Was this the Democrat’s biggest mistake in 2016?

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Many observers of the 2016 race have postulated that Hillary should’ve listened more to her husband, Bill, in setting terms of strategy against Trump. Reportedly, he adviced her to campaign more in the Rustbelt and to connect more with working class voters. I do indeed think that Clinton should have taken a page from Bill’s playbook, but not this one. Rather, she should have looked at the lessons from 1988.

In 1988, Republican strategist Lee Atwater devised the strategy for George H. W. Bush to defeat his Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis. Bush had a lot of things going against him. It would be a third term for Republicans, which conventional wisdom had as a major disadvantage. He was a pure-blooded establishment politician, without much connection to the Christian-Right coalition that Reagan had built, and he didn’t enjoy the highest favorability or even celebrity ratings. However, in the event, he won decisevely, with Atwater’s strategy to thank for it. His opponent Dukakis certainly didn’t help his cause, either. It was Bill Clinton who took up the thread and defeated Bush in 1992. So what did Atwater propose, how did Clinton counter it, and how may the other Clinton have taken this up in 2016?

Atwater’s strategy was two-fold. On the one hand, he needed to plant Bush firmly with the Republican base, which in case meant Evangelicals. Bush, who had no history of churchgoing or public religious statements, seemed like a hard sell in that regard. In the end, he wasn’t. Bush, like Reagan before him, started to shamelessly pander to the Evangelicals, touting his strong believes and professing his special connection to god. It sufficed, the Evangelicals turned out for him. The other part of the strategy was more deliberate and would be perfected by Republicans in the two decades to come: he mercilessly attacked the character of his challenger Dukakis and resorted to racism. The racist attacks were cloaked in coded language („state’s rights“, „welfare“, etc), which became known as dog whistles. Bush himself detached himself from the actual strategy and let independent groups – the predecessor of today’s Super-PACs – run the most offensive ads, but this made a difference in no one’s mind. The most infamous of the character assaults on Dukakis was the Willi-Horton-ad, in which Bush’s campaign linked the brutal murders of a black inmate on furlough in Dukakis‘ home-state of Massachusetts directly to Dukakis. Dukakis tried to ignore this despicable character assassinations, convinced that the American people would not reward such low stuff. Only too late did he try to counter them, to little avail. He clearly lost the election.

In 1992 – Atwater was one year dead – a man of much less defensible character than Dukakis ran for president. Clinton was surrounded by allegations of marital infidelity and double-dealing already from his time in Arkansas, and his team early on devised a counter to the expected negative advertisements: attack yourself and always strike back as hard as you can. Whenever Bush attacked Clinton, the Clinton campaign wouldn’t try to defend their candidate but rather answered with attacks on Bush, retaliating with full force and consciously dragging the political process in the mud of infighting to where the Bush campaign had invited them. It worked, and no one cared for Clinton’s misdeeds enough to deny his cruise to victory, aided by an ailing economy. In 1994, the Republicans struck back. If Democrats thought that you couldn’t get lower than to accuse your opponents of favoring murders or to kill their best friend, they were in for a rude awakening. In his playbook for the 1994 Midterms (and beyond), Newt Gingrich gave his Republican colleagues a language guide in how to talk about Democrats, which contained words as „sick“, „traitor“, „betrayal“, „liberal“, „shame“ and „welfare“ (implictly acknowledging its dog-whistle quality as a racist substitute).

It’s easy to see where the comparison to 2016 lies. Michelle Obama’s „When they go low, we go high“ could easily have been plastered on a wall of a Dukakis field office in the summer of 1988. Clinton’s weak defenses of her email scandals, the Clinton Foundation’s work or the DNC hacks was reminiscent of Dukakis‘ attempts at trying to explain his furlough policy. Just think of all the headlines you didn’t read in the 2016 campaign:

  • Clinton: „Trump stole the taxpayer’s money“
  • Clinton accusing Trump of running fraudulent business empire
  • Trump rape allegations: Clinton says she has proof
  • Trump visited with Putin to debate campaign strategy, Clinton says
  • Podesta claims to have secret strategy paper detailling Trump’s Medicare privatization plan
  • Trump denies Clinton claim that he employs Ku-Klux-Klan members

