Hillary's story: It takes a village

Democrats are the Establishment Party now
Posted at 6:33 AM, Jul 25, 2016

No march to the White House has been longer.

No contestant has been constantly in the arena for so many years.

No major party has ever nominated a woman to be its candidate for president.

No presidential candidate has ever faced an opponent from a major party as unconventional and outrageous.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, it seems, likes a challenge. Or at least that’s the hand fate has dealt her whether she likes it or not.

The tenacity, toughness, work ethic and ambition it must have taken to endure so much for so long seems superhuman, a gift from the gods of politics.  Those same traits also describe Clinton’s tragic flaw; they make her human side -- her authentic character, her unguarded self -- invisible to many Americans, and unlikeable to many others.

Clinton’s two presidential campaigns have been hard.  She has old and zealous enemies; she is an uneasy performer without good political pitch; she carries her husband’s old baggage as well as her own; and she is a woman. All that is beyond her control.

What she might have been able to control in her second run for her old house on Pennsylvania Avenue was her message – her case for why she should be the commander in chief.  But she has not mustered a battle cry, a raison d’etre that is clear and compelling to voters, even Democratic voters.

That problem is now gone. Hillary Clinton has the cause of causes: Never Trump.

Her public image might be indelibly tarnished and her charisma modest, but this year she might finally have the help of what she famously named “the village.”

The macro-politics of Hillary

First lady Hillary Clinton at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. (Simon Bruty/ALLSPORT)

Explaining and understanding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public career feels like a job for drama critics and psychologists. She’s been the female lead in a long-running drama, a fixture on the national stage for 24 years, since 1992. But, in part, this also is a job for political scientists.

Identifiable changes in the country’s demographics, voting behavior and political parties created an environment where the Democratic Party could dominate presidential politics, nominate and elect the first black president and now nominate a woman for the first time. It is a party where the anointed candidate in 2016 won the nomination with relative ease, despite huge flaws and fresh controversies of her own making.

Hillary Clinton has been in the trenches forever, beginning with her days as a young lawyer on the impeachment inquiry staff of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate.  No one has influenced the evolution of the Democratic Party since then more than the Clintons. The party of the young Clintons was more anti-establishment, compulsively argumentative, beholden to interest groups and unions, fractured by region and ideology.  Since then Democrats have grown more unified, disciplined and centrist. It happened all around Hillary, who was omnipresent as an activist, a lawyer, a first lady of Arkansas and then the United States, as a senator from New York, a presidential candidate in 2008 and then as Secretary of State.

If there is an establishment party in America, it is the Democrats.

People with the most financial capital still tilt toward the GOP.  But Democrats have become home to Americans with the most social and cultural capital. The best-educated voters, the professional class, educators, big-city elites as well as movers and shakers in entertainment, media and art all lean heavily to the Democrats. Democrats raise money as well as Republicans.  Democratic policies overall are closer to the center of public opinion. The Democrats’ left wing has been less influential and less extreme than the GOP’s right wing.

The liberal left accuses the party of selling out. But Democrats have held and expanded their support from women and minorities, populations that are growing in the electorate.  And once radical causes such as gay marriage have become settled law and are settling into public acceptance.

Hillary Clinton is not the leftie leader of the leftie party, as the Republicans might wish.

She is the establishment leader of the establishment party.  

Opposition from Wall Street will be far less of a problem for Clinton than the tepid support of idealistic young voters and the left wing, who have been invigorated by the Democrats’ own maverick, Bernie Sanders.

If the Democratic Party didn’t hold the center and didn’t have substantial support from the country’s most powerful interests, could it have elected Barack Obama twice and then nominated Hillary Clinton?

Could Hillary Clinton have survived 24 years of ceaseless, highly organized partisan attacks and inquisitions without the protection of a competent, disciplined and relatively united Democratic Party? Could she have survived the self-inflicted damage from her “extremely careless” handling of e-mail as Secretary of State?

The Hillary Clinton Story has always been a personal one, a tale of a martyr and warrior. It’s an epic, for sure. But the role of her partisan army and the changing battlefield is more important history.

