News and a retrospective
Partings and new beginnings (or something)
Good morning to you all!
I have some personal and professional news.
I left the Washington Examiner last week for a senior position at a journalism nonprofit. I begin in March (I'm on a mini-sabbatical now, in case you're wondering where I've been).
But fear not! I will continue to play a role in the news and commentary business, analyzing, investigating, and working to correct the problems in the industry. I will simply do so from a distance and with more management and editorial oversight.
I cannot yet announce where I’m going. I will leave this to the powers that be.
For now, I can say only this: Thank you. Thank you for reading, sharing, and following my work these past 10-plus years (more than 7,000 news and commentary articles!). It has been a great honor and pleasure to serve such an engaged and loyal audience.
I plan to restart the newsletter soon. I am not sure when, exactly, but it’ll happen!
The most fun I had in journalism was when I covered the 2016 election as a Clinton campaign reporter. I did some of my best work — if not the best work of my entire career — during those insane months. The following is my final dispatch from the campaign trail. I wrote it a few days after Nov. 8 (Nov. 12, to be precise).
Hillary Clinton enjoyed every conceivable advantage over Donald Trump, yet she lost anyway. There were several reasons why she failed (again) to take the White House. This was one of them:
Bill Clinton’s lonely war
By T. Becket Adams
Nov. 12, 2016
In the thick of it
It is 48 hours until Election Day, and Bill Clinton is in Lansing, Michigan.
He looks tired.
The former president stares out across the auditorium, making eye contact with supporters who listen to him stump for his wife, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. His address is in full swing. He tells the audience he understands and empathizes with the frustrations of the working class.
"There's a lot of road rage out there because after the financial crash,” Clinton drawls to an audience that includes union laborers, “it took a long time before incomes started going up again. There are still some families that if you adjust for inflation, their incomes are about what they were the last day I was president more than 15 years ago and their costs are going up. And that's really tough.”
He adds, "So when you get up every morning, and you look in the mirror and you don't think you've got the power to make tomorrow better than today, that's a pretty tough load to carry.”
Where once there was light chatter and other background noise, there is now silence. The auditorium is still. The audience hangs on the speaker’s every word. Some are visibly moved by his address.
Bill Clinton, 70, still has it.
To astute observers, the former president is off-script. The Clinton campaign’s tightly controlled list of pre-approved talking points does not include inflation, lost jobs, automation, shuttered businesses, or making “tomorrow better than today.” In fact, the Clinton campaign has conspicuously ignored white working-class voters in places exactly like Lansing. It has likewise ignored white rural voters. It has expended virtually no energy whatsoever courting these people in the South and the Rust Belt spanning Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
For Bill Clinton, Lansing is not a mistake. He has not simply forgotten the campaign strategy. His appearance in Michigan’s capital is the final effort of a lonely, one-man war to win voters that senior Clinton staffers deemed unworthy of attention.
During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton and her team of surrogates campaigned exclusively on three themes: Her resume, Donald Trump's scandals, and the novelty of having a female president.
Clinton's running mate, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, emphasized her professional bona fides. President Obama focused on the seriousness of the office and the un-seriousness of Trump. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to women's issues. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts took a hybrid approach, talking up the “first female president” angle while also attacking Trump directly with schoolyard taunts, a clear violation of the campaign's oft-repeated pledge to “go high” when “they go low.” At a rally on Oct. 25, Warren called the then-GOP nominee a "pathetic bully," an "insecure money grubber," and a "selfish little sleazeball."
Hillary Clinton, for her part, spent nearly the entire election attacking Trump head-on, even though she promised to give Americans something to "vote for, not against."
Absent from all these rallies were explicit and empathetic appeals to disaffected working-class and rural voters. And largely absent from the Democratic nominee’s list of campaign stops were the non-metropolitan areas that make up the vast majority of the South and the Rust Belt.
This is not to say Clinton and her team failed to visit these states. They made appearances in places such as Georgia and Pennsylvania. However, they did so only to focus on densely populated cities, giving little thought to the surrounding rural territories and once-industrialized areas subsequently hollowed out by economic misfortune, outsourcing, and disastrous government policies.
This is also not to say Clinton 2016 ignored the economy. On the campaign trail, Obama touted his efforts to rebuild the country following the 2008 financial crash. He bragged about auto bailouts and his efforts to boost the federal minimum wage. Clinton and Kaine promised to close the so-called wage gap. Warren accused Wall Street and special interest groups of taking advantage of "the little guy." Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who performed well with working-class voters during the Democratic primary, likewise railed against corporate greed. (Unfortunately, Warren and Sanders’s failure to acknowledge the elephant in the room – the impressive fortune Hillary Clinton amassed giving paid speeches to deep-pocketed Wall Street firms – greatly undercut their credibility on the matter.)
Still, even with the occasional nod to corporate malfeasance, the financial crash, and stagnant wages, the campaign’s economic message amounted mostly to self-praise and lip service.
Bill Clinton recognized the problem almost immediately.
During the 2016 Democratic primary, he was alarmed by Hillary's lack of support among working-class and rural voters. He saw they preferred Sanders's message on jobs and trade. Bill Clinton brought the matter before his wife’s advisers, warning them of what he presumed was a blind spot. It was not just a blind spot, though. The campaign had made the conscious decision to ignore the people who made Sanders's primary run such an unexpected success. Bill Clinton simply didn’t get the memo.
He spent the next few months questioning the campaign's seeming disregard for crucial voting blocs, openly challenging senior aides and strategists. His concerns fell on deaf ears.
