Clearing the Field for Clinton Was Democrats’ Biggest Mistake in 2016

The recent release of the Clinton campaign expose Shattered is causing yet another round of introspection about what Democrats did wrong in 2016 and how to fix the problem. The Clinton campaign’s own failures of targeting and messaging are already the subject of much discussion and have been rehashed ad nauseam. Matt Taibbi’s take on the navel-gazing, operative-centric view of the pundit and consultant classes is probably the best of the book’s reviews so far and well worth reading. A large number of powerful people still have a difficult time accepting the movements that coalesced behind Sanders on the left and Trump on the right as legitimate, authentic populist forces rather than a group of discontents mesmerized by cults of personality around Pied Piper candidates. They often cannot concede that there would still have been a massive movement of anti-establishment anger even had Sanders and Trump never run at all.

Which leads us to one of the least discussed failures of the establishment that helped lead us to this juncture: the effort to clear the field for Hillary Clinton. Sanders and Clinton supporters are still furious with one another to this day, as can be seen from the often hostile reactions on both sides to the unity tour currently ongoing between Tom Perez and Senator Sanders. Clinton backers accuse Sanders supporters of being racist and sexist fifth column betrayers of the party, while Sanders’ fans accuse Clinton’s of abandoning core economic principles and depressing youth turnout. Wildly unfair attacks are levied on both sides.

But the ongoing hostility isn’t the fault of either camp’s supporters. It’s the fault of the establishment that tried to clear the field for Clinton.

It is widely acknowledged that Democrats in positions of authority, including but not limited to President Obama himself, worked to clear the field of significant opposition to Clinton. President Obama directly pushed Vice President Biden out of the running, and other potential contenders from Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker were discouraged from making a run. They did this under the misguided theory that a primary free of contention would give Democrats an advantage over a divided GOP field.

But this was a gigantic mistake born of a failure to gauge the mood of the electorate, and of a failure to understand that sometimes these intra-family arguments can lead to more good than harm. It is not at all clear that contested primaries in presidential elections are a bad thing. In the end, Democratic leadership was relieved that only candidates as supposedly marginal as Sanders and O’Malley ended up running in opposition to Clinton, as it was felt that neither would pose a significant threat to her nomination. We all know how that turned out.

Just as the Republican electorate strongly wanted a candidate who diverged from GOP laissez-faire orthodoxy on jobs and trade while more openly proclaiming his bigotries, so too did many Democrats–especially younger activists and angry marginal voters–yearn for a candidate to the left of careful Democratic center-left economic positions. Someone was going to fill that vacuum, whether it be Sanders, O’Malley or someone else.  It was also clear that in the face of a more openly racist GOP and with the rise of Black Lives Matter and similar movements, identity issues were going to be in play for Democratic voters as never before.

Instead of a big, comparatively healthy primary like Republicans had in 2016 and Democrats had in both 2008 and 2004, Democrats last year got a shriveled mockery of one. The establishment ensured that economic populists were pitted one-on-one against the first woman candidate with strong loyalty from older Democrats of color, and that identity-conscious voters got boxed by Wall Street-friendly forces into falsely calling the emergent socialist consensus among young activists of all genders and colors the province of racists and sexists. It was almost perfectly designed to create maximum hatred and chaos within the liberal and progressive ranks.

Imagine an alternative universe in which Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had all run for president. This supposed nightmare scenario of the DC consultant class would have been remarkably salutary. First, Warren would likely have won, uniting both the economic populist and feminist identity factions of the party, and she would likely have defeated Trump. Second, the presence of multiple economic perspectives and multiple identities would have made it much more difficult for a misleading economic populist vs. identity politics dynamic to arise. Booker and Clinton would have split the base of older people of color, while Sanders and Warren would have split the younger, rural white and economic progressive base. Biden would have taken some from all factions. As various candidates fell out and endorsed one another in complex ways, the multi-factional aspect of the conflict would have significantly reduced the partisan resentment. It would also have reduced the incentive for the DNC establishment to put its thumb on the scale on behalf of any one of the candidates, and it would have given the eventual winner far more legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate.

Had Clinton survived such a crowded field of Democratic stars, she would have come out much stronger for it and probably beaten Trump. Had she succumbed in the primary, a different nominee less prone to Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate would likely not have overlooked the Rust Belt and underperformed with the Obama coalition in the general.

The present animosity between the Clinton and Sanders camps isn’t really the fault of either side’s supporters. Both have some legitimate grievances. It’s the fault of the foolish attempt to clear the field for Clinton and avoid the sort of healthy, long-overdue conversation about the party’s principles that primary elections are supposed to foster.

That Democrats are still forced to have these conversations now, in the midst of a Trump presidency, is unfortunate. But the party’s leadership, consultant and pundit classes have no one to blame but themselves.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.