Anyone who has ever had their life upended suddenly knows the temptation of turning the disaster over and over again in your mind. Could you have done something differently? Are you to blame for your own distress? Who is in the wrong? You may remind yourself that these questions don't matter—what counts is the here and now, the choices you make going forward. Even so, that temptation to diagram the causes of your downfall, the bad breaks, the proof that actually the universe is unfair—it's almost inescapable.
Yes, this is about the Democrats. Like a tongue compulsively probing a rotten tooth, portions of the party seem unable to resist re-litigating the 2016 election. With Hillary Clinton's campaign recap, What Happened, dropping next week, a certain amount of stone-casting was probably inevitable. That doesn't make it any less ugly. With the presidential contest coming down, in the end, to just tens of thousands of votes in the Midwest, Clinton's loss had plenty of causes: the American electorate's inherent sexism, Russian hacking of Democrats that resulted in a wave of leaked emails and negative news stories, Trump's appeal to white voters angry at both parties, Republican suppression of Democratic-leaning voters, FBI Director James Comey's public criticism of Clinton even as he declined to prosecute her for using a personal email for government business, Clinton's failure to campaign aggressively in states like Michigan—the list goes on.
But Clinton partisans have tended to emphasize a divisive primary as the reason she fell short, and Clinton herself has sounded hostile notes toward Bernie Sanders. Passages from What Happened that blame Sanders for doing "lasting damage" to her campaign by challenging her from the left during primary season. The anti-Sanders torch is being carried chiefly by Verrit, a vaguely defined website founded by longtime Clinton booster Peter Daou and endorsed by Clinton herself, that launched this week. In a post titled "Sanders and the Mainstream Media Helped Put Trump in the White House," Daou blames the Vermont democratic socialist for the fact that "more than 20% of Sanders voters did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election" before bizarrely declaring that "the debate over what took place in 2016 is about the future, not the past."
If the discussion about Democratic politics is about the future, though, Hillary Clinton is not going to be a part of that discussion.
Clinton's campaign was based mostly on a broad ideological message but on the idea that she deserved the White House. Not that she was short on causes or policy prescriptions, but the argument for her candidacy was that she was uniquely qualified for the presidency. This was a good argument. But it makes efforts to convert her campaign to a long-term political force awkward to say the least. Democrats interested in subsidized college or universal healthcare have Sanders. Those concerned about corporate power have Elizabeth Warren. Criminal justice reform? Cory Booker. Want to see a woman—finally—in the White House? Warren or Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand offer you hope. What unique crusade can Clinton, or Verrit, for that matter, lead? Anyone who was "with her" has no shortage of new champions to look to. What does she still have to offer?
Losing a presidential election puts a politician in a strange place. John McCain had a Senate career to fall back on after 2008, but most recent runners-up haven't had that plan B. Bob Dole, after crashing and burning against Bill Clinton in 1996, retired from political life and later appeared in a Pepsi ad. Mitt Romney faded from the limelight after 2012 but came back to endorse Republicans in 2014 and denounced Trump last year—for all the good that did.
Maybe the best model for Hillary Clinton is Al Gore, who suffered a similar heartbreaker in 2000 after also winning the popular vote. Just as Clinton promised to continue Barack Obama's legacy, Gore represented a continuation of the Bill Clinton administration. Gore, however, was able to reinvent himself as an activist fighting climate change—a longtime pet issue of his that nevertheless wasn't a major part of the presidential campaign.
Could Clinton make a similar transformation? Of course. But before she does, Democrats have little reason to listen to her or her proxies. To win in 2018 and 2020 the party will have to figure how to bring aboard some of those Sanders voters disenchanted by mainstream Democratic politics. They'll have to stand in opposition to Trump while also defining their own message on issues ranging from healthcare to the minimum wage to immigration. They'll also have to take a hard look at what Clinton did wrong—something hardcore acolytes like Dauo obviously have little interest in doing.
After an avalanche of defeats in state and national elections, Democrats actually have a pretty good shot at digging themselves out, thanks in no small part to being able to contrast themselves with Trump's trainwreck of a presidency. For that rebuilding to take place, though, the party has to move on from rehashing the past. What happened? is an interesting question. What happens now? is the more important one.
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