Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Clinton 2016: A Fundamentally Flawed Campaign

Before the election I had planned to do a long post-election multi-part series of detailed posts about what I felt were some serious mistakes in Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Part of that plan was my underlying assumption that Clinton would win. I thought the combination of a decent economy, the worst candidate in US history as her opponent, and a technically proficient campaign would carry her through despite her missteps. But I felt strongly that she had made it much, much closer than it needed to be because she simply doesn't have good campaign instincts.

Now that she lost I feel a bit as if detailing Clinton's awfulness as a campaigner would just be piling on. Plus, I'm feeling a lot of urgency to start moving on to discussing what is coming under a Trump presidency, why I feel it will be bad for America, and what we all might do to reduce the damage he will do in the next four years. Maybe I'll go back and write the long version one day when I don't feel our democracy itself is imperiled.

So, gentle readers, you're going to get the summary version of my Clinton campaign post-mortem, not the longer one I had been gathering during the campaign itself.

Here are my two basic beefs with Clinton's 2016 campaign. One is a violation of Campaign 101, the very basic principles that any candidate learns in running for even the smallest of offices. The other concerns the most difficult but most essential thing a Presidential candidate must do during a campaign, controlling the narrative.

Campaign 101 - If you ever take any candidate or campaign training anywhere, any time, for either party one of the first things they will tell you is this:

Don't run on your resume. Nobody votes for a resume. Your resume can get you the job interview, which in this case is the opportunity to campaign. But you need to explain what you will do with the job if you want to be hired. Voters will vote for a candidate they believe will do something good and useful in office. They will not vote for somebody just because that person is qualified for the office.

Instead, if we heard it once we heard it 10,000 times from the Clinton campaign: "the most qualified candidate to ever run for President."

To that the electorate said, "So what?" And rightly so.

The last Democratic candidate to run on his resume was John "The Real Deal" Kerry. We all saw how that turned out.

Control the Narrative -- This is complicated and difficult because it's really the sum total of every single thing you do in a campaign. But controlling the narrative is the ultimate goal of a campaign. And the Clinton campaign made a series of decisions that led to both a poor campaign narrative and a failure to control the overall narrative.

Maybe the best way to explain it is this. Think of a political campaign as a battle between two storytellers. Each storyteller wants to tell his or her story in a way that is satisfying and convincing to the listeners.

In this case the listeners are the voters. The measure of which story is most "satisfying and convincing" is "showed up to the polls and voted for that storyteller." This storytelling exercise is enormously complicated because the two storytellers are telling opposing tales at the same time in an infinitely complex environment that involves everything about the campaign: the slogan; fundraising; free, earned, and paid media; debates; mailers; voter outreach; voter registration; get-out-the-vote (GOTV) management; and ten-thousand other details.

But the measure is simple. Enough showed up to the polls and voted for that candidate for that candidate to win.

Instead of digging into those ten-thousand details -- books and doctoral theses will be written on them -- I'm just going to hit a few of ways in which the Clinton campaign made bad narrative decisions along the way that ultimately cost them enough votes to lose the election.

  • The Slogan 

"I'm with Her." ← The slogan itself made the Clinton campaign a referendum on Hillary Clinton. This wasn't a good idea. Not only do I refer you to our Campaign 101 lesson above -- "Don't run on your resume" -- but coming into 2016 Hillary Clinton wasn't nearly as beloved among Democrats or the general populace as her campaign always seemed to assume.

I get what they were doing there. Clinton did come into 2016 with tons of support from various institutional Democrats. And there were good reasons for that support, given all of the fundraising and other work she did on their behalf over the last 25 years. The Clinton campaign wanted to create an early bandwagon to shut down any serious competition for the nomination. So the notion of a bunch of "I'm with Her" messages popping up as endorsements by Democratic leaders must've been irresistible.

But it makes the campaign about the candidate, instead of about what the candidate will do for constituents. It set the course of the campaign in a bad direction from the start.

By contrast, let's look at the campaign slogans of two 2016 campaigns that succeeded beyond what should have been possible.

"A Future To Believe In" ← It wasn't about Bernie. It was about Believe in the Future.

"Make America Great Again" ← It wasn't about Trump. It was about Make America Great.

Take a look at any Presidential campaign slogans that resonated from "Fifty-four forty or fight!" to "Morning in America" to "Change We Can Believe In". They're never about the candidate. They're about what the candidate is going to do for America and thus, they're really about the voter.

