Neil Buchanan: Would Bernie Have Done Better?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

The aftermath of any election loss will inevitably involve endless second-guessing, Monday morning quarterbacking and even ugly recriminations.

In 2016, with the stakes as high as they were, and with an opponent who seemed so easily beatable, the razor-thin swing state losses by Hillary Clinton immediately led to finger-pointing and anger among Democrats.

If done correctly, that can be a healthy process, albeit a painful one. The alternatives to hashing out what went wrong, or to being angry about losing, are to refuse to learn from mistakes or to pretend that it does not matter at all. But even though introspection is a good thing, there are plenty of bad ways to respond too.

The most important question that Democrats are now trying to confront is how they lost working-class voters, especially in the states that used to be the world's powerhouses of steel, automobile, glass, rubber and other manufacturing industries.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton did not, as her intramural critics would now have us believe, forget about or drive away those voters. Before I get to that issue, however, it is helpful to think about some other standard post-election questions.

The first such question is whether the Democrats nominated the wrong person. Unsurprisingly, supporters of Bernie Sanders are now saying that he could have beaten Trump. The fact is that we can never know if that is true, although it might be. He certainly would not have had to spend months dealing again and again with stories about his emails.

Of course, Clinton's supporters are also saying that Sanders supporters, especially in his campaign's last stages and at the Democratic National Convention, did enormous damage by convincing young people not to bother to vote. We cannot know whether that is true either, but we must at least acknowledge that low turnout among younger voters certainly cost the Clinton campaign—and the country.

The strongest case that I have seen for the proposition that Sanders would have beaten Trump is from my co-blogger Michael Dorf. I encourage readers to look at his argument, because it is a strong case. Even so, I find myself in the rare position of disagreeing with Professor Dorf. (This is not as big of a disagreement as it might seem, because both he and I readily admit that it is a very open question with plenty of unknowable counterfactual guesswork.)

The particular point with which I disagree is this: "Sanders probably would have won, partly because he would have held the upper Midwest but mostly because the kind of irrational hatred that many voters—including moderates—felt for Hillary Clinton takes years to build."

It is certainly true that Clinton suffered from the decades of abuse that have been heaped upon her by Republicans. Moreover, as I noted in a column shortly after Election Day, the nonstop attacks on Clinton fed the media narrative that turned everything she did into a series of supposed scandals and lies that never actually amounted to anything.

Therefore, having Clinton at the top of the ticket forced the Democrats to play defense in a slanted environment where Clinton's efforts to defend her record were dismissed as mere self-serving spin. Once the narrative was set, Clinton's options were limited.

Why, some people have asked, did she fail to fight back and correct the record? Actually, she did fight back, but there was only so much that she could do. In my column, I likened the media's treatment of Clinton to the way the cool kids in high school laugh at the earnest, brainy kid. Has any victim of that kind of treatment ever gotten a fair shake when she confronted her detractors? "Hey, Biff and Missy and Tank and Buffy, you're being unfair to me!" That always turns out well.

11_24_Bernie_Better_01 A cutout of Bernie Sanders's face is walked over outside the Wells Fargo Center at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28. Imagine the Republican howling at Sanders labeling himself a democratic socialist, Neil H. Buchanan writes. Dominick Reuter/reuters

So, nominating Clinton instead of Sanders certainly did give Republicans the opportunity to use their built-up arsenal of attacks against her. But there is one thing that the Republicans have been doing even longer than sliming the Clintons, and that is red-baiting the left. Thirty years of Clinton hating versus 70-plus years of red-baiting?

Imagine the howling from Republicans about Sanders's self-labeling as a democratic socialist. Now imagine it every hour of every day from May through November. That just might have had some effect on undecided voters. You thought that Rudolph Giuliani looked unhinged when attacking Clinton?

Remember, Republicans describe something as simple as progressive taxation as "class warfare" that is tantamount to collectivist labor camps. Why should we expect them to respect the modifier democratic when they refuse to acknowledge that socialism, communism, Marxism and Stalinism are not all the same thing?

In any event, Clinton was the nominee, not Sanders, and now most of the recriminations have revolved around whether her campaign made errors that cost her the tiny number of votes that would have turned around the Electoral College result.

Although I quite unexpectedly became a genuine admirer of Hillary Clinton during this campaign, there is certainly no reason to think that she did everything right or to defend her to the death. But most of the complaints about her campaign strike me as the rankest kind of 20/20 hindsight. "Oh, she lost by fractions of a percentage point in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and she underperformed her polls in Florida and North Carolina. She blew it! Here's what she should have done differently."

