It Wasn't Comey! Hillary, Bill and the New Democrats Lost On Their Own

The Clinton campaign apparently believes that they should be last in line to take blame for the stunning loss to Donald Trump, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of Jim Comey. They are dead wrong, and if they don't own up to the real reason they lost, the Democrats are destined to spend decades in the political wilderness.

Take your pick of metaphors -- the horse was out of the barn; that ship had sailed; the die was cast - as of April 5, 2016 Hillary had lost the election, after losing the Wisconsin primary to Bernie Sanders and not batting an eye.

Hillary clinched the nomination by sweeping the southern states, opening up a delegate lead that Bernie was never able to close. But Democrats never win southern states in a general election. The "must win" states and counties stretch fromVirginia to the other side of the rust belt in Minnesota, and in the primaries, Clinton struggled mightily to hold that line. Just look at some telling results.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and "Must Win" States Left Behind

Bernie trounced Hillary in Wisconsin, winning every county except one, even though the polls gave Clinton a slight edge just a few days before the primary. The polls were wrong - just as they turned out to be wrong in November. Just seven months later, Trump flipped 22 counties in Wisconsin that had voted for Obama.

Back in 2008, Hillary also lost Wisconsin by a large margin, to Obama. But Obama, too, was having trouble in that state: nearly two dozen counties in Wisconsin flipped from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012. The long-term pattern was clear: Wisconsin voters were increasingly unhappy with Clintonian "New Democrats." The Clinton team should have been shaking in their boots when they lost Wisconsin to Bernie in 2016, in a landslide. But rather than shore up the base, Clinton stopped campaigning in Wisconsin and never returned to the state throughout the general election. And in November, Wisconsin made its displeasure known.

The same trend was visible in the Michigan primary. The polls were not just wrong, but stunningly wrong. The polls had Clinton up by 21 points, and Sanders managed to close that gap on primary day and win by 1.5 points. Nate Silver called it one of the "greatest polling errors in primary history." And once again, the Clinton camp was deaf to the warnings of local Democratic operatives - she had ignored the state and not campaigned there until the Michigan primary was in jeopardy.

In 2012, just as they did in Wisconsin, Republicans continued making inroads in this "must win" blue state. Romney flipped nearly two dozen Michigan counties where McCain had lost in 2008, narrowing Obama's margin. Trump only had to flip 10 more counties in 2016 to take the state out of the blue column. Again, the long-term trend was clear.

The Democrats' path to victory in Wisconsin and Michigan was getting narrower and narrower each year. And Bernie's stunning upset in the primaries should have been the canary in the coal mine that something was seriously amiss with the Democratic establishment's ability to connect with voters there.

Go through county-by-county returns for key counties throughout the rust belt and you find the same phenomenon. The "change" vote was going to Bernie or Trump. Hillary was like a polar bear on a shrinking iceberg, trying to eke out a victory on smaller and smaller slice of the electorate.

The Failure of Triangulation

After the victory of George H. W. Bush, the Democratic leadership decided that they had to conquer more centrist territory (ideologically and physically) if they ever hoped to regain the White House. The strategy was dubbed "Triangulation" (which I discussed here back in June).

Bill Clinton tacked to the center and governed like a moderate Republican, throwing a few bones to progressives (then called "liberals") to keep them placated. Fiscally it worked, and he bequeathed a budget surplus to incoming GOP president George W. Bush.

But his signature initiatives - NAFTA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, the 1994 Crime Bill and "welfare reform" - are all centrist initiatives that have been baking in the oven now for 20 years. The impacts have been wide-ranging, affecting different constituencies very differently. But in the world created by those initiatives (and similar initiatives by Clinton's successor George W. Bush), the working-class base of both parties suffered. Corporations and the wealthy have thrived, but let's face it, those are the natural constituents of the GOP. The New Democrats were just renting them for a while.

Neither the GOP nor the New Democrats protected their working-class base from the dislocation caused by trends in technology/automation and global trade. But the GOP had gerrymandered their way to secure Congressional seats (in 2012 Democrats got 50.59% of popular votes cast in Congressional elections, but only got 46% of Congressional seats): angry red districts outnumbered angry blue districts.

And the Democrats' base was getting more and more angry, and impatient, all the time. Even Clinton herself admitted to New Yorker writer George Packer: "Donald Trump came up with a fairly simple, easily understood, and to some extent satisfying story. And I think we Democrats have not provided as clear a message about how we see the economy as we need to." (That message clearly was not "Stronger Together" - a tone-deaf campaign slogan by her own admission. )

But bigger than the issue with the campaign slogan, Clinton was having to walk back years of New Democrat boosterism on trade and globalism. It was awkward to watch and inauthentic to voters who had been living with the consequences of it for 20 years.

Democrats had given in and held their noses for the centrist New Democrats' platform positions because they were told it was a win-win, and it was the only way to keep their Democratic patrons in power. But even as their patrons were getting all of what they wanted in terms of policy, the base was getting very little of what it wanted as payment for the compromise.

Hillary could not convince those weary souls to trust yet one more New Democrat who promised that compromise was the way forward. And no one was convinced that she wouldn't be a compromiser-in-chief. (Establishment GOPers faced a similar uphill battle with their base until Trump came along.) In truth, Hillary's campaign was DOA. The friction between the natural base of the party and the centrist New Democratic agenda had cut so deeply into her margins in the rust belt that the Blue Wall just collapsed in 2016, leaving a hole big enough for the change messenger to drive his Access Hollywood party bus right through it.

That's not the fault of Jim Comey or Julian Assange. Those two incredibly cynical jerks clearly didn't help. But they didn't create the trust deficit that the Democrats had with their base. And it wasn't their fault that the Democrats took for granted "must win" voters who already felt taken for granted. Hillary, Bill, John Podesta, and the New Democrats did that all on their own.