That’s because none of the above could in any way be proven and is totally made up by me. But hey, maybe did some or all of these things. To speak with Trump, nobody really knows. Of course, Clinton didn’t employ these tactics. She limited herself to attacks that could clearly and unequivocally be proven and restrained from using attacks that couldn’t, even by proxy. She also didn’t revert to direct insults, as Trump and the Republicans would do. The Republicans know no such qualms. They staged mock trials, revelled in sexism, peddled conspiracy theories and generally didn’t give a damn about the consequences. Only recently a lunatic shot up a pizza joint because he believed the theory sponsored, among others, by Trump’s favorite loon Alex Jones, that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child pornography ring out of the pizzeria basement. When asked whether he really believed that Clinton forged several million votes in California, RNC chairman Reince Priebus just said that „no one knows“, voter suppression laws up and down the red states targeted minority voters and until today no Republican has disavowed birtherism. The depths to which they were ready to sink were staggering, and in 2016 at least, Democrats refused to follow. It cost them dearly.

The real question is whether it’s worth it. Right now, some parts of the Democrats and their progressive allies are actively trying to undermine Trump’s legitimacy, trying to sway the Electoral College with insinuations of Russian meddling and engaging in recounts with the vain hope to prove election fraud. It is an attempt to catch up, and I’m extremely wary of this. I can’t say that I particularily care for this. Democracy has been almost mortally wounded by Republicans. Does it really need the coup de grace by the Democrats? Yes, they lost the election, and Congress as well, mainly due to what I can only see as despicable tactics by Republicans. But was Michelle Obama wrong to aim high when they went low?

As it is, the bad guys won. And I’m saying this consciously. If the Democrats currently trying for the same kind of tactics win out, the bad guys rule both parties. But Republicans have gone to some really dark places, and they’re unapologetical about it. One can only hope that Obama is right when he says that the moral arc of the universe is long and bending towards justice. If he is, then some day, Republicans will reap what they sow and a better day will come. If he isn’t, than they also reap, but the whole thing we have become comfortable with called „civilization“ will go down with them. The stakes are high.

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Jan Falk 14. Dezember 2016, 15:27

    I don’t know. There were so many genuin negative stories about Trump in the public that should have been enough to sink him without any further spin and exaggeration by Clinton and the Dems. It’s a bit hard to argue they made a mistake in the offense. But in the defense, especially early on, Clinton was not decisive enough in putting an end to the e-mails story. But even here, with the russian DNC hack, there was little she could do in the last few month.

    • Stefan Sasse 14. Dezember 2016, 15:44

      It’s about control of the news cycle. Clinton and Trump exchanged each others places in the negative coverage. Trump was on the whole much better able at changing the conversation, because he started new controversies that drew in his opponents.

      • Erwin Gabriel 14. Dezember 2016, 17:48


        In this respect, Trump was much quicker and more agile. And he had no problem at all with kicking his enemy into their balls.

        But do not forget that Hillary has also gone to dark places. Trump may have spoken out violently against illegal immigration, but he is not a racist (at least not more than any other 70-year-old). And unlike other representatives of the Tea Party, he began to moderate his tone right after the election.

        Therefore, the downfall of the West is not yet in sight.

        • Stefan Sasse 14. Dezember 2016, 18:25

          If Trump is not a racist, you have to be card-carrying member of the KKK to qualify as one. That’s way too high a bar for me.

          • Erwin Gabriel 15. Dezember 2016, 09:24


            Maybe you like to take a step back and look a little longer?

            It may be that he (like Clinton on the opposite side) played with the dog whistle. But I never heard him say racist things, although he has expressed himself with very strong and exaggerated words against illegal immigration.

            But to interpret this words as racism, is exactly that: interpretation. Not a bad word against Latinos in general, but a lot of good words for Latino US citizens.

            As far as I can judge from the comments and personal decisions made by Trump (I’m not as deeply involved in the daily US policies as you are), we are getting a a lot more unpredictable, more uncomfortable policies. Especially environmental policy could develop disastrously. But he does not seem to act racist. Hillary did not repeat such accusations either.

            To my very personal opinion, back then both sides were in election mode.

            • Stefan Pietsch 15. Dezember 2016, 15:38

              It’s hard to deny that Trump is a racist. He has often played this Card.

              • Stefan Sasse 15. Dezember 2016, 20:59

                And this is Stefan Pietsch saying this.

