes.

I've heard Jerry Brown tell a version of the story from Plutarch of the ancient Athenian politician, Aristides (530 BCE–468 BCE). The current Wikipedia entry for Aristides tells it this way:

The conflict between [Aristides and Themistocles] ended in the ostracism [exile from Athens] of Aristides at a date variously given between 485 and 482. It is said that, on this occasion, an illiterate voter who did not recognise Aristides approached the statesman and requested that he write the name of Aristides on his voting shard to ostracize him. The latter asked if Aristides had wronged him. "No," was the reply, "and I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear him everywhere called 'the Just'." Aristides then wrote his own name on the ballot.
Here's the version of Jerry's quote from Jerry Brown votes, talks Greek history [Updated] Los Angeles Times 11/02/2010:

"My father used to tell me about Aristides the Just, the Athenian politician that was exiled because they got tired of hearing 'Aristides the Just,' " Brown told reporters after casting his ballot. "You gotta remember name recognition is good, but name repetition and the repetition of ads can be very debilitating, and I think that’s a lesson I learned a long time ago."
My point on the 2016 election is that it's important for a party seeking a third White House term to offer something more interesting and exciting than just normalcy and continuity. If the pitch comes off as presenting the current situation as the best of all possible worlds, as Clinton's does at times, that's even worse.

So analyses like this strike me as risky overconfidence: Ed Kilgore, How Running for ‘Obama’s 3rd Term’ Became a Political Asset for Hillary Clinton New York 05/25/2016.

I see that Thomas Edsall is offering us his own typically tortured version of conventional wisdom in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Trump? New York Times 05/25/2016. Edsall seems perennially eager to believe that defending racial and gender equality is a bad, bad thing for the Democrats. I'm tempted - but only barely - to want to say he actually has a useful point buried in here. But I don't actually see it.

I do think Clinton's campaign likes a defining theme. Trump's de facto theme of Make American White Again is a despicable message. But it is a rallying point for the Stormtrumper Republicans.

However, that is not the point Edsall is making:

In theory, Donald Trump is eminently beatable. His negative ratings are stratospheric. He is reckless, ignorant of rudimentary policy matters and all too ready to speak without forethought or deliberation.

Still, as we near the close of the primary season, Hillary Clinton has somehow succeeded in turning the election into a close contest that she could conceivably lose. She retains key advantages in areas where Trump is vulnerable, but she has also ceded ground to him on the visceral terrain of nativism and anti-immigrant fervor, of a yearning for a return to the days of America’s unquestioned global pre-eminence.
In other words, he is saying Hillary is just not appealing enough to xenophobia and white racism. Yuck! That's Tom Edsall. He's been singing that same song for over two decades. It's just he varies the verses every now and then.

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