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Trump, Clinton and the crisis of the Democratic Party

The reasons for Clinton’s loss are many, but the real issue is what’s next for America and the world under a Trump presidency?

Clinton was in the end a weak candidate.
REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

To the surprise of many, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States. The reasons for Clinton’s loss are many, but the real issue is what’s next for America and the world under a Trump presidency?

schultz portrait
David Schultz

There are many reasons Hillary Clinton lost; some are self-inflicted, others a consequence of bad timing and luck. Clinton was in the end a weak candidate. She was a poor public speaker, she lacked a clear rationale for why she wanted to be president, and she had a strategy that simply did not resonate with many voters, especially the white working class who voted for Trump. She never had a good explanation about her emails and the use of a private server, or about her Wall Street speeches. She was someone many voters did not feel passionate about, resulting in her holding less of her Democratic Party base to vote for her than Trump did with his Republican Party base.

Clinton also was unable to capture the swing or undecided voters in large percentages, and it was these voters who broke decisively in the last few days and went for Trump.

But Clinton was also a victim of circumstances. Her greatest asset was her experience as a senator and secretary of state, yet in a year where being a Washington insider was a liability it hurt her. She ran as the status quo candidate who would continue Obama’s policies, but the mood of the country was for change. She was also a victim of sexism, facing unique problems as a woman that no previous major party presidential candidate faced in American history. There was the unfortunate luck of the cost increases under the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, and she also became the fifth victim in American presidential history to be the winner of the popular vote but lose the electoral vote.

The crisis of the Democratic Party

In addition, for those who wondered why the polls failed, the answer is that they did not. In the end the last polls said she was ahead by a percentage point or so and the final election totals confirmed that. Clinton did win the popular vote but remember, it is the Electoral College that decides the winner and not the national popular vote. Clinton lost narrowly, it coming down to swing states. In these states last-minute voters broke against her, similar to what happened in 1980 when undecided voters at the last second voted against Jimmy Carter and for Ronald Reagan.

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Additionally, the voter turnout in 2016 was the lowest in 20 years – Trump and Clinton were candidates who turned off many voters, especially those who were occasional voters. In 2008 and 2012 they went for Obama, but Clinton could not persuade them to vote for her. Many of the 2008 Obama voters wanted change, Obama did not provide it, and Clinton as the status quo president who would continue the Obama agenda also did not represent it.

In the end, as Tip O’Neill once said, no one owns a voter or vote and you have to ask for it and earn it. Clinton and the Democrats failed to ask for the votes of many people and they did not earn it. In fact, the real story of 2016 is the collapse of not the Republican but Democratic Party. Obama and Clinton leave the Democratic Party far weaker today than they did in 2008. It is a party unable to speak to working-class whites, rural, and suburban America. A party that actually does take for granted people of color and liberals who they assume will vote for them because they have no other choices. It is also a party that blew off young people – the millennials – with repercussions down the line. No, contrary to what so many Clinton supporters are whining about, the Bernie Sanders and Trump people are not idiots, and voting for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein did not cost Clinton the election. Clinton and the Democrats lost it themselves; the voters were often rational in voting not their fears but their hopes.

The Trump presidency

Trump is now president and the question is what will he do? He made lots of noise about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, wanting to renegotiate trade deals, and of perhaps rethinking NATO and the U.S. relationship with Russia and Putin. How much of this will or can he actually do?

Domestically, Trump has called for many changes, but it is unclear what he can do on his own. Historian Richard Neustadt once said that the power of the presidency is the power to persuade. Presidents are not generals, business leaders, or monarchs and they cannot just order people around. They need to persuade others, including Congress, the bureaucracy, the states, the media, and the public if they as presidents want to succeed. Trump’s close victory in a divided America means he will be limited in terms of whom he can persuade. His own Republican Party is divided, and it is not certain that he will get an easy path to success in Congress. Because Trump ran a campaign largely devoid of policy he has no clear policy-agenda path.

In addition, presidents are constrained by a power bureaucracy, federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers. At the end of the day there will be no wall along the Mexican border, and mass deportations will not occur. Trump will make America a less kinder and gentler place, but the extremism that some worry about will not occur. U.S. political institutions are not that fragile, I hope.

Foreign policy

In the area of foreign policy, often the best predictor of what a new president will do is to look at the previous president. There is far more continuity across presidential foreign policy than there is divergence. Obama made marginal changes from Bush. The foreign-policy establishment is power, and it transcends political parties. Trump may find he is captured more by this bureaucracy than he realizes.

Trump may try to force changes in trade deals but face retaliation from China and the European Union, which will not passively sit by. The same is true of the World Trade Organization. Trump may think he knows Vladimir Putin, but after he gets burned by him a couple of times he may turn on him. Trump wants to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal, but it is not clear what he has to replace it with — and it is doubtful the rest of the world will go along. Unilateral action in Syria and against ISIS or Dash is possible, but Trump seems not to have real alternatives. And even his talk about NATO and its alternatives may be more talk than reality. It just does not seem feasible that the U.S. foreign and military policy establishment will let that happen. Yes, perhaps a new global order needs to emerge, but the U.S. in 2017 is not in the same position to force this change as it was in 1946, or even at the end of the Cold War.

In short, Trump may simply misunderstand or not appreciate how little power he actually has. He is potentially clumsy, undiplomatic, unskilled, and clueless about world politics, but it is doubtful he will have the ability to affect the scope of changes that he blustered about during his campaign.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   

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