Okay, I'll grant "I like Ike." But for God's sake, her own husband famously ran and won with, "It's the economy, stupid!"

It's the voter, stupid!

  • The Campaign Trail and Fundraising

Those of you who who want some details can get a good sense of my thoughts here by going back to read my two blog posts from this Spring on the Michigan Presidential primary:

A few thoughts on the 2016 Presidential primary

Wow, Bernie! Wow!

To summarize, I came away from the primary feeling that the Clinton campaign cared more about raising money than talking to voters.

Prophetically enough, my experience of the Michigan primary became my experience of the closing weeks of the general election. After the first debate I decided I'd better pony up fifty bucks towards the "Keep Donald Trump the heck away from the White House fund" AKA Hillary for America. Afterwards I received upwards of a half-dozen emails a day begging for more money. As the campaign came down to the final hours they were literally barraging me with emails asking for just a dollar or two for their GOTV efforts -- and meanwhile they were supposedly planning to spend a big chunk of money on a celebratory fireworks display!

Do you know what they weren't barraging me or anybody else with? Emails explaining to me what Hillary Clinton would do for me if she was elected president. Unless, of course, that explanation was enmeshed somewhere in a paragraph wrapped around a "DONATE NOW!" button.

In the narrative of this election one of the ways in which Hillary Clinton's story failed was that the dominant narrative for a lot of voters was that she cared more about the big-money donors than any of them. That narrative nearly cost her the Democratic nomination and I'm sure that in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan it ultimately cost her more the 100,000 or so votes that lost her the election. My personal experience of the Clinton campaign and the choices that it made reflected a campaign that cared more about fundraising than voters.

Secrets, Openness, Emails, Conspiracy Theories, Etc.

I have a lot of sympathy for Hillary Clinton on this point. When she came into the White House as First Lady in 1993 she faced a horrible and unending wave of right-wing propaganda garbage. There really was a vast right-wing conspiracy and she has the losing Supreme Court case (Federal Election Commission v. Citizens United) to prove it.

After getting her every statement thrown back in her face for long enough she understandably became very closed and defensive about whatever she said in public. And hey, playing your cards extremely close to your chest was a darn good quality in a Secretary of State. But that attitude can also come across as very secretive, defensive, and sketchy when you are a candidate. This undermined her credibility whenever she tried to summarily dismiss the vast cloud of nothing that seemed to enmesh her campaign from Day 1.

And I really do mean a vast cloud of nothing. The Republican Party has spent decades and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to find some crime -- any crime -- that they can hang on her and they've come up completely empty. Either she's the most brilliant supercriminal of all time, or maybe -- just maybe -- HILLARY CLINTON ISN'T GUILTY OF ANYTHING.

(Yes, I could hear some of my friends from both the right- and the left-wing gasping with outrage when I typed that last sentence.)

It's weird and it's not fair. She was up against the most openly corrupt and dishonest candidate in US history. But because Donald Trump totally lacks any filter on any least utterance or tweet, public perception became that she was somehow the dishonest, untrustworthy one.

A lot of Democrats want to blame the media for their spin and their coverage of all those things. But it was Hillary Clinton's job as candidate to change that narrative. The only way you change a narrative that claims you are secretly corrupt is to embrace it openly. Prove to the public that you are an open book. Instead, she and her campaign consistently ran away from those issues, tried to ignore them, tried to bury them, and then pointed fingers back at the media shouting "Sexism" when that didn't work.

The Kinks were right. "Paranoia will destroy ya."

Identity Politics

While I'm on the topic of charges of sexism, let's take a quick moment to also note that the Clinton campaign's constant drumbeat of identity politics turned off a lot of voters who might have voted for her otherwise, while probably failing to net her very many votes in the bargain. This was another poor narrative choice.

There's a ton to dig into on this topic, and we're not going to do it here. But in terms of the campaign narrative this became a narrative from the Clinton campaign that who you were in terms of race, gender, sexual identity, etc. was what mattered, not what you did. The conscious choice to create a constant drumbeat of identity politics was part and parcel of Hillary's decision to run on her resume. The Clinton campaign's narrative was "Vote for me because I'm a woman," not "Vote for me because I will improve your country."

