During the 2016 election campaign, Hillary Clinton repeated a mistake that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore made in the 2000 election. In both cases Democratic contenders and their staff assumed that voters’ concern about character flaws would greatly influence their decision-making. In 2000 Al Gore surrendered an opportunity to associate himself with the economy’s robust economic performance under Bill Clinton, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton failed to identify unabashedly and aggressively with major economic improvements during her husband’s presidency and in Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House. Mrs. Clinton and her strategists concentrated their attacks on Donald Trump’s character rather than his ideas about dealing with the economy. In debates, speeches and ads, Hillary Clinton’s team maintained that Trump was unfit to serve as president. Yet many voters who favored Trump viewed his economic message as more important than his personal shortcomings. Trump’s promise to boost manufacturing and deliver good jobs meant more to them than doubts about the GOP candidate’s moral and mental fitness.
These two cases suggest that political strategists may be mistaken when they place character issues at the center of their appeal in presidential elections. Perhaps economic concerns – voters’ perceptions about which candidate seems likely to improve their personal wellbeing – carry more weight in judgments than is often realized. Democratic pol James Carville’s statement during the 1992 presidential campaign – it’s “the economy, stupid’ – may have broader significance. That message is essential in most presidential elections. Candidates who lose sight of economic themes operate at considerable peril.
Democratic candidate Al Gore committed that error in 2000. Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral count in a close contest. Al Gore’s task was not easy from the get-go, since voters often prefer “change” after one party has controlled the White House for two terms. Nevertheless, Gore operated with a distinct advantage, because the U.S. economy improved dramatically while he served as Vice President under Bill Clinton. Gore erred when he assumed that voter disgust with Bill Clinton’s scandalous relationship with Monica Lewinsky could damage his own campaign. Throughout the race, Al Gore kept his distance from President Clinton. That strategy limited Gore’s association in the voters’ minds with economic boom in the late Clinton years. Gore’s assumption that the Lewinsky scandal undercut President Clinton’s usefulness to his campaign was seriously mistaken.
Despite the public’s awareness of Clinton’s dalliances, many Democrats and independents judged Clinton’s administration favorably. The data supported their good feelings. Economic growth over eight years under Clinton averaged 3.8% compared to 2.8% in the Reagan-Bush years. Unemployment dropped from 6.9% in 1993 to 4.0% in November, 2000 (it had remained below 5% for forty consecutive months). Stock market values surged. The Dow Jones climbed from 3,241 when Clinton entered the White House to 10,587 when he left. Inflation averaged 2.6%, compared to 4.7% during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. The poverty rate declined from 15.1% in 1993 to 11.8%. In the last years of Clinton’s leadership, personal income climbed. Gallup reported that Bill Clinton’s favorability rating over eight years averaged 61%, and it spiked near the end of Clinton’s second administration.
Clinton’s economic record is impressive, but those gains cannot be attributed entirely to actions of the president. Still, voters’ perceptions of economic improvement seem to have affected Clinton’s high favorability ratings. At the time of the 2000 elections many Americans were appalled by the president’s record of sexual adventures and his lies about them. Nevertheless, they were pleased with their personal economic progress. Some were drawn to Bill Clinton’s charisma and his promise to act like a “New Democrat,” but evidently their willingness to subordinate concerns about ethical behavior was influenced by satisfaction with economic matters. A sense of personal wellbeing took the sting out of judgments about moral failings.
Al Gore surrendered his chance to associate himself with the image of good times in the Clinton years. During the campaign, Gore repeatedly registered his discomfort with the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. Shortly before the presidential election (on October 20, 2000), the New York Times reported that Gore “seems to be going out of his way to avoid appearing with the president.” Gore’s publicists even opposed releasing photographs showing the president and vice-president together. Bill Clinton believed Gore was foolishly running away from his administration’s proud legacy of economic progress.
Sixteen years later, Bill Clinton was again disappointed and frustrated by the Democrats’ approach to a presidential campaign. Bill Clinton thought his wife’s planners were not devoting enough time to the concerns of white working-class voters. During the 2016 campaign, Bill Clinton often called Robert E. “Robby” Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. The former president recommended greater attention to white workers’ economic worries. But Mook and other members of the campaign’s high command directed much of their appeal to other voters. They stressed identity politics, directing messages to women, Latinos, African Americans, Asian-Americans, Muslims, members of the LGBT community, and others.
Less noticed in the media’s deconstruction of reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss was her campaign’s focus on character rather than economics. Throughout the campaign, Clinton maintained that Donald Trump was unhinged and lacked the temperament for presidential leadership. The Clinton campaign’s advertisements drew attention to Trump’s offensive statements that alienated many groups in American society. Ads reported on Trump’s questionable business practices, and they portrayed Trump as a dangerous leader in the nuclear age. These and other lines of attack raised legitimate questions about Donald Trump’s ideas and behavior, but these criticisms had already received substantial coverage in the national media. Most voters had already decided on matters of character. A few more ads or references in speeches and debates were not going to change most minds. Yet Donald Trump’s economic appeals to millions of Americans that felt left behind in a time of increasing globalization and automation received far less attention by the Clinton campaign.
