When I was a small boy, growing up in the poor area near the meat packing plants of Oklahoma City, there was a universal understanding of politics. It was not the politics of platforms
and policies, much less the politics of personality clashes. Instead, it was the profound
sense that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had literally saved the lives of people like us. In the homes of Armour and Swift workers, there were frequently two pictures: one of Jesus and the other of Roosevelt. In the event that one picture had to come down, it would not necessarily be Roosevelt’s that would go. Probably nobody in that neighborhood had ever
read the Democratic platform but they all understood one important fact: Franklin Roosevelt was on our side. His Democratic Party was for people like us; the nearly-invisible Republicans were for rich people.
How far we have come from those days is apparent in the new book on the 2016 campaign by
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Largely based on off-the-record interviews with campaign staff members, it depicts a dysfunctional campaign that was more of a snake pit than the well-oiled political machine that we would expect from two accomplished people who have pursued the Presidency, one of them successfully, for their entire adult lives. But more important, it shows a party that had lost its way and a candidate who had overwhelming ambition and a sterling resume but no principled center. Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, is a policy wonk, and certainly she had policy statements on nearly every subject, but she lacked two elements that Roosevelt, the Hudson Valley aristocrat, had: deep empathy for the problems of the American people and the ability to communicate that empathy.
Clinton’s fundamental shortcomings are made clear in the book’s first chapter, when her speech writers are struggling to come up with a memorable, hopefully even historic speech, to kick-off her campaign. The event has been scheduled for Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River (optics are important in modern campaigns and this is intended to link her tightly with FDR). There is only one problem: neither the candidate nor the hired help can come up with an acceptable rationale for her quest for the Presidency. The bright graduate of Wellesley and Yale Law can’t articulate answers to one aide’s questions: “why you? why now?” These questions will haunt the campaign until it ends in defeat at the hands of a man who can encapsulate his purpose in four vacuous words: Make America Great Again.
The broader failure, I suggest, is not that of Hillary Clinton but of the Democratic Party
that she not only shaped but that shaped her. The legacy of FDR was a party that, with
many failings, was seen as the champion of the working class and the poor, and large parts of this legacy remained at least through the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. The leadership of the Democratic Party began to pull away from that legacy under Carter and
Bill Clinton, the neoliberal New Democrats. With the ascendancy of leaders who could not and did not want to speak for them, the working class began to leave the party of Roosevelt. States that had once been Democratic strongholds, such as Wisconsin, Michigan
and Pennsylvania, became battleground states. While it is true that Trump’s winning margin
was small in those states, the real question is why millions of working class people had previously moved over to the Republican Party in numbers sufficient to make those states even close.
The Bernie Sanders campaign proved at least one thing: there are still millions of Americans
who respond to the spirit of the social democratic message that FDR articulated in his 1944 State of the Union address. Had Clinton understood that, she might have brought home to the Democratic Party the key working class voters who cost her the election. Unfortunately, she, her husband, Barack Obama and their neolib allies had hollowed out the ideological
core of the Party, and she could not make up for that loss by ordering her staff to find a rationale for her candidacy. It was too much to expect that a candidate who hung out with millionaire pals in the Hamptons and who took hundreds of thousands from Goldman Sachs could
truly understand the fears and hopes of working Americans. But from Clinton’s loss, a catastrophe in so many ways, may come a new birth of the Democratic Party and make it again
“our” party. That is the Social Democratic challenge today.