From McGovern to Bubba

Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, 1996. (Simon Bruty /Allsport/Getty Images

On summer break from Yale Law School in 1972, Hillary Rodham worked for Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign in western states.  McGovern, who came from the party’s far left, was the only Democrat who had figured out how to work the newfangled primary system that had recently replaced a haphazard medley of conventions, caucuses, primaries and ward politics.

McGovern lost the popular vote to Richard Nixon 37 percent to 61 percent, a margin unheard of these days. White Southerners continued to abandon the Democratic Party they had been loyal to for generations – until desegregation and landmark civil rights legislation.

The big political book around then was “The Emerging Republican Majority,” written by a Nixon strategist, Kevin Phillips.  He predicted that once the GOP captured the South completely and a chunk of the “silent majority” -- culturally conservative white working-class voters in the North -- the party would hold the White House for an era.

After the ’72 election, it looked like Phillips’ prophecy was coming true. Hillary Rodham’s party was a mess.

But then came Watergate, which made it possible for born-again Southerner Jimmy Carter to take back the White House for the Democratic Party in 1976.  The party was moving toward the center; it didn’t look like it was doomed to a generation in the wilderness after all. But it was, of course.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan crushed Carter. Reagan’s victory in 1984 was even bigger against the very liberal ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated to be vice president. In 1988, the Republicans rolled on when Vice President George H.W. Bush overcame the Iran-Contra scandals that dominated Reagan’s last years and vanquished Michael Dukakis, who was painted as a caricature of a Massachusetts, big government, bleeding-heart, egg-headed liberal.

The debacles of the 1980s inspired a squadron of young Democratic politicians to launch an organized, policy-oriented attack to capture the center – of the party and the electorate. They were first nicknamed “Atari Democrats” because of their faith in technology and the Japanese economic model. Then they were tagged as the neoliberals and that stuck.  Mr. Hillary Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, was a key player in the neoliberal camp. It was a wonkish gang and Bill Clinton’s smooth charisma stood out.

The neoliberals aggressively tackled the party’s biggest image problem -- the perception that Democrats were beholden to their special-interest groups, especially labor unions, but also civil rights organizations, AARP and the senior citizens lobby, trial lawyers, big-city machines and myriad liberal cause groups. The neoliberals talked tough on unions, pushed balanced budgets, focused on economic growth not redistribution, advocated reform of sacred cow entitlement and welfare programs, and pushed pro-military policies unusual for Democrats at the time.

Clintonites called this policy strategy “triangulation” and it essentially has guided Democratic philosophy ever since. It has worked, at least on the presidential level. Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992, except one.

Divided government, destructive politics

Hillary Clinton looks on as former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the National Press Club Aug. 19, 2005, in Washington D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 16, 1992, Bill Clinton declared, “We have got to go beyond the brain-dead politics in Washington and give our people the kind of government they deserve, a government that works for them.”

If American politics were brain-dead in 1992, what are they now: resuscitated but delirious?

For most of the past 36 years, voters have not trusted either party to control both the White House and Congress. The Democrats won more presidential elections, but Republicans did better electing governors, state legislatures and on Capitol Hill.  This has been a historically long period of divided government, and new civic pathologies have developed in response.

During the Clinton administration, congressional Republicans developed an especially toxic style of hyper-partisan combat, specially built for the cable TV world. Bill Clinton survived it and perhaps beat it.  But those early attacks forever shaped Hillary Clinton’s career and image.

Hints of dark change were evident in a series of ugly brawls actually led by Democrats over the confirmations of Robert Bork (1987) and Clarence Thomas (1991) to the Supreme Court and former senator John Tower to be Secretary of Defense (1989).  These hearings and debates reached a volume of meanness and vitriol unknown in the clubby, modern Congress.  And it was all broadcast live. 

No one paid more attention to this breakdown of comity than Congressman Newt Gingrich.  For years Gingrich ran guerilla attacks on the Democratic leadership in the House. They all took the form of accusations of corruption, scandal and ethics violation. Sometimes the charges were accurate, sometimes not, but the rhetoric was always bombastic.

