On the morning of October 5th, President Trump was on one of his Twitter rants from the White House, denying as “fake news” an NBC report that his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had called him a “moron” and threatened to resign. Elsewhere in Washington, the drama over whether Tillerson was actually on his way out threatened to overwhelm other news stories for a second straight day. But, when I arrived at the townhouse of Stanley Greenberg, the veteran Democratic strategist, on Capitol Hill, later that morning, it was not the distractions of the Trump White House that had him worked up. Greenberg was still fuming about Hillary Clinton.
Clinton was guilty of “malpractice” in how she conducted her 2016 Presidential campaign, Greenberg told me. Even worse, he said, Democrats were repeating the same political mistakes a year later. “Look at Virginia right now,” Greenberg said, as soon as we sat down in his second-floor office. “We have a candidate”—Ralph Northam, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee—“running as Hillary Clinton. He is running on the same kind of issues, and has the same kind of view of the world. It’s the Republicans who talk about the economy, not the Democrats.” This was the approach that doomed Clinton against Trump. The electorate was angry in 2016 and remains angry now, Greenberg said, and Northam, a Norfolk doctor, didn’t get it. Neither did Clinton and the team of Obama veterans who staffed her Brooklyn headquarters. “If you live in the metro areas with the élites, you don’t wake up angry about what’s happening in people’s lives,” Greenberg said.
His rant was notable for a variety of reasons, not least because Greenberg was the pollster who helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992, and he has been a participant in every Democratic nominee’s Presidential campaign since, including Hillary Clinton’s. His criticism illuminates an urgent question for the Democratic Party, not just in next week’s governor’s race in Virginia but in the midterm elections of 2018 and beyond. Could Trump, as deeply polarizing and unpopular as he is, even be reëlected?
Greenberg and other prominent Democrats still furious about last year’s Clinton campaign think it’s entirely possible, unless the Party figures out, and fast, a way to tackle the problem that sealed Clinton’s fate in 2016: how to appeal to the disaffected white working-class voters who provided Trump’s unlikely win a year ago.
“That debate,” Greenberg told me, “which would have been pushed off had she won, is immediate.”
For months, Greenberg has been stewing over how Clinton conducted her campaign, and he finally unloaded, in The American Prospect, a small-circulation progressive journal founded back on the eve of Bill Clinton’s Presidency. Greenberg’s critical assessment—in the form of a book review of “Shattered,” the best-selling insider account of the Clinton campaign, published earlier this year—came out in September and drew relatively little notice. But here was Bill Clinton’s pollster accusing Hillary Clinton’s campaign of strategic errors, mismanagement, and failure to heed the advice of him and others to appeal to the Party’s traditional working-class voters in the Midwest. Compounding the errors, Clinton’s team conducted no state polls in the final three weeks of the campaign, relying instead on flawed data analytics to predict turnout and the vote. As a result, it didn’t even know that final disaster loomed. “Malpractice and arrogance contributed mightily to the election of Donald Trump,” Greenberg concluded.
Greenberg disclosed in the piece that he was speaking as more than an outside critic. He had served as “invited noodge” throughout the 2016 campaign, Greenberg revealed, secretly critiquing Clinton’s speeches for months at her request, pushing for more attention to be paid to the economic struggles of the white working class, and advising her campaign chairman, John Podesta. In our interview, Greenberg elaborated, saying Podesta had sought his counsel after it became clear that Podesta was failing to sway Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook—a young, data-driven veteran of Barack Obama’s two winning Presidential runs—whose strategy was to focus on turning out loyal Obama voters rather than persuading wavering Rust Belt voters. “It came out of his needing to win the argument internally,” Greenberg told me. Both Podesta and Greenberg had worked for the Bill Clinton White House, where Podesta served as chief of staff, and had been allies ever since.
In the weeks after Greenberg published his critique, I spoke with several other veterans of the Bill Clinton years who shared his appraisal of Hillary’s campaign—and said that their advice had also been ignored. “They viewed people like me and Bill Clinton as yesteryear,” one, who ran his campaign in a key Midwestern state and played a public role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign there as well, said. “They thought the world has changed, politics has changed. But their analytics were flawed. They were treating this like a third term for Obama, and it was a big mistake.” The internal critics, they told me, had also included the former President, but he was, as Greenberg put it when we talked, “frozen out.”
