Twenty-four years ago a charismatic and slick governor of Arkansas usurped the presidency after 12 years of Reaganomics and a Republican in the White House. Despite his opponent, sitting President George H. W. Bush, having a 90 percent approval rating following the successful ground invasion of Iraq, Americans’ opinions turned sharply negative when more than a year later in August of 1992, 64 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy. Capitalizing on that anger and frustration, Bill Clinton and his campaign strategist James Carville came up with the theme “it’s the economy, stupid.” The phrase, which Carville consistently said over and over again to the staff, became synonymous with Clinton’s success and the importance of the economy in winning elections.
Twenty-four years later, Clinton’s wife, Hillary Clinton, ran for president with the slogans “I’m With Her,” “Love Trumps Hate,” and “Stronger Together.” What happened to the economy?
Since Bill Clinton’s trouncing of Bush in 1992, the pivotal role talking about the economy has played in an election has been pursued by both sides—because it works. In fact, just talking about the issues which affect middle-class Americans works as well. However, in the past ten years, Democrats have begun to falter.
Instead of talking about the economy, Democrats, up and down the ballot, have begun to focus on the stupidity of their opponent—a surefire way to lose an election.
The first instance of this started in the 2000 presidential election. After eight years of the tech bubble and Clinton economic prosperity, Vice President Al Gore was destined for the presidency; all he had to do was talk about the economic success of the Clinton administration and how he’d carry that over in his own administration. Of course, Gore didn’t focus his campaign on the economy and he lost the election. What Gore focused on was his thoughts on George W. Bush’s inept ability to lead and the danger he posed to the country if he became the chief resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In essence, Gore downplayed his policy message, and played up how incompetent George Bush was through speeches, or the famous repetitive sigh during the debates. The same thing occurred in 2004, when then-Senator John Kerry continued to talk about how foolish Bush was, and began to belittle his opponent and Bush’s voters. Despite the odds, Bush won again.
It wasn’t until 2008 when Barack Obama promised a platform of hope and change unseen in Democratic candidates since Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run, that the Democrats focused on economic issues. Obama promised to yield financial prosperity as he took the reins of the economy from the recession-ridden Bush White House. Consequently, Obama won the election, and won it again in 2012 when he didn’t ridicule Mitt Romney’s intelligence, but instead engaged in a substantive discourse about the economy throughout the election.
This brings us to today. How does degrading your opponent, instead of talking about economic issues, lead to you losing an election? Simple. The working- and middle-class Americans who have seen their wages stay stagnant, while their productivity increases, do not care about the lack of experience or lack of proper grammar that your opponent has. Politics is selfish; the people care about which candidate is going to help them. Unfortunately for Democrats in 2016, Clinton didn’t do that.
Clinton’s message consisted of “I’m With Her,” a selfish slogan directed towards herself; or, “Love Trumps Hate,” a slogan that foolishly mentioned her opponent—the same opponent who proved in this election that there truly is no such thing as bad press. Her other slogan, “Stronger Together,” seemed insincere considering Clinton labeled half of all Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
Without a slogan that mentioned any economic plan, or referenced her goals to resurrect the deteriorating middle class, Clinton lost the election. However, the 2016 election wasn’t completely dreadful for all Democrats.
Enter Jason Kander, a Missouri Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate against long-time incumbent Roy Blunt. Kander lost this relatively red state by only three percentage points, compared to Clinton’s 19-point defeat. While there was no significant difference between their platforms or ideology, there was one glaring difference in the way they ran their campaigns. Whereas Kander focused on the economy and touted progressive viewpoints on important issues, Clinton simply derided Trump. Whereas Clinton stayed close to the center in order to appeal to moderates, Kander dismissed what he called “the old construct about Blue Dogs” and went for an entirely progressive platform. According to Kander, he ran “on a progressive message: economic fairness, college affordability and equality for the L.G.B.T. community.” Kander also emphasized that Democrats shouldn’t hide behind their beliefs, but rather “lean in, full force.”
Kander’s story should give Democrats hope. The days of focusing a campaign on candidates’ opponents will never lead the party to electoral success. Rather, campaigns that promote what the candidates actually believe, and embrace progressive economic platforms will make the Democrats victorious once again. If Democratic candidates would stop labeling their opponents and Republican voters as a “basket of deplorables”, and instead communicate their message, those same people might just join their “basket of supporters.”
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