Gingrich took it up a notch when Bill Clinton was elected. “For Bill Clinton’s first two years, Gingrich and his allies worked to demonize and delegitimize Clinton, and at the same time helped House Republicans coalesce into a unified opposition from the beginning to the Clinton agenda,” writes political scientist Norm Ornstein.

Gingrich led the successful charge to defeat Clinton’s signature initiative – health care reform. Significantly, Hillary Clinton was tasked with leading the administration’s lobbying campaign, an unheard mission for a first lady.

Apart from policy, Gingrich unleashed House committees to investigate every conceivable whiff of impropriety in the Clintons’ history and administration. The list is long and long forgotten: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and the suicide of Vince Foster. Gingrich’s dig for dirt was amplified by well-funded right-wing “opposition research” groups, conservative talk radio and legions of reporters looking to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Hillary was always a part of the story.

It was when Hillary publicly fought back that her image indelibly changed. “But I do believe that this is a battle,” she said in a famous interview in 1998. “This is — the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

She was absolutely right, except there was no conspiracy; it was all in the open. But for many Americans, Hillary Clinton would be forever perceived as a paranoid with something to hide, not a straight shooter, untrustworthy.

Public push back to all the attacks was muted because Clinton gave his enemies so much free ammunition. In the campaign, of course, he confessed (sort of) to an affair with a nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers. There were other accusers and thickets of rumors. Special prosecutors, congressional committees and regulators probed and probed.

Monica Lewinsky. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images)

No serious legal or ethical findings came from any of those wild goose chases. Until Monica Lewinsky. The scandal and the impeachment dominated Clinton’s last years in office. He was tarnished as a moral leader and his policy ambitions were crippled. But he remained popular and still is.

In the end, it was Newt Gingrich who resigned in disgrace after leading the House GOP to a disappointing showing and the disclosure of an affair. Congress itself was scarred and degraded. But in a perverted, cynical way, Gingrich’s scorched-earth tactics did the damage he sought, and Hillary ended up damaged more than Bill.  

The Gingrich playbook came off the shelf when Barack Obama took office. Conspiracy theories like the racist “birther” smears were legitimized and perpetuated by Republican office-holders, conservative media and celebrities such as Donald Trump. But Obama overcame that to become the first president since Eisenhower to serve two terms without a major scandal.

Hillary Clinton did not fare as well as Obama’s Secretary of State. Numerous, repetitive fishing expeditions dug into the Benghazi affair; the longest one recently exonerated her. Her use of private email at the State Department –- a scandal all her own -- wasn’t found to be illegal in the end, barely.  When she left government, she took huge speaking fees from Wall St. corporations. The Clinton Foundation became a target of investigations and criticism.

For two decades, Hillary Clinton’s scalp has been the Holy Grail of zealous, obsessive conservative crusades that began long ago as plots against her husband. But she is responsible for her own missteps and defensive, righteous style.

For better or worse, no presidential candidate in modern times had spent so long in the batter’s box as Hillary Clinton by the time she entered the 2016 race.

Amazon lists over 100 books about her, not including self-published ones. Independent counsels, special counsels, several standing committees of Congress, several special committees, inspectors general and financial regulators have investigated her and everything near her.

Yet, despite all this baggage, she had the Democratic field to herself in 2016. It looked like an orderly coronation. The Democratic Party simply wasn’t the same party she worked for in ‘72, partly because of the Clintons’ influence. It was a well-oiled organization positioned to give even a flawed campaigner and hugely controversial figure like Hillary the best possible shot. 

The demographics of the country also changed since ’72, in ways that have helped the Democrats or, conversely, that the Democrats have used to their great advantage.

'The Death of White Christian America'

‘After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America – a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history – has died.’

Republican strategy since Nixon and Kevin Phillips’ prophecy of a long GOP epoch was built first on recruiting middle and working-class Southern whites and then disillusioned, lower income whites from the Rust Belt, the Reagan Democrats. They served their new base an ideological mix of cultural conservatism, racial resentment, attacks on big government and promises of tax cuts.  

