It takes a long time for candidates to get over losing the American presidency. Some never do. It’s not just personal anger—“I will not be denied my destiny!”—it’s something more poignant. It’s that the greatest prize was there, beautiful and within your grasp and then—dust. You’re holding nothing.
You’re rocked, concussed, and as months pass even your adrenal glands don’t know what to do. Once you had to be up and ready every day to make crucial, far-ranging decisions. Now you’re wondering which channel is Bravo. Once they cheered as you walked in the room; now some avert their eyes. Once you were surrounded by top staff; now it’s the B team. Once you depended on loyalty; now you hope for discretion.
A perpetual low-grade mourning ensues. You were rejected by a nation. In time the ego rebels: Stupid nation!
Which is where Hillary Clinton is, still. She can’t get over it and can’t keep it inside. But by articulating the Democrats’ central national weakness this week, she did them a service. She reminded them: It’s real, the weakness, and must be remedied.
In Mumbai, at a conference sponsored by India Today, Mrs. Clinton was interviewed onstage by the newspaper’s founder, the slavishly admiring Aroon Purie —“May I take the liberty of giving you a title: Should Be President!”—who made her way too comfortable.
Why, he asked, did she lose to the outlandish Donald Trump ?
“If you look at the map of the United States,” she said, “there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won. I win the coasts. . . . But what the map doesn’t show you is that I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Mr. Trump’s campaign “was looking backwards. You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women getting jobs, you don’t wanna see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are.”
Why did 52% of white women support Mr. Trump? Because the Democratic Party doesn’t do well with white men and married white women. “Part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.” James Comey announced that he had reopened the investigation of her State Department emails, and “white women who were going to vote for me, and frankly standing up to the men in their lives and the men in their workplaces, were being told, ‘She’s going to jail. You don’t want to vote for her.’ ”
So, to recap: Trump supporters were racist, narrow and ignorant, and Trump women are not tough and modern but fearful, cowering and easily led. They live in a big mass of red in the middle (like an ugly wound, or an inflammation!) while we have the coasts—better real estate. And better people.
During the campaign Mrs. Clinton was often urged to speak her heart, show us what’s inside. It turns out it is rather dark in there. This is not precisely news—she had famously labeled half of Trump supporters “the basket of deplorables.” Barack Obama in 2008 betrayed a similarly crude, uninformed class bias and snobbery when he said of working-class voters, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
But it was instructive this week to see some Democrats push back. Many did so not for attribution, but some went on the record. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri told the Washington Post: “Those are kind of fighting words for me. . . . I don’t think that’s the way you should talk to any voter.” Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told Huffington Post: “I don’t really care what she said, I just think that’s not helpful.” Ms. McCaskill and Mr. Brown are both up for re-election in states Mr. Trump carried.
It was as if they realized: People don’t want to be led by a party that looks down on them.
Mrs. Clinton’s comments prompt an essential question: To the extent those in the deindustrialized Midwest need help and support, isn’t that what the Democratic Party is for? Doesn’t it exist to help the little guy, the marginalized, the left-behind? That’s what it always said!
This isn’t help, it’s condescension.
It is “Deliverance” politics. The blockbuster movie version of James Dickey’s novel came out in 1972, when the Clintons and I were young, and made a vivid impression on a rising tide of baby boomers. It satisfied all their biases. A group of cool, modern, rational urban professionals journeyed into the backwoods, only to meet the rest of America—the cross-eyed rapist banjo players. That movie did more to shape the preconceptions of a generation of young Democrats than any other, except “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Also we’re all our first ZIP Codes. Mrs. Clinton’s was upper-middle-class suburbia and on to Wellesley. She wasn’t surrounded by working-class folk and had little reported affinity for the rustics she met as first lady of Arkansas. Her weakness is that of too many in her party: They don’t seem to like a lot of the people of the nation they wish to lead.
And those people can tell.
A path forward? Reckon with your biases and attempt to be more generous, which is the job of all of us, always.
There is probably something to learn from Conor Lamb’s victory this week in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Tuesday night voters chose a man who won’t cut entitlements, supports tariffs to protect the steel industry, opposes a ban on assault weapons, supports union members, opposes Nancy Pelosi, and allows no criticism of Donald Trump.
Which sounds like they elected Donald Trump.
Mr. Lamb, however, is a 33-year-old former prosecutor and marine—cool, tall, with a watchful, Tom Cotton-like gaze. It isn’t hard to imagine voters saw him pretty much as Trump without the bother of Trump. His victory says several things. The president’s style, approach and nature have given offense. The Democrats came to play. They were businesslike: Keep local races local, run with the district, not away from it, and you can win.
Mr. Lamb has been called pro-life. He is not. He effectively obscured the issue by saying he personally opposed abortion but would do nothing to change the law, including ban late-term abortions.
Saying you are personally opposed but support the law is the longtime, agreed-upon position of Catholic Democrats, who’ve been saying it for 40 years. But from Mr. Lamb it sounded new. The Democratic Party now depends so heavily on pro-abortion groups for money and other support that on-the-ground Democrats increasingly fear even to admit their personal opposition. They just say they’re for “reproductive freedom”—next question.
It will be interesting to see how that plays out nationally. I suspect it will become an impediment: You don’t squelch views in such an extreme way without paying a price.
But the larger point. Democrats can continue to act as if they see America as “Deliverance” writ large, or they can be more generous in their judgments, and more human.
If they go the former route, their future national candidates will likely wind up selling books in Mumbai to audiences who love them in part because they don’t know them.