2016 election, African Americans, Bernie Sanders, consumer confidence, Democrats, Elizabeth Warren, exit polls, Hillary Clinton, Hispanics, Im-Politic, labor, NAFTA, polls, TPP, Trade, trade laws, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump, white working class
It’s the day after the day after in America, and I’m still stupefied by the advent of the Age of Trump. I have absolutely no inside info on what to expect in the way of policy recommendations from the transition team or the new administration, so I’ll be just as eager as anyone for the hints and trial balloons to emerge.
But continuing with the theme of yesterday’s post, I believe it is possible to identify some important questions that major actors in American politics – and the voters they’ll keep trying to reach – will need to grapple with. Let’s focus today on the Democrats and their allies and constituencies, since they face the most obvious challenges:
>At least one piece of the conventional wisdom about Hillary Clinton’s failings strikes me as being right on target – especially since the emails exposed by Wikileaks make clear that her senior advisers spotted it as well: She never developed a clear, compelling positive message.
It’s not that “Stronger together” isn’t a positive idea, and no doubt had some appeal at a time of deep national division. But this slogan begs the question “Stronger together to where?” Regularly, Clinton suggested that she meant “to the 1990s,” when her husband was president. Many Americans – particularly in the chattering classes – do indeed view the period as a time of unprecedented prosperity along with peace. To many others, however – especially in working class precincts – the decade evoked memories of job-killing trade agreements like NAFTA. And of course many others were reminded of a string of scandals, both real and alleged.
In fact, I’d take the critique of Clinton’s message one step further. Even though her campaign website and many of her speeches were filled with any number of specific proposals, they were quickly replaced on the campaign trail, and especially in her ads, by a non-stop assault on Trump’s character and qualifications for the Oval Office. Clinton’s defeat strongly indicates that you can’t beat even a deeply flawed something with nothing.
>In fairness to Clinton, however, her messaging problems might have been related to a genuine quandary she faced. Democrats have styled themselves, and often acted like, the Party of the Common Man. As I and others have written, when it comes to issues like trade, demographic changes in Democrats’ ranks seem to be clashing with this relatively populist identity, and Tuesday night’s results indisputably show that the party has the majority of the white working class.
Indeed, according to the preliminary evidence, Clinton’s performance among union voters was feeble by the standards of recent Democratic presidential candidates – despite labor leaders’ vehement opposition to Trump. And keep in mind that nearly half of this electoral bloc is comprised of government workers, who naturally tend to favor the freer spending Democrats. As a result, Clinton’s backing from members of private sector unions was probably much weaker still.
So the Democrats face a fundamental choice, and it could well have rhetorically crippled an undecided Clinton. Will they turn their backs on private sector union members, possibly also in the belief that America’s changing population profile is steadily reducing their political importance? Or despite the gulf between private sector union workers and younger, better educated Democrats on issues like trade (along perhaps with immigration and those amorphous but crucial cultural and values issues), will they try to bring them back?
>Nonetheless, major Democratic constituencies and their leaders – including the unions and the party’s progressive wing – still loudly oppose America’s current approach to trade. But as mentioned above, they’ve been almost hysterically anti-Trump, to the point of incoherence.
If they’re serious about overhauling trade policy, it’s time for these folks to wake up and turn the partisanship down. They’ll soon be getting a president who supports most of their major and longstanding trade positions, including opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), sanctioning China for currency manipulation, rewriting NAFTA, and using U.S. trade law more energetically to fight predatory foreign practices.
Working with Mr. Trump, they can achieve these goals. Remaining in spiteful high dudgeon could doom reforms they’ve sought literally for decades. Statements by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and from organized labor, are promising signs that these progressive leaders are open to cooperation with the incoming Chief Executive. Assuming that these declarations are serious, it’s time for the rest of the movement to fall in line and recognize that for the first time in modern U.S. history, the White House looks to be on their side.
>Finally (for now), nothing could be clearer about the 2016 election returns than the serious flaws they’ve revealed in the so-called science of polling. But politically focused surveys aren’t the only soundings apparently needing major surgery. Many of the best known economic surveys arguably were way off base as well.
For example, many polls – including this week’s exit polls – show strong public support for some form of legalization for illegal immigrants. Can this finding be reconciled with Mr. Trump’s win? Other surveys have revealed a notable warming of Americans’ views of free trade and recent trade agreements. That’s also hard to square with this week’s actual results – and would have been even had Mr. Trump lost by a respectable margin.
Also deserving of greater scrutiny – surveys of consumer and other forms of economic confidence. They have strongly tended to show significant improvement since the depths of the last recession, which isn’t hard to understand. But even their general claims of a simple return to pre-recession levels or, in some cases, better, ring false in light of this week’s voting.
One possible explanation is the gap identified by some researchers between rising optimism by African-Americans and Hispanics and the more downbeat views of whites. But if so, why did Trump fare much better among the latter than widely predicted, and why did he best 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney with both groups even though the economy was considerably weaker four years ago?
I can’t emphasize enough, however, how tentative my observations are, and how long my (and so many other) questions will defy confident answers. My only certainty so far is that election night this week was the most important historic event I’ve ever experienced. (I was born at the end of 1953.) I just wish I knew whether for good or ill.