There was one big problem: The percentage of white voters was shrinking; the percentage of white religious voters was shrinking even more; and the percentage of white, religious male voters was also shrinking.

The American electorate since 1972 became more female, diverse and secular.  In terms of voting behavior, the country became more Democratic – and independent.

“After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America – a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history – has died,” Robert Jones writes in his new book, “The Death of White Christian America.” “The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors – complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.”

On the religious side of the equation, the only demographic cohort that is growing is the “unaffiliated” – seculars, atheists, agnostics or people who simply choose not to affiliate with an organized religion. The “unaffiliated” tend to be younger and identify heavily as Democrats.

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, 73 percent of the electorate was white and Christian. In November 2016, that percentage is expected to be around 52 percent.  The rate of change in American religiosity has been extraordinary.

The same is true of the racial profile of the electorate. 

When Hillary worked for George McGovern, only 13 percent of registered voters were not white.

By 2000, non-white voters made up 23 percent of eligible voters; in 2016 that number is expected to rise to 31 percent, according to a major demographic study prepared by the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress. The largest groups, blacks and Hispanics, have voted for Democrats by enormous margins for many election cycles. The minority turnout rate has been lower than whites’, but that dynamic could change with Donald Trump in the race.

The remaining fundamental demographic advantage Democrats enjoy is the gender gap. Again, going back to 1972 when Hillary Clinton was an up-and-coming politico, there was no gender gap. According to Gallup’s final polls before the election, Nixon won women by 62 percent to 38 percent, virtually the same margin as men.

In every election since 1992, women voters have favored the Democrat. The smallest margin was 4 percentage points in 1992, Bill Clinton’s first race, the Gennifer Flowers one.

The gender gap’s impact is immense because more women now vote than men. In every presidential election since 1980, voter turnout has been higher among women than men. If these patterns hold this year, Clinton will have a substantial built-in head start. The gender gap could easily widen either because women have the chance to vote for a woman president for the first time or because Trump remains deeply unpopular with women – or both. If that happens, it would take a massive, unprecedented white male stampede of Trumpists to stop Clinton from making history.

In sum, if the direction of change in voting behavior holds steady or accelerates, the Clinton campaign should successfully ride a river of strong currents including secularization, rising diversity and a gender gap.

But if there is one thing the Trump phenomenon has shown, it’s that historical patterns can blow up quickly. If they didn’t, Trump would have taken his brand back to the Mar-a-Lago Club, and the GOP nominee would be someone like Weak Jeb, Lyin’ Ted or Little Marco.  

Trump successfully executed a coup d’etat against the Republican Party.  Bernie Sanders, a socialist, not a card-carrying Democrat, came close in the Democratic Party. Angry partisans are blaming their own kind this year, not just the enemy.

Insiders, out?

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. (Photos by Spencer Platt and Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the broadest perspective, Trump and Sanders rode the same, unpredicted tsunami in 2016 – the contempt and wrath of a mass of voters who believe they’ve been locked out of their promised and expected life prospects by the system, by both parties, by all the establishments and all the elites.

Ardent supporters of Trump and Sanders obviously have vastly different politics and values.  Clinton is unlikely to convert many Trumpists and may not need to. If she doesn’t convert enough Sanders-istas, however, she’s in trouble.

Unlike Trump, Sanders’ appeal wasn’t limited to angry voters who were predominantly white, older, male and low on the ladders of education and income. Sanders, for example, clobbered Clinton among young voters in the primaries. Sanders also built something Trump now utterly lacks – the support of an established faction of the party. 

Clinton now has to enlist or neutralize a newly energized Democratic left flank. This a cadre of activists, policy makers, intellectuals and elected leaders that believes the party of the Clintons and Obama has sold out.  They blame Democrats almost as much as Republicans for ignoring or even causing what President Obama called the “defining challenge of our time” – economic inequality.

Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the most visible leaders. Thomas Frank’s new “Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People,” could be their textbook, a ferocious critique of the new Establishment party from the Left:

Since 1992, Democrats have won the plurality of votes in every election except one. For six of those years, they controlled Congress outright. But on matters of inequality they have done vanishingly little. They have stubbornly refused to change course when every sign said turn. … This is not because they are incompetent or because sinister Republicans keep thwarting the righteous liberal. It is a Democratic failure, straight up and nothing else.

