02:30 - Source: CNN
Who's to blame for Clinton's loss? It's complicated

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is the co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

Story highlights

Julian Zelizer says the party should look within at the reasons why it lost the election

The party forgot importance of the economy and got out-organized by the GOP, he says

CNN  — 

Democrats need to stop licking their wounds and blaming others for their defeat. In the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, many Democrats have been wallowing in the outcome as they try to understand how Hillary Clinton could possibly have lost.

Too many have been focused on pointing to reasons other than themselves. They have blasted FBI Director James Comey for the effect that his letters had on the dynamics of the campaign. Others, energized by the protests in the streets, have lamented how the Electoral College allowed Trump to win without the popular vote, only the fifth time that this has happened in US history. Then there are the continued attacks on the media for giving Trump so much airtime and for, in their minds, fueling his victory.

But Democrats need to stop going down this path. Unless there is some much more serious introspection about what went wrong, the party is looking at a long four to eight years ahead.

While Republicans certainly spent a great deal of time casting blame after the 2008 election – often railing against one of their own, President George W. Bush – much of their energy from day one centered on how to rebuild the party.

Congressional Republicans promised to obstruct and stick to the party line. National party operatives mobilized their resources to influence state elections so they could influence gerrymandering after 2010. Newer voices in the party from tea partyers to “Reformocons” such as Marco Rubio offered alternative visions for their colleagues and supporters.

What can Democrats learn from the 2016 campaign? What mistakes did they make that helped produce this outcome, one that many agree has put the nation in a very unstable place?


Part of the answer goes back to the 1990s when President Bill Clinton made an aggressive push, along with many allies in the party, to move Democrats toward the center on economic policy. There were a series of policy areas – tax cuts, economic and financial deregulation, free trade and fiscal stringency – where Democrats made the decision that their party had to do more to emulate Ronald Reagan conservatives if they were going to survive politically.

This did not come without pushback. Many House Democrats blasted Clinton when he moved forward with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and when he conceded to the zeal for budgetary cuts that the GOP demanded in the late 1990s. This does not mean Clinton was just Republican lite. He was not. On many issues, notably health care, Clinton fought tooth and nail to expand the social safety net. Nor was he willing to agree to the draconian spending cuts that congressional Republicans were eager to see enacted.

But in agreeing to the overall direction of economic policy since that decade, he and many other Democrats were too hesitant to deal with the economic consequences inflicted on many working and middle-class Americans who found their future to be less stable, less secure and less vibrant.

As American workers saw entire industries leave their towns and struggled to make sure that their children would have a decent future, they felt the nation’s leaders were leaving them behind. The forces of globalization wreaked havoc on their families.

Ironically, it was Clinton’s 1992 campaign that operated on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yet as the 1990s moved along, Bill Clinton didn’t concentrate on the long-term economic effects of his policies. And his wife, Hillary Clinton, didn’t emphasize the economic message this year.

In this campaign, Donald Trump appealed to them, partly through blanket attacks on free trade that didn’t offer much of an alternative as well as rhetoric that played to their fears and anger about how “other people” were making them hurt.

While many Democrats are in agreement that Trump’s campaign was unacceptable, the party needs to do much more to address the economic problems of less educated and nonurban voters. Democrats need to be more responsive to the political needs of unions, which had been the base of Democratic power since the 1930s.

During the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders tried to move the party in this direction and demonstrated how energizing such a progressive economic campaign could be. The party needs to look back at some of the work that he and allies in Congress, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have been undertaking for several years if they are to conceive of an economic agenda that will win back many voters who left them this time around.

Republicans had the better ground game

Democrats also need to think more seriously about old-fashioned political organization. For all the talk about the machine that the Hillary Clinton campaign had built to ensure victory, they lost. As in the 2008 primaries when the Clinton campaign struggled to keep up with the organizational prowess of Barack Obama, this time it was the Republicans who had a better ground game to win the Electoral College.

Democrats made the decision to push for a 50-state strategy, investing most of their resources and energy in battleground states and even states such as Arizona, where they hoped that a Republican backlash against Trump could win them some votes. They were wrong. As Ronald Brownstein has argued, the campaign left bluer states such as Michigan and Wisconsin wide open for Trump to go in and win enough votes to win. The impact of this decision became clear.

Nor have Democrats matched the organizational fervor of Republicans in congressional and state politics. Nearly as notable as Trump’s victory was the ability of the GOP to maintain control of the Senate and House, and to increase the number of Republican state legislatures by four, which will continue to give them an upper hand in battles over redistricting.

Too often Democrats have just been focused on the short term while Republicans have been playing the long game. For all the talk about how Republicans are not taking seriously the long-term demographic changes that could turn their party into a permanent minority, journalists have documented how much more effort they have put into organizational battles to shore up their base in Congress and statehouses across the country. Even before the presidential election, the Republicans already had developed a strong foundation of political power. Now they have the White House, so the sweep is complete.

News and social media

The last area where Democrats need to do much more work is figuring out how to thrive in the modern news media. In this election, Trump showed he had mastered the 24-hour, click-bait news cycle. As I wrote in a previous column, Trump devised an effective campaign to feed the media constantly with new content, to shape compelling and dramatic narratives that framed the discussion among reporters and to use social media sites such as Twitter to reach voters directly.

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    The Clinton campaign often struggled to figure out how to operate in this environment. Too often it was slow to respond to news stories that seemed silly or outlandish. It regularly allowed Trump to dominate the media discussion with his bombast and incessant attacks. And frequently it played into the Republican campaign by accepting the unfavorable terms of the debate that emerged from the Republicans or from the media, rather than looking for ways to push the discussion in a different direction.

    There were several damaging hours after the release of the first Comey letter when Clinton concentrated on explaining and responding, rather than turning attention to Comey himself. The new media environment is a volatile and emotional battleground. While the media might have serious problems, Democrats will have to do a better job working with what they have or more losses will be on the way.

    While Monday morning quarterbacking won’t do much to help Democrats, some serious political introspection about the overall strength of their party is now essential.