“Clinton Democrats:” Been There, Done That

It’s been four days since the appearance of a big Jonathan Martin/Maggie Haberman Sunday New York Times piece that suggested (mostly via blind quotes from red-state pols and “strategists”) Hillary Clinton could be endangering both victory and an opportunity to govern by focusing “narrowly” on the people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 rather than the “broad” swath of Americans her husband appealed to in 1992 and 1996. Most observers have panned the piece, with the notable exception of those professional scorners of Democratic “extremism” Ron Fournier and David Brooks.

Yesterday Jonathan Chait conducted a brisk but thorough mopping-up operation, refuting the Fournier/Brooks case for a return to the Mark Penn version of the Clintons along with the original article. For the most part, Chait relies on the kind of math and history lessons that Nancy LeTourneau and yours truly, among others, have deployed on this topic. But he comes up with one powerful argument from more recent experience:

Democrats in red states are not happy about Hillary Clinton’s resource-allocation strategy for obvious reasons, and they supply many of the quotes that give the Times story its critical edge. But the idea that Clinton is making a political error by avoiding states that have turned redder is the completely misguided product of the self-interest of Democratic politicians in those states. It assumes that the Clinton’s personal appeal can overcome the deeper social trends that have made those states increasingly Republican. The Clintons tested that hypothesis in 2014, when Bill Clinton invested heavily in campaigning for David Pryor in Arkansas, and Hillary Clinton did the same for Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. Both these candidates, talented children of popular Democrats in their home states, hoped that defining themselves as “Clinton Democrats” rather than “Obama Democrats” could allow them to rekindle their states’ faded Democratic loyalties. This proved very wrong, and both candidates lost landslides.

As the author of a book on 2014, I should have gotten to this argument first, but then I guess that’s why Chait gets paid the big bucks. Joshing aside, he’s right: the idea that voters in states that Bill Clinton carried can be brought back to the Democratic Party by evoking Clintonian “centrist” politics is a complete and demonstrated chimera. And Chait also punctures the idea that the Clintons have some sort of hillbilly mojo they learned in Arkansas going for them that makes them uniquely capable of turning back the tides of political history:

The Republican tilt of states like Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia has little to do with personal choices of the candidates who run there. West Virginia’s support for the Democrats in 1988 did not come as a result of Michael Dukakis’s deep personal bond with the Appalachian heartland. Nor did Dukakis’s strategy represent a more centrist approach than Hillary Clinton’s. It was just a different map.

Yeah, I just love the idea of coal miners having an instinctive attraction to Mike Dukakis.

In any event, I’d say Martin and Haberman have wound up providing significant confirmation that HRC’s doing the right thing going into this cycle. Aside from the many demonstration of the facts they evoked, a Democrat can rarely go wrong by ignoring the advice of Fournier and Brooks.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.