Voters may feel an inclination or disinclination to be open to a candidate depending on their race, gender, background, situation, community, etc. But a candidate's narrative can't be that he or she is entitled to anybody's vote based on their race, gender, background, situation, community, etc.

A candidate's narrative always needs to be grounded in "Here's what I'm going to do in this office if you vote for me."

Closing Arguments

The Clinton campaign has taken great pains to blame their defeat on on FBI Director James Comey's letter to Congress stating that they were reviewing more emails. But there are two problems there:

1) Their failure to change that email narrative during their two years of campaigning to change that narrative in the first place.

2) Their utter failure to make any sort of genuine closing argument on behalf of why people should vote for Hillary Clinton was far worse than Comey's ill-advised interference.

Just to show that I'm not playing 20-20 hindsight here, I'm going to quote myself from a couple of private emails I wrote to a few friends during the last week of the campaign. This was around the time that I decided I wanted to write up this summary of where I think her campaign went off the rails, even though I still expected her to win.

By then I was beside myself with frustration at her campaign:

Seriously, Campaign 101 is that this is the time to make your closing arguments and to get out the vote. Making your closing arguments means SHOW ME SOMETHING GOOD THAT WILL HAPPEN IF I FILL IN THE LITTLE CIRCLE NEXT TO YOUR NAME. Oh, and ... IF YOU DECIDE TO BOTHER TO DO THAT BEFORE TUESDAY DON'T MAKE IT ANOTHER (BLEEPING) LAUNDRY LIST OF 48 DIFFERENT POSITIONS.

Criminy. It gets back to what worried me about the institutional stampede for Clinton all along. She just doesn't have that political gift of putting out a shared vision and getting everybody on board to get there. Donald Trump is literally the worst Presidential candidate in the history of the United States and he can do it. Even Dubya could do this: "Fightin' terrorists and cuttin' taxes. Git r'done."

Why can't Hillary do this?!!!


As long as I'm venting, from a party politics point of view, the Clinton campaign's utter failure to mix in any policy-based reasons to vote Democratic is pretty much campaign malpractice. "Not being Donald Trump" doesn't exactly move the needle on the Senate races, does it?

(Bleep) ... "Here's the vision. Here's what you're voting for. Thank you!" Is it really that hard?

I still think she wins. But it didn't need to be this nerve racking.


I left that last paragraph in as a disclaimer for you, gentle reader. I thought Clinton was still going to win this thing, despite it all. Keep that in mind when you evaluate my punditry.

And that's my post-mortem for now.

However, that won't be all the political commentary I have to share in coming days. I've really enjoyed maintaining the ol' Patio Boat as a general quiet spot to post up some fun photos of vacations and cool cars. And there'll likely be a bit of that in the mix going forward. (There'll definitely be a post on my new pickup truck!) But I find that I have things to say about President Elect Donald Trump, his plans, and his policies. And I'm dead serious in my intention to do what little I can to help protect this country from the damage I expect him to do, even if that little bit of help is just bloviating on my blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


I'm not generally one for premonitions, but I had a terrible premonition as I was driving in to work today. It's time for the terrible San Francisco earthquake that I've feared ever since I first moved out there in the early 90s.

I'm sure that notion is just the cumulation of all that has been terrible in 2016. It's only natural to think, "Okay, now what's really the absolute worst possible thing that can happen next?" And I guess for me, that's it.

San Francisco's an odd place. At one level it's this beautiful tourist destination filled with all these wonderful, fascinating people and places. But when you live there, it's just home, filled with it's pluses and minuses, like any place you can live. San Francisco has much more in common with Detroit than it thinks it does or would ever admit. Having lived both places, I know. But the last couple of times I was out there I was struck by the sense that it's been living in a golden age lately, the sort of time when we'll look back and mourn all that was and has been lost. I felt that dark cloud on me this morning.

As I said above, the notion was probably just a reaction to all that has been terrible lately. Fortunately for my current state of mind it doesn't feel like a personal, nearby premonition of danger -- though too much of my life is tied into people in San Francisco for the notion of a major earthquake there to strike me as anything other than personally horrible. As we're reaching the end of 2016 I've been reduced to laying on our couch in the evenings, listening to Gregorian chants to sooth the soul. I'm usually pretty buoyant, but hours of Gregorian chant are not a sign of an optimistic brain.