That failure is the steady decline of real income and wealth the vast majority of Americans have endured since the 1980s and the related rise of unprecedented economic inequality. “The country, we now understand, is simply no longer arranged to make its citizens economically secure,” Frank says. 

Trump basically says the same thing: “It’s a disaster.” So does Sanders.

And Hillary Clinton says the same things, but she hasn’t gotten through. She doesn’t have the credibility. She was known as a friend of Wall St. when she was a senator from New York. She got jumbo speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. She hob-nobs with billionaires and moguls. She failed to deliver health-care reform 25 years ago.

Hillary is the insider at a moment for outsiders. She may be the first woman nominee, but that doesn’t seem to matter because she’s part of the system, the problem, the status quo.

Indeed, in an odd partisan role reversal, the Democratic Party is the establishment party this year, the party of the system.

The GOP has been taken over by a usurper. The Democrats have coronated a queen from their reigning family.  The coming contest between the billionaire populist and pioneer princess could not be more filled with irony and contrast.

The morning after

The vision of a Trump victory in November is a horizon of question marks.

A Clinton victory, however, will have predictable and lasting consequences regardless of the makeup of Congress.

The Supreme Court will have a majority of justices appointed by Democratic presidents that is likely to last for many years. Obamacare will not be repealed. Social Security and Medicare will not be privatized or radically altered. Current foreign and national security policies will not be dramatically changed.

The political and electoral forecast is trickier, obviously, but the Democrats could not dream of a better opportunity. 

Democrats will have held the White House for 12 years in a row for the first time since Harry Truman left office. The Republican Party will be a mess.

The GOP defied conventional wisdom after a landslide defeat in 1964 by winning the White House in 1968.  It managed to recover from Watergate. Recovering from TrumpGate will be a challenge equally as daunting.

Voting habits that have favored the Democrats will be more firmly entrenched.  Minority voters will have continued to support the Democrats overwhelmingly; that’s a trend that could bolster Democrats for a long while because the U.S. will be a “minority-majority” nation by the mid-2040s. Whites will be the minority.

A generation of young people entering the electorate will remember growing up only with Democratic presidents, historic presidents at that – the first black and the first woman presidents.  Large majorities of young voters will have gone Democratic three elections in a row. The gender gap will have helped the Democrats one more time and more women will be going to college than men.

Demographics are not destiny, however.

Hillary Clinton has the dubious distinction of having lower approval ratings than any party nominee in modern history except for one – Donald Trump.  That makes for an inherently volatile atmosphere where either candidate could crash fast or voters could surprise the pollsters.

But what an irony it will be if this ugly, depressing campaign makes history by electing the first woman president. And what a story.

American democracy, however, will remain vulnerable to dark populism such as Donald Trump’s, even if Clinton does win. 

Americans since the Civil War have come to feel exempt from a threat common in history and world politics: Pots really do boil over. Hot air does turn into cold reality sometimes. Masses do revolt, in many different ways.

Orderly, democratic elections are fully capable of producing disorderly, even undemocratic results. England, for example, has recently been badly scalded by the Brexit referendum.

America is flirting with that potential now. One of two major parties is enabling it. And it isn’t clear whether the electorate sees Trumpism as a serious challenge, a cathartic protest, a big joke or the solution.

While political and media focus this year has been on the understandable uprising of the angry white voter, other groups of Americans are even worse off by measures of money, education, social status, health and safety. They are minorities that have stuck with the Democrats for years. Loyalty doesn’t last forever without results, as the GOP has learned.  Americans of every sort have virtually no trust or confidence in government. Pots do boil over.

That very worry, that threat, is now the “defining challenge” of Hillary Clinton’s epic quest for the White House: Never Trump. She is a wounded warrior in this battle. But Hillary Clinton long ago put forth her philosophy of what it takes to surmount great obstacles: a village.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.com. You can contact him at dick.meyer@scripps.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @DickMeyerDC.