Of course, such a thought experiment takes as given everything else in the campaign. If she had done more campaigning in states that she lost and less in states that she won, this thinking goes, she would have won both sets of states. Maybe, but color me skeptical, and it is certainly not a given.

More to the point, what exactly should she have done differently? Apparently, because many struggling working-class white voters (some of whom had voted for Obama) voted against Clinton, she is now being faulted for failing to give them a reason to vote for her.

As an initial matter, it should be obvious that Clinton could have won—rather easily, in fact—if she had done better with other blocs of voters. Shortly before the election, for example, I described how America's youngest voters could take control of their destinies by voting for Clinton. As I noted above, too many of them decided that she was boring or uncool, and now they will face the consequences for the rest of their lives.

But the broader criticism of Clinton seems to be that she did not have a positive vision, to the point where the press made a big thing about one of the hacked emails in which a Clinton adviser worried about whether she had a good slogan. This has even led people to disparage Clinton's slogan as being inferior to Trump's.

Why should we take seriously the claim that "Make America Great Again" is somehow better than "Stronger Together"—other than that Trump ended up winning the Electoral College? Viewed generously, Trump's slogan evoked greatness, patriotism and nostalgia. Clinton's evoked strength, unity and hope. This kind of criticism is the worst kind of navel-gazing from Beltway types.

The more substantive version of the Clinton-lost-because-she-ran-a-bad-campaign nonsense is the claim that she was peddling a collection of bullet points from policy papers that did not excite anyone. That is plainly untrue as a matter of how she actually campaigned, of course, but it neatly fits the "Hillary is a loser because she's such a nerd" narrative so beloved of the in-the-know commentators.

Moreover, the supposedly boring things that formed Clinton's platform should have been appealing to exactly the voters whom we are now told she fatally ignored.

Clinton, not Trump, advocated for a higher minimum wage. Clinton, not Trump, supported the right of workers to join the unions that were the backbone of that great yesteryear of high wages. Clinton, not Trump, wanted to give parents the ability to send their kids to college without incurring crushing debt, fulfilling the American dream that each generation's children can climb higher than their parents.

But what about the claim that Clinton failed to focus on those issues enough, and especially the claim that she was more interested in attacking her opponent than making an affirmative case for why people who worry about their pocketbook issues should vote for her?

The only rational response to that question is: Did you see whom she was running against? If she had failed to exploit her opponent's weaknesses, or if she had simply imagined that everyone would know and remember that he was a dangerous autocrat without her campaign having to say so, she would have been rightly accused of political malpractice. The one thing we know for sure in U.S. politics is that people have short memories.

So now we are left wondering whether Clinton could have recalibrated her messaging in a way that would have allowed her to win in key states—states where Republicans had been openly engaging in voter suppression efforts for years. Maybe, but it strikes me as mere piling on when other Democrats and pundits say, "She lost, so that means she must have done something wrong."

In a future column, I will have a lot more to say about whether Democrats have "ignored" or "talked down to" or in some other way alienated the white working-class voters who formed the core of Trump's support. There is a raging debate about how much Trump's open bigotry played into those voters' decisions, and that is an important question.

Here, however, it is essential to point out that Clinton did not forget those voters, and she did not show disdain for them. Indeed, despite the Republicans' insistence on making the now-infamous "deplorables" comment a big deal, here is what Clinton actually said immediately after saying that some Trump voters were beyond her campaign's reach:

But the other basketand I know this because I see friends from all over America hereI see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texasas well as, you know, New York and Californiabut that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from.

They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

That paragraph never made it into the news cycle, even though fact-checkers tried to correct the record about Clinton's supposed disparagement of all of Trump's voters.

Again, no one could ever say after an election loss that they would not do anything differently. It is, however, important to remember what really happened on Election Day. More people voted for Clinton than Trump. Trump won by very narrow margins in states where Republicans turned out their own voters while they suppressed the votes of Clinton's backers.

In spite of all that, Clinton looked like she would win. For Democrats moving forward, they need to figure out how to do better next time, especially because Trump and the Republicans will shamelessly erect even more barriers for the Democrats to overcome.

What Democrats cannot do is turn on each other. They lost, and they need to work together to figure out what to do next. Carping on minor issues regarding Hillary Clinton's honorable campaign is not going to solve anything.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.