Heck, maybe it's just this nasty cold I've been fighting off that last couple of days.

In general I think the premonitions are usually your subconscious telling you to pay attention to things that your conscious thinking patterns have tried to bury or deny. Well, there are lots of signs of bad things in the future out there right now for lots of people I love. Maybe my subconscious has decided to round up all the signs to give them a specific aspect.

But, man, it's hard to shake the feeling that something else bad is coming down the pike. I hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Post-Election Post-Mortem: What I got wrong and what I got right

Well, here we are two days after the 2016 election and Donald J. Trump is going to be our next president and it turns out that I was wrong as wrong can be about a few things, so let's get them out of the way. And then maybe I can point to a couple of other items:

Let's look at a few things I said in Tuesday's post (Election Day: Paragraphs of angry vitriol deleted) to see where I got it wrong and then talk a bit about something that maybe I got right.

Self-flagellation department:

"Nominating Donald J. Trump for President of the United States is rock bottom."

I was wrong. Correction: Electing Donald J. Trump as President of the United States is rock bottom. I think we're in for a dark and grim four years. Or longer.

I hope I'm wrong about that, too.

I should say something else here. There's a lot to discuss about the role that race played in this election, but I don't think that most of the voters who voted for Trump did so because of the racist elements in his campaign. I truly believe that a lot of voters voted for Trump despite the racist elements in his campaign. I wish they had been more troubled by those elements.

Most of all, I believe a lot of people voted for Trump because they are mad at the system and wanted to tear it all down. And Donald J. Trump was the candidate likely to tear it all down.

I'm reminded strongly of the Detroit Lions and Matt Millen.

How did that turn out? For the non-football fans among you here's what happened.

After the Detroit Lions barely missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 2000, decades of frustration of their continued mediocrity led their owner and fans to think it was a good idea to hire former player and announcer Matt Millen to tear it all down and start again. So the Lions sacked the front office and coaching staff and gave Millen a five-year contract to be their new president and GM. Millen an unqualified choice who was charismatic and talked a good game. But he had no management experience, no front-office experience, and no idea how to actually do the things he said he would do.

Tearing it all down is seldom a good idea.

After Millen went 21-59 in his first five years -- the worst five-year stretch for a team in NFL history -- the Lions gave him another five-year contract. By the 2008 season the team had fallen so far that they finally had to fire Millen while they were on their way to becoming the first NFL team to ever go 0-16.

I kinda feel like we just elected Matt Millen as our new President.

But I will say this for Matt Millen. He did tear it all down.

"Right now the Republican Party is broken. Badly broken."

I was wrong. The GOP now controls the White House and both houses of Congress. After obstructing a Supreme Court nominee for a year they will now make an appointment that will probably give them control of the Supreme Court for the next decade or longer. The Republican Party is functioning as designed. Any apparent race baiting, sexism, jingoism, xenophobia, or anti-intellectualism is a feature, not a bug.

To the Republican Party: "You need to pull yourselves out of your fact-free media bubble and start dealing with the real world."

I was wrong. The fact-free media bubble is functioning as designed and I was the one who missed a few points about the real world.

The part where I was dead-on right:

"Let me take a moment here to add that my fellow Democrats also have some things to work on. ... A lot of people feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them. We need to listen."

... and we're going to get a couple of years to work on those things without the distraction of governing or wielding any appreciable power in Washington -- or Michigan, for that matter.

There's a lot to unpack in the quote above, and I'm not going to do it all in this post. But specifically, the Democratic Party of FDR was 100% on the side of the working class. That sense has been eroding for a long time, especially among rural Americans, religious Americans, and Americans who didn't go to college and get white-collar jobs. 

What's the phrase I'm looking for to describe those people? Oh, that's right: the working class.

So what went wrong? In part I think it's because people look at the Democratic Party leadership and see a bunch of politicians who are every bit as much in bed with Wall Street and corporate executives as the GOP. And in part, I see a party that requires complete linguistic purity in speaking about every iota of its hundreds of different constituencies, yet seems pretty damn happy to toss around words like "redneck" and "gun nut" in its messaging.

So, yeah. If you look around and you see:

1) The existing GOP leadership not helping you
2) The existing Democratic Party not helping you and placing you outside the party in its messaging

... then why not vote Trump in the primary, vote Trump in the general election, and burn it all to the ground?