Trump’s vague promises to “Make America Great Again” were not extensively and boldly challenged by the Clinton organization. Clinton and her strategists did not press for evidence about how the GOP candidate planned to bring back manufacturing or produce millions of good jobs. Trump promised to slap huge tariffs on imports from China, Mexico, and other countries. The Clinton camp failed to remind voters that such tactics could result in substantial price increases for the goods they purchased, provoke a trade war, wreck international commerce, and trigger a global recession. Nor did the Clinton campaign remind voters that many of their jobs depended on U.S. trade with the rest of the world, including China and Mexico. If Trump’s policies undermined those commercial relationships, millions of Americans could find themselves unemployed.
The 2016 Clinton campaign also missed opportunities to celebrate economic gains under Barack Obama’s leadership and to associate Hillary Clinton with those achievements. Certainly Clinton referenced that progress in her debates and speeches, but she did not give nearly as much attention to that argument as the claim that Donald Trump lacked the experience, temperament, and judgment necessary for presidential leadership.
Much of Clinton’s commentary on economic issues had an apologetic ring. She pointed to the nation’s progress but tried to balance that cheerful assessment with recognition that millions of Americans struggled with low-paying jobs. That acknowledgement was necessary, but a Democratic campaigner for the White House in 2016 needed to deliver a more full-throated celebration of advancements in the Obama years. An enthusiastic embrace of Obama’s record could aid the challenge to Donald Trump’s claims. Trump attracted support by promising “change.” That is always an appealing message for a challenger when the opposition party has controlled the White House for two terms. Hillary Clinton failed to argue sufficiently that progress over eight years had been enormous and that Trump’s appeal for “change” threatened to undermine that progress.
During the 2000 campaign, Al Gore missed the chance to tie his candidacy to America’s swelling economy under Bill Clinton; in 2016 Hillary Clinton failed to associate her leadership with the go-go economy of her husband’s presidency as well as advances under President Obama. Trump and his surrogates eagerly attributed the working class’s travails to trade policies such as NAFTA and other programs of the Clinton White House. They even blamed the crash of 2007-2008 on decision-making by Bill Clinton. Trump called the U.S. economy under Barack Obama a “disaster.” Against such charges, Hillary Clinton’s camp was largely silent. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s strategists thought economics were too complex to address in the video-clip environment of modern campaigning. Nevertheless, by their general silence, those strategists allowed Trump’s claims to appear truthful. Since Trump’s arguments remained largely unchallenged, they appeared valid to many voters. Absent an energetic defense of the U.S. economy during Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, lots of voters wondered if Hillary Clinton could elevate their personal finances as effectively as Donald Trump.
Embracing the legacy of Barack Obama’s leadership would have helped Mrs. Clinton. The U.S. economy had been hemorrhaging when Obama entered the Oval Office in January, 2009; steady improvement followed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 7949 when Obama started his presidency. It has held steady in the 18,000 range in recent months. Unemployment dropped in half during the Obama years. Data reported in recent months indicated strong growth in the third quarter (nearly 3%) and improved earnings for working Americans. Much still remains to be done to benefit ordinary Americans, as Hillary Clinton frequently noted, but it is difficult to see how her campaign could adequately deal with Trump’s message about jobs without a vigorous defense of Barack Obama’s economic record.
The 2000 and 2016 presidential campaigns show a remarkable similarity, one that has not yet been adequately recognized by the analysts of recent election results. Most attention in the media has focused on problems with the Electoral College. In both cases the losing candidate received more popular votes than the winner. But there is another significant parallel that ought to be of interest to historians and campaign strategists. The American people’s judgments about their political leaders are often motivated to a greater extent by economic interests rather than judgments about a political leaders’ personal character.
Mrs. Clinton and her staff bear responsibility for the loss, but by no means are they singly responsible. FBI Director James Comey’s awkward handling of late-discovered emails seriously damaged the Clinton campaign. RealClearPolitics’ summary of numerous polls shows a notable slide in support for Clinton (and a boost for Trump) after release of the FBI Director’s first letter in late October. Absent Comey’s intervention, Mrs. Clinton might now be preparing for a transition to power, and pundits would be busy speculating about the causes of Trump’s loss. Many other factors may have played a role in the recent election as well. Perhaps a female candidate for President of the United States still confronts a high glass ceiling. The National Rifle Association remains a powerful force in presidential elections. Fake news on the Internet shapes the opinions of many voters. Also, the electoral system undermines the influence of urban voters. Hillary Clinton came away more than a million votes ahead of Donald Trump, yet in 2016 the Electoral College benefited Republicans in less populated regions.
There are many reasons for the surprising outcome, but one of the most significant factors relates to economics. One candidate got away with unsubstantiated claims about what he would do to improve the economy. The other candidate failed to challenge those claims energetically, and she did not adequately capitalize on the impressive economic records of her husband and President Obama. In 2016 Democrats lost sight of a fundamentally important issue in many presidential elections. When voters cast their ballots, they often base their decision on judgments about the way candidates can improve their personal wellbeing. James Carville was more prophetic than he realized in 1992 when he urged campaign workers to stress a simple message: “The economy, stupid.”
Robert Brent Toplin was a professor of history at Denison University and is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Currently he lives in Charlottesville, where he teaches occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film.
This article was originally published at History News Network
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