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.