n 1976 I began my career in Washington DC as a staff member for newly elected Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT). At that time a governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, had just defeated an “incumbent” President Gerald Ford to take the White House. He had found a way to reach out to average Americans and find victory. I remember thousands of Carter supporters coming to Washington clutching the commemorative inauguration invitation his campaign had sent out thinking they had a seat to watch their new President be sworn into office. They were not the political elite that had the actual real invitations. Jimmy Carter was being sworn in on the East Front of the Capitol and that meant limited seating. But these average Americans were in Washington anyway to see their guy become President. He was an outsider who had defeated the insiders in both the primaries and the general election.
Four years later another outsider defeated Jimmy Carter as Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a landslide election. The similarities of that election and the one this year were apparent to anyone that was closely watching. Reagan was leading what he called a movement of new conservatism. Carter was leading in the polls and the media and political pundits were all predicting a Carter win as late as the Sunday before the election. The Reagan camp all said they were confident of victory but were dismissed as neophytes and basically ignored. What Ronald Reagan had done was connect with middle America and the working people of the country. Blue collar Democrats flocked to vote for him. The experts were shocked not only at his victory but the breadth of it and overwhelming it was in the Electoral College.
In the summer of 2015 I helped host a fundraiser for Cong. John Larsen (D-CT). At the dinner he pulled me aside and asked me what I thought of Donald Trump and his candidacy. I laughed and said that in my opinion he would flame out and was probably in it for some publicity. He looked at me and said not to be to hasty in dismissing Trump. Speaking metaphorically he said that “Augie and Boris at the diner like him”. (He was referring to the blue-collar union voters in his district) He said that Trump had tapped into something and both parties should take notice. A year later as Trump was preparing to accept the nomination I was in his office and he reminded me of my laughing Trump off. I admitted I had underestimated him as a candidate. He said that he did not think Trump could defeat Clinton but again said that those who ignore what is fueling his support do so at their own peril.
Forty years after coming to Washington DC my career is coming near the end here in and I watched election results come in last night that reminded me of 1980. Every one of the so-called experts was predicting a Clinton victory. Over and over I heard people say that “she was measuring the drapes in the Oval Office” as she prepared to win the Presidency.
So the question is what happened? How did Trump win this election when the polls showed him losing on the day before the election? Some models showed Clinton winning in a landslide and getting as many as 330 Electoral College votes. It now appears that Trump may be the one that exceeds the 300 number.
As I look back on this election I see in hindsight several things that led to a Trump victory and Clinton defeat.
1. The first rule of politics is if you have a scandal get in front of it. If you made a mistake own up to it and get it off the front pages. The Clinton e-mail scandal was allowed to fester throughout the campaign and she refused to initially admit it was a mistake and by the time she tried this tactic it was falling on deaf ears. The public refused to buy her story and the fact that she had the server erased while it was subject to a Congressional subpoena gave millions of voters another reason to distrust her.
2. Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination and what was first thought of as a bothersome opponent became a full-throated challenge from the left. It was Sanders, not Trump, that forced her to change her position on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement she had helped negotiate and had called the “Gold Standard” in trade deals. Sanders appealed to the millennial voters and drew large crowds of young voters listening to his siren call of free things for everyone. She finally defeated him but the damage was done. The Sanders voters never trusted her and never fully embraced her candidacy.
3. She ran what is referred to for incumbent Presidents as a “Rose Garden” strategy. She isolated herself from the press and people. She raised huge sums of money and thought she could simply outspend Trump to defeat him. She never presented a vision of what she would do a President but rather ran a campaign based on attacking her opponent and telling people they could not vote for Trump for all sorts of reasons. There was no clear reason enunciated on why voters should vote for her.
4. The WikiLeaks and Comey phenomena were part of the campaign. I disagreed with Comey inserting himself in the election so late in the game but I also know he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. In July listed one charge after another on the email scandal, charges that would lead any legal minded person to believe he was going to recommend an indictment, only to say the opposite at the end. It was inconsistent but that entire list of issues gave the Trump campaign fodder to hit her with. As far as the leaks go I deplore any hacking of private emails but it does not address what was contained in the emails. It showed a system within the Democrat primaries that was being rigged for her to win. That further infuriated Sanders supporters. Her campaign was reduced to claiming the Russians were behind the leaks but never denying what was in them. Many of them spoke disparagingly of the middle American people that Trump was appealing to in his campaign.
5. The Trump campaign used the media. I think most voters came to realize the vast majority of the media were supporting Clinton and Trump used that to hammer away with his claim of a “rigged system’. It resonated with a lot of voters and allowed Trump to use the media to his advantage. Instead of spending millions of dollars on media he was able to get them to cover every word he said and it kept him in the public eye 24-7.
So where do we go now. I watched Trump come out and speak last night and he said all the right things. He congratulated Clinton on a hard fought campaign. He spoke of unifying the country and being a President for all the people. This is what all newly elected Presidents say but not many of them follow that up with actions that support those claims. One of President Obama’s biggest mistakes, in my opinion, was when he first met with the Republican Congressional leadership after winning in 2008 he basically gloated and said “I Won, Elections have consequences”. It was like rubbing their faces in their defeat. I would hope that Trump will sit down with the Democrat Congressional leadership and take a more conciliatory tone. He said something to that effect last night that he would seek to find consensus. His words to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer should be that he wants to work with them and not against them.
We have had years of gridlock in Washington and this was a major point in the Trump campaign. The people are tired of it. Both parties are guilty of it. The Democrats engaged in it with Bush and Republicans with Obama. Partisans forget when their party does it and only point out when the opposition engages in obstructionism to a sitting President. Trump needs to forge a better relationship with Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, than Obama had. Obama was basically a loner in the White House and did not consult either party in Congress on his policies.
Trump ascends to the Presidency with a Republican House and Republican Senate. You can be sure there will be recriminations among Democrats who were so sure they would regain control of the Senate. Republicans in the Senate should realize that Trump running strong in Missouri, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania was a major reason they retained control of the Senate by winning seats up for election in each of those states. Both parties would serve themselves well to sit down together and try to map out a strategy to move this country forward and engage in political sniping at each other.
My final comment is I was surprised the Hillary Clinton did not come out and speak to her supporters. It was evident when John Podesta spoke that she was losing the race. The news that she called Donald Trump broke immediately after his comments. She owed her supporters who had stood there for hours the courtesy of facing them. It was callow to tell them to go home and she would have something to say in the morning. Those comments will not come before a crowd of people that gave everything to support her but rather in front of news cameras. Not her best moment.