Hillary Clinton never understood that as far as I can see. Bernie Sanders clearly understands that. I think Elizabeth Warren mostly understands that. I hope we find other Democratic leaders who understand that, and find them fast. 

What else?

There's a lot more to noodle on from Tuesday. More people voted for Clinton than for Trump, despite her general terribleness as a campaigner. I feel good about that, though it doesn't really matter in the big picture. And I could write blog post after blog post about Hillary Clinton's terribleness as a campaigner. Losing to a candidate as truly awful as Donald Trump makes her the Matt Millen of Presidential candidates. 

I could write about racism in this campaign and what I fear is coming for America. I'm deeply troubled and truly appalled.

I could complain about the media coverage -- oh, boy, could I complain about the media coverage! -- but that's like complaining about getting bad calls from a referee. The media and what passes for journalism in 2016 is what it is. Its only loyalty, its only duty, is to ratings points and Internet clicks. Expecting better is a fool's errand.

The ground genuinely shifted on Tuesday. I don't know where it will end up. I wish I did. 

But for now, R.I.P. the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan (1980-2016). We officially have the Republican Party of Donald Trump (2016-).

And maybe R.I.P. the Democratic Party of FDR (1932-2016). Or perhaps we should make that R.I.P. the Democratic Party of FDR (1932-1992) and R.I.P. the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton (1992-2016). I'm going to do a bit more mulling before I weigh in on what I think should be next for the Dems. But things need to change. Even if Hillary had won on Tuesday, that would be every bit as true.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day: Paragraphs of angry vitriol deleted

Well, here we are. Election Day.

It kinda feels as if every possible take on this election has already been generated by the roomful of monkeys that is the Internet. But a couple folks wondered what I thought about it all, so here goes. I doubt anybody's going to like what I have to say:

[Paragraphs of subsequent anger deleted.]

You see? It's like that. I am angry. Very angry at what has been done to this country that I love. And there's more than enough anger out there today. Nobody needs me adding to it.

[More paragraphs of angry vitriol deleted.]

Sigh. Let's try again.

So here's the thing. I am a Democrat for a lot of reasons. But I also believe that to make this country and this system work we need to have a functioning two-party system led by people of good will who have different perspectives, who grapple with the facts, and who negotiate to find reasonable solutions to our problems. And through that process we generally do as much good for as many people as is reasonably possible.

Right now the Republican Party is broken. Badly broken. And I'm mad at the people who broke it.

Yes, I know that some of you would disagree with that point. Let me remind you that you made Donald Trump your nominee for President of the United States. And Donald Trump isn't the aberration. Donald Trump is what the Republican Party has become. It's popular to say that recovery starts when you acknowledge that you've hit rock bottom. Nominating Donald J. Trump for President of the United States is rock bottom.

Politics isn't perfect. Politicians aren't perfect. (Lord knows politicians aren't perfect!) Heck, the preamble to the US Constitution doesn't promise to form a perfect union, just "to form a more perfect union." And the founding fathers were starting with the mess of the Articles of Confederation, so more perfect in that context was really just aiming at marginally functional.

Over the past couple of decades we as a nation have been working towards a less perfect union. It makes me angry.

I would start listing all the ways in which I think the GOP has run off the rails. But that would only lead to me typing "[more paragraphs of anger deleted]" again. So I'll settle for pointing out that when George Orwell wrote "Ignorance is strength," it was a warning, not a recommendation. You need to pull yourselves out of your fact-free media bubble and start dealing with the real world. I genuinely wish you luck in trying to build a functional, rational party out of what you have created. Really, I do. We need you. You want to capture my attention? Show me that -- for example -- you can acknowledge the simple fact that global warming is real, man-made, and a long-term threat to the well being of the United States. Then propose some conservative solutions.

That is what a functioning two-party system looks like. And this country badly needs one again.

Let me take a moment here to add that my fellow Democrats also have some things to work on. I very much hope and expect that Hillary Clinton will win the election today. And when she says she wants to be a President for all the people, I hope she means it. We shall see. A lot of people feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them. We need to listen.

And that's it. I could go on to type and delete more paragraphs of anger, but why? There's a whole Internet full of it today.

More than anything else, I'm hoping for a massive electoral rejection of Trumpism and all that it entails today. And I hope that this election marks a low point in our political history. We shall see.