                • Ant_ 16. Dezember 2016, 00:15

                  I personally don’t even care about the mental state of Trump as it is, as this will always be up for debate. But i think it is pretty clear that he will reestablish or reinforce quite a lot of regulations and laws that are emprically known to have racial bias – which is something that one can actually measure. The rhetoric and stuff is pretty nasty, no doubt about that, but lamenting about how „the public discourse will move more to the right and that is quite a big problem“ while there are still a lot of racists things happening out there always strikes me as missing the relevant point of anti-racism in the first place. /off rant 😉

                • Erwin Gabriel 18. Dezember 2016, 20:46


                  I do not believe that Stefan is in any way racist. Therefore it is not appropriate to emphasize Stefan’s comment as something special.

                  But maybe I said what I said the wrong way. New try:

                  As far as I know, Trump has not expressed racism, but against illegal immigration. If he had a problem with Latinos, he would not let himself be photographed with a Mexican dish, declaring that he loves Mexican food. If you think that’s racism, you do interprete.

                  As far as I know, Trump is islamophobic, but I think there is a certain caution. And even if he completely stops Islamic immigration, this is not racism, because Muslims are not equated with Arabs. If you say it is, you do interprete.

                  I do not doubt that in the election campaign partly approving, partly actively promoted, that he reached für people with racist attitudes.

                  However, I believe that personally he is just as little a racist as an integrator.

                  • Ralf 19. Dezember 2016, 03:16

                    I think it is hard to know what Trump really thinks. During his life, on many issues (including immigration, abortion, the Iraq war, the minimum wage etc,) he has had almost every possible opinion that can be held within a spectrum ranging from center-left to far right. Moreover, in a series of speeches recently he openly and bluntly stated that a lot of his remarks during the campaign were made for tactical reasons only to win the election. So, what does he really believe? Does he believe, in fact, anything at all? We will only be able to answer that four years from now …

                    • bevanite 19. Dezember 2016, 13:15

                      I think the only consistent position throughout his life is his „America First“ protectionism. Check out this old interview from the David Letterman show back in the late 1980s:


                      He talked about Japan the same way as he does about China now: „they“ are taking over our economy, „we“ have to get back our companies. That seems to be his personal pet project and his only genuine political position. That’s why we probably can expect a trade war with China more than anything.

                      Otherwise, much will depend on his staff. There are already highly diverging positions on foreign policy, considering that Trump wants to join forces with Putin and keep Assad in power (and thus, the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis), but crucial foreign policy cabinet members like Michael Flynn and Mike Pompeo want to go for Iran. It will also be interesting to see how Trump’s voter base will react when they suddenly realise that he’s not doing policy for „the common man“.

                    • Erwin Gabriel 23. Dezember 2016, 12:45


  • Erwin Gabriel 14. Dezember 2016, 16:32

    Pre-declaration: You’re still wearing your “I love Hillary” glasses.

    I can only partially agree with you. The Bush – Dukakis election is difficult to compare to Trump – Clinton for various reasons. To name the most important ones: Dukakis was a much weaker opponent than Donald Trump, who, in contrast to Dukakis, always succeeded in putting the themes. Dukakis suffered heavy blows, such as the silly tank-ad or his emotionless, uninvolved answer to the question whether he would still not demand the death penalty if someone would rape and murder his wife. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton showed such misfits beyond the known weaknesses.

    Indeed, your statement that George Bush Sen was not wired with the evangelists is true. But his son George Bush Jr had turned to the church, with the gentle support of his wife, after overcoming his alcoholism. Thanks to his energetic support, Bush Sen was able to win the voices of the evangelists.

    Unlike Obama, who was an unmarked sheet before he entered the election, Clinton had a dark past, could not free herself of the suspicion of corruption, was constantly caught lying, had numerous scandals.
    And, unlike Barrack Obama, Clinton did not go high when the attacks started, but went down to Trump.

    I rather believe that Bill Clinton was right when he said that Hillary should go to collect votes in the rust belt. It was a bad thing of her to believe that she can win the election without caring for the votes of the common people. She lost the election due to her condescension and arrogance.

    • Stefan Sasse 14. Dezember 2016, 18:28

      Campaigning in the Rust Belt would have saved her, yes. But that’s easy to know in hindsight.