Hillary Clinton's 36-year-old campaign manager, Robby Mook, outright dismissed the 70-year-old former president’s warnings. He believed Clinton was irretrievably stuck in the past, attempting, either subconsciously or intentionally, to re-live his political heyday. Mook believed young black and Latino voters would lead the party to victory. He was not alone in sidelining the former president. During one particularly tense meeting ahead of the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton broached the topic of working-class and rural outreach. Senior strategist Joel Benenson brushed off the former president’s concerns, stating confidently the voters of West Virginia were never coming back to the Democratic Party.
This sealed it for Bill Clinton. He set off alone after that, taking it upon himself to secure votes the senior aides had written off. There was a reason Clinton sounded off-script in Lansing. He was running a shadow campaign.
As the Democratic nominee and her surrogates talked about improved economic fortunes, Bill Clinton talked about working-class grievances. As Hillary Clinton and her team focused on cities, Bill Clinton focused on towns. As the campaign focused on the so-called Obama coalition, Bill Clinton focused on the coalition that put him in the White House not once, but twice.
Mook joined the Clinton campaign in 2015 with a spotty record of wins and losses.
In 2002, he worked as a field director for failed Vermont Democratic gubernatorial candidate Doug Racine. Later, in 2004, Mook served as a deputy field director for the failed presidential campaign of former Vermont Democratic Gov. Howard Dean. That same year, Mook joined the Democratic National Committee where he spearheaded get-out-the-vote efforts in Wisconsin for Democratic nominee John Kerry. Kerry, who lost the 2004 election, won the Badger State by only 11,000 votes.
In 2005, Mook's political fortunes improved. He managed the campaign of Dave W. Marsden, who successfully flipped a Republican-held seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 2006, Mook managed Martin O'Malley's successful gubernatorial bid in Maryland. Mook also assisted now-Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland in defeating then-Maryland Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele.
Mook experienced another political loss in 2008 while serving on Hillary Clinton’s first failed presidential campaign. He then led Democrat Jeanne Shaheen’s senatorial bid to victory in New Hampshire. In 2014, Mook managed Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's successful gubernatorial campaign.
By the spring of 2016, Mook's influence in Democratic circles was such that even senior Clinton staffers sided with him against Bill Clinton.
Their faith was misplaced.
The 2016 Clinton campaign never named a rural council. In fact, the campaign had exactly one staffer whose job was rural outreach. This staffer, who was based in Brooklyn, was not appointed until the final weeks of the election.
Mook and his cohort were confident. America’s 42nd president was not. But as the campaign ignored Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton increasingly ignored the campaign.
As Election Day drew closer, the former president picked up the pace, holding more than 60 rallies in small towns across Ohio, Iowa, Florida, and Wisconsin. He focused specifically on those who held him in high regard but distrusted the actual nominee. When he spoke to these voters on the campaign trail, he argued repeatedly that, as a white Southerner, he felt their pain. He also ingratiated himself with self-deprecating humor.
"The other guy's base is what I grew up in," Clinton said during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Florida. "You know, I'm basically your standard redneck."
He sought out undecided voters, especially those who had gravitated towards Trump. He had a message for them: The Democratic Party still cared.
"Don't engage in our version of all this screaming," Clinton said. "Go out there and look people in the eye who aren't going to vote for her and tell them we still want them to be part of America. Tell them we need them."
"I know how they feel," he added in reference to Trump-curious voters. "And I'm telling you, the older you get, the worse it is if [you] think you can't do anything to change the future."
Meanwhile, as Bill Clinton scrambled to rally undecided working-class and rural voters, most especially the ones who were considering voting for Trump, Hillary Clinton attacked them as "deplorables."
At a fundraiser in New York City, for example, she claimed Trump supporters were "irredeemable" bigots. She remarked later at a campaign rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "I am sick and tired of the negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision and behavior of people who support Donald Trump."
Despite these and similar remarks, Bill Clinton never let up. He fought all the way to Election Day to convince the voters ignored by his wife’s campaign that the Democratic nominee, who never once campaigned in the Rust Belt state of Wisconsin, understood their concerns.
Bill Clinton's best efforts were no match for the Trump campaign and its relentless focus on lost jobs, falling wages, and outsourcing.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 9, the day after Election Day, it was clear the Republican candidate had won. In a private phone call made shortly after the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Trump, the Democratic nominee conceded the election. Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was anything but inspiring, as evidenced by slogans such as “Make HERstory,” had lost.
Even more shocking than Trump’s victory is the fact he repeated Bill Clinton's success in the Rust Belt.
In 1992, Clinton captured Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The only Rust Belt state Clinton failed to take that year was Indiana. In 1996, he repeated this success exactly. In 2016, President-elect Trump captured Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. He is almost certain to take Michigan.
Of the Rust Belt states mentioned, Hillary Clinton won just one: Illinois.
The Clinton campaign should have expanded its focus to include "rural white pockets," said former Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. In fact, he added, he encouraged them to do exactly this. His advice was ignored.
"We had the resources to do both," Rendell said. "The campaign — and this was coming from Brooklyn — didn't want to do it."
In 2008, Obama won 41% of rural voters. In 2012, his support slipped to 38%. This year, Hillary Clinton earned only 29% of the rural vote.
Though it is uncertain the 2016 election is the end of the road for the Clinton dynasty, it is certainly the end of the road for some of Hillary Clinton's supporters. Even they believe her time has come and gone.
"No. She doesn't run again," Felipe Gutierrez, who sits on Hillary Clinton's National Finance Committee, told the Washington Examiner. "We did all we could do."
A Clinton volunteer zealous enough to spend the entire election season campaigning across California, Texas, and Florida told the Washington Examiner he agreed. Hillary Clinton has no future in the White House after this, he said. The 2016 election was her final chance.
As you know, we often disagree regarding Trump but this is why I keep coming back and will follow you to your new job. Excellent analysis.