Americans are obsessed with having voted for the person who happened to win. It’s bizarre, and I’ve discussed it before, and it’s a large part of what never gets fixed about politics in this country and why we re-elect 99.9% of incumbents (rough estimate) and have a deadlocked system of two parties that are virtually indistinguishable in actual policy. But whatever. I’ll accept that as given since it seems like reality and I can’t fight it every time.
What I want to observe in this post is how bad people are at predicting electability, even when trying to chase that dragon. Because it’s pretty well documented, especially in the recent history of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it directly relates to 2016.
You know who the two most obvious electable nominees of the Democratic Party have been in my lifetime? Al Gore and John Kerry.
Who, if you’ve forgotten and are scoring at home, share zero years of lifetime Presidency, combined.
There was never any earnest, real excitement around these candidates. There was never verve or enthusiasm. But there was a strong sense that they were winners. These people were established! They were going places because, uh, people have heard of them? And stuff? And familiarity must breed some sort of excitement in November? Right?
Now, yes, I realize that Gore may have technically won the 2000 election, though we’ll never really know for sure. But you know what he didn’t win? His home state. What a winner!
Meanwhile, there have been two extremely successful two-term Presidents who have served as scions of the modern Democratic Party. They were also most commonly criticized throughout the primary process as one deathly word: “unelectable”.
You know these folks. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Part of why they were so unelectable is that you didn’t know these folks that well even two years before the election. Oh yes, Obama gave that stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that showed just how totally awful John Kerry really was as a candidate, but even then people smiled for the State Senator and told him that maybe in 2016 he’d have enough party credibility and establishment under his belt that he could consider running in the primaries. Clinton was a non-stop liability throughout the primary season. He had affairs and controversy following him all over the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in 2008, Obama was every bit the outsider that Bernie Sanders is today, against the presumed obvious nominee that Hillary Clinton was then, as she is now.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Convention. Excitement.
You see, it’s actually enthusiasm and energy that drive elections. This is what Americans, especially over-thinking political Americans, always seem to forget in analyzing electability. Barney Frank has certainly forgotten this, though he and all his Democratic establishment cronies are absolutely terrified of Bernie Sanders taking the Democratic Party back in the direction of its actual principles, before drone strikes and the TPP and workfare. His recent post in Politico is getting a ton of traction in my Facebook feed, mostly from debaters who seem to like the political gamesmanship of elections far more than the clash of principles. And Frank himself transparently bends over backwards to claim there’s basically no difference between Sanders and Hillary, despite Sanders shouting from the rooftops about income inequality, the slaughter of oppressed peoples at home and abroad, the minimum wage, and billionaires, while Hillary quietly defers and goes back to platitudes and equivocation.
Let me ask you a question. Are you excited about Hillary Clinton? Do you know anyone who is excited about Hillary Clinton?
And allow me to clarify. I didn’t ask if you were excited about the theory of four more years of a Democratic President, or about Supreme Court nominations, or about not-Republicans, or any other red herring issues that Hillary supporters have trotted out. And I didn’t ask about the abstract of a woman President since, after all, I know exactly what you would think if it were Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama now, or back in 2012, so that’s not your real voting issue or what drives your enthusiasm, even if you have put aside the fact that her initial political experience and qualification was First Lady.
Are you energized? Are you inspired?
There may be a few of you who answered yes, I guess, though I think you’re lying to yourself. Unless you’re reading this, Chelsea. You’re probably pretty pumped.
But the crowds and the rallies and the buzz are telling the story. The excitement, the only real excitement on either side of the fence, is for Bernie Sanders. Oh sure, Trump is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s mostly controversy. After all, he had to pay people to attend his candidacy announcement and pretend excitement. Trump is great theater, but he doesn’t have the energy. No one else on the Republican side is really getting people jazzed. Bush and Rubio and Walker all seem to have a bit of a following, but it’s with the same kind of verve of the most ardent Hillary supporter, which is to say a tentative shruggy kind of “well, I guess he’s…. electable?”
Energy wins elections. Obama. Bill Clinton. Reagan. In the modern media era, it’s this visionary excitement that drives voters to the polls. Not a resigned half-compromised “Well, let’s go with the establishment candidate because they have name recognition.”
Hillary does have name-recognition, along with strong and intractable unfavorability ratings from a majority of the electorate. People who like to talk about Bernie’s unattractiveness to Republicans forget that Hillary was the target of merciless attacks from the Republicans for most of the ’90s, far more hated than her husband, and was probably the biggest driving force behind the 1994 midterm Republican landslide. Those people haven’t forgotten how they feel about Hillary, no matter how many wars she’s promised to fight.
Meanwhile, Sanders has that kind of alternative appeal that could peel a lot of the fringe wings of the Republican Party away, just as a Ron Paul candidacy would have peeled a lot of fringe Democrats had he ever been nominated. If you see a Bernie Sanders general election against some big Republican Party hack, someone like a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, his authenticity and creativity are going to run circles of excitement around the trotting out of another established insider. Just as Hillary, the ultimate insider, seems slippery, dishonest, and unappealing to the average voter.
The only way Bernie Sanders can lose this primary contest coming up is if Democrats vote with their fear instead of their heart. Choose Kerry over Dean, choose Gore by default, choose tired unexciting establishment cronies to carry the banner instead of someone with fresh ideas that actually galvanize. You may think that your primary issue is electability, but I think you need to think again.