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How Obama and Hillary Clinton Failed as Politicians

Ralph Seliger
January 17, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

COMPARED TO REPUBLICANS, Democrats are shockingly bad at “doing politics.” (See this December 14 New York Times op-ed, “Buck Up, Democrats, and Fight Like Republicans,” by Dahlia Lithwick and David S. Cohen.) For example, why isn’t the public being reminded ad nauseam of Hillary Clinton’s three-million-vote lead over Trump? With the exception of Obama in 2008 and 2012, she won more votes than any candidate in history. Yet the Trump team is getting away with claiming an electoral mandate as “the choice” of the American people, rather than as the fluky choice of the Electoral College. And why isn’t reforming or eliminating the Electoral College an important issue?

Subjected to a quarter century of vilification and controversy, Clinton was a particularly vulnerable Democratic standard-bearer. In the end, her candidacy sank as a result of an indiscretion, an administrative rules violation but not a crime: her use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State was a reaction to the concerted rightwing attacks tirelessly launched against her.

The Democratic candidate’s downfall reminds me of the legendary story of the kingdom conquered for lack of a nail, as a loose horseshoe caused the king’s fatal fall in the midst of battle, demoralizing his army. One can certainly blame FBI director James Comey for his letter to a Congressional committee announcing the investigation of Anthony Weiner’s e-mail, with eleven days to go in the campaign. By the same token, one can blame Weiner’s wiener (I couldn’t resist), or the fact that Attorney General Lynch felt obligated to recuse herself from ruling on Clinton’s email to avoid the appearance of impropriety after a chance meeting with Bill Clinton at an airport. A resulting low turnout by weakly-motivated Democratic voters in the closely-contested Rust Belt states may well have determined the outcome.

Given Trump’s shenanigans and the revelations about his character flaws, a stronger nominee would have been comfortably ahead regardless. In the end, for a variety of reasons, Hillary was not “likable enough” (recalling Obama’s memorable line during a 2008 debate with Clinton).

Her strengths as a symbol for liberal women, especially for the baby-boom generation, and her obvious diligence and serious attention to issues (characteristics that marked her as the opposite of Donald Trump) were insufficient. But they do explain why she became the Democratic nominee, with no more serious challenge than the unlikely alternative of Bernie Sanders suddenly emerging from left field. (This, plus the tragedy that befell Vice President Biden, driven to the sidelines as he mourned the passing of his son Beau.)

ALTHOUGH NOT WIDELY predicted, her political defeat was not entirely unforeseen (most notably by filmmaker Michael Moore back in July). Some backers of Sanders argued this point, but without considering the dubious election prospects for an elderly atheistic Jewish socialist who had not yet been targeted by the powerful Republican propaganda machine. Still, Sanders was one of a number of possible choices for vice-presidential running mate who might have helped her more than Senator Tim Kaine, a good man who had no special appeal as a campaigner or to left-leaning voters unhappy with Clinton.

Clinton’s defeat in November was her third strike as a political figure. Her second was losing to Obama in 2008, but her first was the spectacular failure of her effort to reform national health care during Bill Clinton’s first term as President. It came to naught largely because of her choice to develop a detailed and complicated plan without ongoing Congressional consultation and buy-in. This failure robbed the Clinton presidency of a monumental progressive achievement, and arguably contributed to the loss of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

President Obama learned from her experience to go to the other extreme, being relatively hands-off as Congress painfully formulated the Affordable Care Act, misnamed in popular parlance as Obamacare.

OBAMA’S FAREWELL SPEECH reminds us that a thoughtful serious-minded leader is being replaced by someone diametrically opposite. A great communicator when he wants to be, Obama emerged into national prominence with his awesome keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, yet he mostly governed in a cool, detached style — surprisingly disinclined to rally support for his policies. Politically, the Obama years have been a disaster for the Dems, culminating in the Hillary meltdown on Election Day.

Days after the election, in a column entitled “The Democrats Screwed Up,” Frank Bruni outlined the extent of the Democrats’ demise:

His presidency will end with Democrats in possession of eleven fewer Senate seats (depending on how you count), more than sixty fewer House seats, at least fourteen fewer governorships and more than 900 fewer seats in state legislatures than when it began. That’s a staggering toll. . . . While . . . the settled contests guarantee the G.O.P. the governor’s office in 33 states: its most bountiful harvest since 1922.

The great achievement of the Obama years was preventing the Great Recession of 2008-09 from becoming another Great Depression. He and Congressional Dems should have focused more on the need to repair infrastructure than on health care reform, both as an important public interest and as a potent economic stimulus (this shouldn’t have become Trump’s issue). The health care fix could have been simpler, centering on a voluntary expansion of Medicare rather than a complicated scheme for expanding the corporate insurance market (it’s no wonder that the insurance industry supported the Affordable Care Act), and in addition to the expansion of Medicaid actually mandated by the ACA.