      Anyway, yes, I’m still wearing love-HRC glasses. I still think she was the best choice, and that she would’ve been a good president. You’re still wearing your Hillary-hate-glasses.

      • Erwin Gabriel 15. Dezember 2016, 13:36

        I do not hate Hillary (I’m not involved, I#m not living in the US). But I have the opinion that after her political failure (such as in Libya) and her scandals, she would have been a bad president who could not have I do not hate Hillary. I am only of the opinion that after her political failure (such as in Libya) and her scandals, she would have been a bad president who could not have united the divided society (partly, because has her share in dividing the country).

        I think Donald Trump will be a bad President (albeit for reasons other than Clinton). And he, too, does not seem to make too much effort at the moment to reconcile the country.

        As mentioned before, I’m happy that I didn’t had to vote myself.

        • Stefan Sasse 15. Dezember 2016, 21:00

          No one is unifying the country. That’s just one of those clichees that everyone keeps telling themselves.

  • FrageZeichen 14. Dezember 2016, 18:56

    Es ist wohl müßig jetzt über die größten Fehler der Democrats spekulieren zu wollen. Das endet dann immer in Kaffeesatzleserei.

    Diese Partei hat sich wohl für die nächsten Jahre ziemlich abgeschossen. Die Kammern sind futsch und der Präsident ist auch ein Rep.
    Stellt sich eigentlich nur noch die Frage ob sich der Laden überhaupt noch reorganisieren lässt.

    In Deutschland spielen sich aktuell leider ziemlich dramatische Vorgänge ab. Anhand des Aufhängers „Fake News“ unternimmt das Establishment hier jetzt gerade einen Großangriff auf die Meinungs- und Pressefreiheit.
    Das wäre mal ein würdiges Thema. Für alle die sich da noch ranwagen.

  • Blechmann 14. Dezember 2016, 22:25

    The Democrats believed they would quite easily win the election and so they wouldn’t use extreme measures like insults or blunt lies or copy the way of speaking of Trump. They probably thought he would defeat himself. If I remember right, Hillary accused the Russians to try and manipulate the election, without having any proof.

    I looked at dict.cc for „birtherism“, there is a seperate word for this? That’s kinda funny.

    • Stefan Sasse 15. Dezember 2016, 07:13

      She had proof, she just couldn’t disclose it. In October, the intelligence services (all of them!) had agreed among themselves that there was Russian meddling on Trump’s behalf. They informed both campaigns and the Congress, but Republicans decided to do nothing. It has now been revealed that the Russians didn’t only hack the DNC, but also the Democrat’s strategic division, and gave the documents to the Republicans. The Democrats asked the Republicans not to use the stolen docs, but the temptation of winning some close house races was too much, it seems. Paul Ryan used the stuff, for example. So there’s plenty of proof.

      Birtherism is the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_citizenship_conspiracy_theories

      • FrageZeichen 16. Dezember 2016, 00:13

        Was für eine plumpe Verschwörungstheorie. Herr Sasse, bitte!
        Wer soll das denn sein, die Russen?
        Demnächst vielleicht wieder das internationale Finanzjudentum und die Bolschewisten?

    • Erwin Gabriel 23. Dezember 2016, 12:47

      „The Democrats believed they would quite easily win the election and so they wouldn’t use extreme measures like insults or blunt lies or copy the way of speaking of Trump. “

      Partly, they did.

  • Stefan Pietsch 15. Dezember 2016, 15:28

    What is this about? A blaming game? I do not see any need in it. It is useless. Donald Trump has won the election without the electoral vote. That’s it. In fact, this election was not determined by hate speeches. Sure, both candidates experienced deep drops in the polls interim but recovered fast. That’s not the point.

    It was the race of the most unpopular candidates in history. You will never prove it but there are odds that Hillary would have lost the election against the Muppet Waldorf. I am pretty sure.

    Hillary is’nt a charasmatic leader. She is unable to convince people or to win their hearts. In democracy, these disadvantages are really crucial.

  • R.A. 15. Dezember 2016, 16:12

    Sorry, that isn’t convincing at all.

    Mud throwing is part of every election, the Bushs were not worse than other candidates of either party. Trump was worse, but that didn’t decide the outcome.

    Especially starting with Dukakis: He was one of the worst candidates the Democrats had after the war. A dry stick, no charisma, no ideas, widely unknown outside New England. It would have been a big surprise if he would have won – his inability to cope with crime-issues was just another little point. His defeat was a landslide and need not be explained by using dark theories.

