CNN’s Chris Cillizza (The Point) thinks that Pete Buttigieg just nailed what Hillary Clinton did wrong in 2016. (h/t Sherry Moreau).
Yes, Buttigieg is a candidate for president. (But I have a hard time typing his name let alone pronouncing it.)
Yes, he’s a very bright guy with good ideas. (But there are lots of bright guys and gals and lots of good ideas.)
Yes, I am a skeptic. (I’m not ready to jump on this particular bandwagon this early in the election cycle.)
And, yes, I may end up regretting my cynicism. (Buttigieg has a message for Dems about their lack of a message.)
So: Cillizza’s analysis is worth your time.
Pete Buttigieg is on a roll of late. And that extends to his spot-on analysis of why Democrats — and Hillary Clinton in particular — lost the 2016 election to President Donald Trump.
We spent, I think, way too much time on our side talking about him,“ Buttigieg said in an interview with ”The Breakfast Club,“ a New York City-based radio show, which ran Tuesday morning. ”Our whole message was don’t vote for him because he is terrible. And even because he is, that is not a message."
That is the single best – and most concise – encapsulation of why Clinton lost and Trump won that I have heard from anyone – Democrat, Republican or independent in the two-plus years since the 2016 election.
The simple fact is that Clinton (and her team) believed that Trump had disqualified himself in the eyes of most voters by the time Election Day came. And that wasn’t an unreasonable assessment to make in the moment! From his decision to take on a Gold Star family to the “Access Hollywood” tape, every sign seemed to be pointing to the idea that Trump was just too, well, Trumpian for most voters.
Only 38% of people had a favorable opinion about Trump while 60% had an unfavorable one. Just one in three said Trump was honest and trustworthy. Less than four in 10 thought he was qualified to be president. Only 35% said Trump had the right temperament to be president. (All of these data points are from the 2016 exit polling.)
Those sorts of numbers have “l-o-s-e-r” written all over them!
1) Clinton’s numbers weren’t much better. Just 43% had a favorable view of her and 36% thought she was honest and trustworthy. Those numbers sort-of canceled out Trump’s own disastrous ratings.
2) People didn’t care as much about liking their candidate as they did about that candidate bringing about what they believed to be needed change. Four in 10 voters said that a candidate who could create change was the most important trait in their choosing of a candidate; Trump won more than 80% of those voters.
That Trump was someone a majority of people didn’t like, didn’t trust and didn’t think had the right temperament to be president wasn’t enough. Many people may have agreed that, in Buttigieg’s words, “he is terrible,” but they also didn’t like Clinton or have any idea what sort of change she might actually represent.
The message was simply: You’re not going to vote for this guy, are you? And that wasn’t enough.
Presidential elections, unlike midterm elections, traditionally require a candidate to make a case not only against the other side but for him or herself. (This is quite clearly not true in midterms when the party out of the White House can succeed by simply casting itself as a a check on the party in power.) Because Trump was so abnormal in terms of the traditional qualities of a presidential candidate, Clinton’s team lost that thread – and never got it back.
Now. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. And fighting the last battle is no guarantee of winning the next one.
Still, the rightness of Buttigieg’s analysis speaks to his understanding of how voters think and the significant challenge that Trump (still) poses.
“I hate to say it, but he could absolutely win again,” Buttigieg told “The Breakfast Club” of Trump. He’s absolutely right.
The message now for Democrats in 2020 is obvious. Define your selves in some way that is more - and more profound - than “Trump is terrible.” The real story of 2016, I keep claiming, is not about Trump but rather about those who voted for him. For example, I posted More on the psychology of Trump voters - why nothing shakes their faith in November of 2017 and, even earlier before the election Donald Trump’s next con: Dumping Democracy in August of 2016. In the 2016 post:
Trump’s lies gain credence partly because of the conference of referential validity - they get repeated constantly in the media and thereby become more firmly believed by Trump’s supporters. The minds of those supporters have been prepared by decades of conservative propaganda created and promoted by the leadership of the Republican party. Trump is a symptom or symbol of that stream of unconsciousness. The real story I continue to claim is not Trump but what he represents - a large proportion of the electorate which is prepared to believe his lies and who seem immune to rational thought. They will still be here after Trump, hopefully, is dumped. They will still vote for the Republican candidates who deliver them nothing but robbery to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
Buttigieg has it right. “Trump is terrible” by itself is not a winning message. It will not connect with voters who are prepared to accept anything and everything Trump says.
So we Democrats must stop banging our heads against the monumental intractability of Trump voters. We need to get on with clear statements of our aspirations, enabling policies, and resulting actions. We need to show how that marks us as pursuing a better future.