This was, I realized, one of the hidden stories of the 2016 election. A former top adviser to the Clinton campaign said that Greenberg’s gripes were a “misplaced diagnosis for why we lost” and noted that Bill Clinton had been a vigorous participant in the campaign’s strategic discussions. Hillary Clinton herself alluded to Greenberg’s critique, though not the campaign’s internal debates over it, in her recent memoir, dismissing as “baloney” Greenberg’s argument that she “went silent on the economy and change” in the key final days before the election. But, even if the fight is in part an exercise in after-the-fact finger-pointing, the campaign’s internal struggles over how to talk to the Trump base in the formerly Democratic states of Middle America are just as relevant, polarizing, and unresolved today as they were a year ago. Should Democrats bet their future on attacking Trump and pledge, as the California billionaire donor Tom Steyer now wants them to do, to pursue Trump’s impeachment, at all costs, if they win back the House next year? Should they give up on the white voters who went for Trump in 2016 even though many had been reliably Democratic in the past? Was Clinton’s defeated primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, right to try to pull the Party to the left?
Without a resolution to these questions, the next Democratic nominee may well end up caught in the same trap in which Hillary Clinton found herself, stuck defending the legacy of the two-term Obama Presidency, even as the economic dislocations of the Obama era fuelled the rise of populism on both left and right.
It can be difficult, if not impossible, in Washington these days to pay attention to the Democrats’ war within while what appears to be the full-fledged implosion of the Republican Party unfolds. After all, hardly a day goes by when the President of the United States isn’t publicly attacking leaders in his own party, and being attacked back. And this week brought a new obsession: the first indictments in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the brewing fight over the Democratic Party’s future gets so little airtime. In the wake of Trump’s win, it’s easy to blame Hillary Clinton for being a flawed candidate with a tin ear for politics. Or to rationalize Trump’s unexpected victory as an accident of history. But I haven’t talked with a single Democrat or independent analyst who doesn’t think that the Party remains in serious danger of another electoral catastrophe.
Recently, another former Bill Clinton adviser, the onetime White House political director Doug Sosnik, published an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that, as the headline put it, “Trump is on track to win reelection.” Sosnik contended that Democrats needed to immediately start figuring out how to appeal to voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where a shift in votes for Trump won him the election. I mentioned the Sosnik article when I recently ran into a Washington operative who had also served as a key White House aide to Clinton. “Of course, Trump could win,” he said. “We’re the party that doesn’t have a message that speaks to the country or stand for anything other than being against Trump.”
When Democrats handicap their prospects for 2020 these days, the list of potential candidates is huge and invariably includes septuagenarians like Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden—both of whom appear eager to run—as well as an array of younger, relatively unknown officials, like Kamala Harris, the former California attorney general who is now a first-term senator. While the Democratic National Committee is now being led by Obama’s former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has promised a technocratic approach to the problem of resurgent Republicans, the energy in the rank and file remains with the Bernie bros and Sandersistas, who are determined to pull the party to the left—toward a future of universal health care and free college for all. Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, could appeal to this fervent new activist base, and conceivably win the nomination in 2020. But more centrist Democrats worry that she couldn’t do so without forever alienating not only the Trump base but also the Wall Street moneymen who have provided the Party with key financial backing ever since Bill Clinton introduced his New Democrats to the nation, in 1992. As for Trump’s angry white working class, no one’s sure if there are any Democrats at all in the mix for 2020 who can really speak to them. And to the extent that there are such politicians, figures like Biden or Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, no one’s sure there’s a real place for such a candidate in a party moving left quickly.
“The Democratic Party today is divided over whether it wants to focus on the economy or identity,” Greenberg said when we talked. That is, as he pointed out, just what the Clinton campaign was fighting about a year ago. Greenberg and others who came out of the Bill Clinton era—like the former President himself—had never really let go of the economy-first mantra that got them to the White House in a different time, and they felt that there was a generational conflict with the Obama operatives who held sway over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 strategy. It was a fight that dogged the Clinton campaign all the way until its final days, when Greenberg and his allies inside the campaign pushed unsuccessfully to close with a focus on her plans for the economy.
“The caricature of this debate is, Bill Clinton says you have a problem and the numbers people say you don’t,” Jake Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s top policy adviser for the campaign after working with her closely at the Obama State Department, recalled. But it wasn’t that Hillary Clinton’s team disagreed over the problem, he insisted, just over what to do about it: “Everybody recognized we had a huge working-class, non-college white issue. The question was, How do you add up to victory? Do you attack it head-on or by compensating elsewhere? That was the fundamental strategic debate.”
And it still is.