Democratic voices should have been loud and clear against Republican obstructionism. Where was the outrage at Senator Mitch McConnell’s declaration from day one of the Obama years that the number-one Republican priority was to make Obama a one-term president? Why not skewer Republican-dominated state governments for refusing to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and refusing to facilitate expanded coverage by not hosting state insurance exchanges? Republican hyper-partisanship killed American jobs by rejecting stimulus dollars to keep many state and local government employees on payroll, and even resisted increased infrastructure spending. In short, the Dems should have imitated Truman’s feisty 1948 come-from-behind campaign assailing the “do-nothing” Republican-dominated Congress.

Even the tax cuts that were a significant part of the $780 billion stimulus package were not distributed in a way that people noticed, coming as decreased payroll deductions rather than rebate checks. (See or listen to this discussion at the NPR website, “As A Great Communicator, Did Obama Make The Case For His Agenda?“) Many people were therefore easily persuaded that Obama raised taxes for most taxpayers.

AS FOR FOREIGN POLICY, I paraphrase the wry observation of New Yorker editor David Remnick: The U.S. occupied Iraq and it was a disaster; the U.S. didn’t occupy Libya but helped overthrow Qadaffi, and it was a disaster; the U.S. didn’t help overthrow Assad in Syria, and it was a disaster.

We can all agree that the Bush-Cheney intervention in Iraq was disastrous, but in Obama’s rush to withdraw for the 2012 election campaign, he and Secretary Clinton ignored the increasingly bloody sectarian violence brewing to form ISIS. While there was no easy formula for U.S. policy to have prevented the rise of ISIS, Obama and Clinton might have pressured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop onerous measures against Sunni Arabs that were driving them into the arms of what became the Islamic State.

Similarly, the failure of U.S. policy in Libya was not in “leading from behind,” without a ground invasion, as part of a broad coalition supporting a popular revolution against a brutal dictator (an ideal model for assisting people in overthrowing their oppressor), but in not following up sufficiently with technical and economic assistance to allay the chaos that ensued. Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ death should underscore the post-Qaddafi failure, not the initial decision to prevent Qaddafi from slaughtering the rebels in Benghazi, as the French began bombing his forces at the city’s outskirts. Libya still has a way to go, but having retaken a large ISIS enclave along the coast, one hopes that it’s finally moving toward stability.

The greatest foreign policy failure of Obama’s administration was Syria, where he ignored the pleas of Clinton and others in his cabinet to work with a European and regional coalition to establish safe zones for millions of displaced Syrians, and to effectively arm rebel forces. Having drawn the wrong conclusions from Libya, Obama did little, opening the country to ISIS, al-Qaeda and Russia, and watching as over half a million died and over eleven million lost their homes.

JUDGING FROM DONALD TRUMP’S bromance with Putin, the only potential bright spot in his foreign policy is the possibility of effective cooperation with Russia to stabilize Syria. But this may still endanger the lives of many Syrians left to the tender mercies of Assad and his allies, and will certainly cost them their aspirations for a more just and democratic future, what sparked the civil war in the first place.

Trump’s ascendency may offer the opportunity for the “reset” in relations with Russia that petered out during Obama’s tenure. But this depends upon Putin’s willingness to limit his aggressive designs toward his neighbors and the West. Will Putin be satisfied with recent gains, or will he move to further subvert the West, at the head of a de facto “international” of ultra-right regimes and political parties?

There is nothing ironclad that can be said about Putin’s malign influence in the election of 2016 (consider listening to an episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest, the podcast entitled “The ‘Cloudy With 100 Percent Chance of Showers’ Edition.”) However, with the ultimate result hinging on Trump’s total margin of less than 100,000 votes in three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan), it only took a small sliver of voters persuaded to turn out for Trump or not for Clinton to be decisive. The Putin/Wikileaks operation probably played a part in the decisions of embittered Sanders supporters, as did Comey’s letter.

The Russia factor, including the unsubstantiated allegations of a dossier of compromising material on Trump, may well lead to impeachment. Trump’s failure to divest from his far-flung family business enterprises will likely provide plenty of additional fuel to consume his tenure. This will be for the Republican leaders and majorities in Congress to decide. If they see him as truly problematic, they can be more than happy with one of their own, the ultra-conservative Mike Pence (a more affable version of Ted Cruz), as Trump’s replacement — oh joy!

Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers the blogs for Ameinu and The Third Narrative.