    And while Bill Clinton could make advantage of using mud-sling-campaigning, Hillary Clinton could not. And that’s not for want of trying – the Anti-Trump campaign was also extremely dirty. But she was so concentrated on this „Anti“-campaigning and so vulnerable with her own past, that she missed Trump’s usage of real politic content.

  • Ralf 16. Dezember 2016, 03:57

    I believe the Democratic electorate and the Republican electorate are very different on average. They have a totally different culture. A certain way of campaigning that works well with the former does not necessarily work well with the latter. Specifically, had Democrats „gone low“ like Trump and blasted the other side with lies, fiction, distortions of facts, and fake news, this would have been a significant turn-off for the highly educated Democratic voter base.

    Clinton did not lose, because she did not play dirty. She lost because she lacked charisma, lacked a vision for a better future, lacked sufficient dedicated, enthusiastic supporters, and lacked a competent campaign organization despite millions of dollars in the war chest. She stumbled over scandals, stumbled over her ignorance of the needs of working class Americans, stumbled over her focus on coastal elites and minorities, and stumbled over her arrogance to believe the Midwest were safely in her pocket despite evidence to the contrary.

    To „go high“ instead of „going low“ was probably the only thing she did right.

    • bevanite 16. Dezember 2016, 13:38

      I think Trump could go as low as he did because he’s a party outsider who didn’t have to play by the party rules. Someone like Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush or John Kasich wouldn’t have gotten away with denouncing John McCain as a loser, calling Mexicans rapists, or appearing practically illiterate on economic issues. Trump got repeatedly attacked by all the other candidates on the classic GOP shibboleth: an end to government spending. Did it hurt him in any way? Hell no. The same „in-party“ rules applied to Clinton as well: If she would have gone to the same low level as Trump, she wouldn’t only have alienated swing voters, but also her own party base.

      The idea that Clinton had „a focus on coastal elites and minorities“ is kinda hard to sell, though, given the fact that she received almost 3 million more voters than Trump in the popular vote, with solid majorites in the low-income groups (in contrast to Trump’s triumph among the wealthier groups). Minorities have been solidly voting for the Democrats for quite some time now. Asian-Americans were once considered a Republican target group, also a good chunk of the Hispanics – especially the Cuban-Americans – were solid GOP voters, before the Civil Rights era even African-Americans preferred the party of Abraham Lincoln. This have changed severely in the last three decades, and all these groups tended to prefer Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama and Clinton.

      • Ralf 16. Dezember 2016, 19:05

        The idea that Clinton had „a focus on coastal elites and minorities“ is kinda hard to sell, though, given the fact that she received almost 3 million more voters than Trump in the popular vote, with solid majorites in the low-income groups (in contrast to Trump’s triumph among the wealthier groups).

        Clinton did indeed receive almost three million more votes than Trump, but these votes were unevenly distributed over the country. Clinton vastly overperformed in states like California, which were solidly blue anyway, so these additional votes were entirely irrelevant from the perspective of the Electoral College. She also vastly overperformed in solidly red states like Texas or Georgia, where these additional votes were – again – entirely irrelevant, because they were not sufficient to turn the state. Her support came to a large extent from urban liberals and African Americans, which were exactly the demographics that her campaign had focussed on. In contrast, her campaign had absolutely nothing to offer to blue collar Americans, specifically, the increasingly disaffected whites in the deindustrializing Midwest, which used to be one of the strongest pillars of the Democratic voter base. These voters are less concerned with topics that are important to college-educated elites on the coast or to minorities. What they care about is jobs, jobs, jobs. They want to hear how their crumbling cities can get back to life (take Detroit as an example), how their jobs can be protected from aggressive globalization, how new jobs can be brought into their cities, so that their children can have a future etc.. Clinton had nothing at all to say about this. No ideas. No vision. It wasn’t even apparent that she cared. Thus, it is no surprise that blue collar voters largely voted for Trump or did not vote at all.

        These problems in her campaign were actually already clearly visible during the primaries, where Clinton lost Michigan, lost Wisconsin, lost Minnesota, lost New Hamphire, lost Nebraska, lost Maine, lost North Dakota, lost Indiana etc.. She decided to do nothing about it.

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