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How Obama and Hillary Clinton destroyed the Democratic Party

First off, some definitions. What is the Democratic Party? The Democratic a voluntary association of people who share political priorities. Because it exists in the US constitutional system, it serves as one of the two major parties in the US. The US constitutional system has a “first past the post” voting method which inevitably results in a political system with only two parties; such has it been since about the fourth year of our Republic.

As one of the only two possible political parties, it is an “big tent” that includes a wide array of groups with differing political priorities. And as one of the two possible political parties, it runs candidates from local, state, and national office. The legal organization includes independent statewide groups as well as not-for-profit corporations that control the national organization. While in its original design it is a national Association of grassroots movements, in the previous 40 years it has been far more centralized at the national level. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the not-for-profit organization that represents the national level organization of the party. It is meant to represent the interests of the state parties, as well as to support the duly selected candidates for national office. And it has a tremendous role to play in the movement of money.

The Democratic Party runs candidates at every level, with the most visible and arguably most important race being that for President. But a President without majorities in Congress, a President without support at the statewide level, is not going to be able to get much done. So while the presidential race is far and away the most visible and most important (and most expensive), the statewide races as well as the Congressional races are critical part of the party being a broad movement. And here is where the recent history of the Democrats becomes problematic. The party’s decline began during a period of apparent strength and reached its present nadir due in no small part to decisions made at the top along the way.

When but Barack Obama was reelected president in 2012 Democrats everywhere were jubilant. But it came at a cost. The presidential reelection campaign left the Democratic Party (the DNC) with over $20 million in debt. And the president, as leader of the party, would be the natural person to retire that debt and build up a war chest. But Obama, for better or for worse, was more concerned with spending his time governing than with fundraising, and as a result the party suffered. If there is one major and valid criticism that can be leveled against Obama, it is that he neglected his role as leader of the national party. He presided over his party’s loss of over 1000 state and national offices. Some of those were likely inevitable, as parties typically lose seats when they hold the presidency. But the scale under Obama was larger than typical, and the neglect of fundraising symptomatic of the lack of attention in the White House towards the fortunes of the broader party. The Democrats started the 2016 election cycle way behind in fundraising.

When Hillary Clinton emerged as the leading candidate for the nomination, it was far earlier in the process than is typically the case. Her reputation, status, and patronage network scared off all serious challengers for the nomination, leaving only longshot opponents, including a former governor with no national profile and a far left challenge from someone who did not even identify as a Democrat. Since she had been planning her run for the presidency for essentially eight years, she had positioned her supporters and loyalists throughout the Democratic Party, and since most people, and especially all of her loyalists, saw her as the presumptive nominee long before the convention, she went ahead and structured the entire party apparatus as a support structure for her campaign. She took on the problem of the inherited debt early, and took other measures to ensure that the party would be able to support her presidential run effectively. And had things gone as everyone expected no one would have faulted her for that. But as happens so often in life, things did not go as expected, and the results essentially destroyed the Democrats.

The unexpected event that complicated everything was the emergence of her left wing opponent as a viable national candidate whose positions, it turned out, actually represented the views among registered Democrats. The Bernie Sanders surge took everyone (including him) by surprise and got him within reach of the nomination. Hillary Clinton, who is expecting an easy walk to the general election suddenly found herself in a desperate fight to stay in the race. And here is where things went wrong for the party.

Clinton already had her loyalists installed at every level of the Democratic Party, in anticipation of the general election. When it turned out that the nomination would be a real contest, she had an unfair advantage and no qualms about using it. The particular method she employed included a system that drained the grassroots state parties of their fundraising dollars and siphoned it to the national party, where it was spent on her campaign. Including her nomination campaign against other Democrats. This was broadly known at the time, and has been reported in much greater detail recently. The result was to fracture the Democratic Party in ways that it still has not recovered from.

The unfair advantage in the nomination contest alienated a good half of the party, who justifiably felt that their policy positions were not respected in the choice of nominee. And the very fact that there were internal divisions upset those who expected an easy walk to the nomination; they are still mad at the half of the party that didn’t immediately fall into line. Hillary herself passed up a very obvious opportunity to heal the divisions by adding her opponent to the ticket as Vice President. At the time I’m sure she felt no need to saddle her future administration with excessive left-of-center energy. In retrospect it is just one more example of her overconfidence.

The primary campaign, and in particular the optics of systemic corruption during the contest, also weakened Hillary as a candidate in the general election. This especially hit the party finances, since the nomination had been so much more expensive than she anticipated. As the Hillary campaign struggled in the general election, it siphoned more and more of the grassroots money into the presidential contest and away from candidates at every other level (from Congress down to town councils). As a result, the Democratic Party fared very poorly overall in 2016. What is supposed to be a national association of individuals pursuing common political interests instead became a national organization supporting one campaign, which it lost.

But the losses were not limited to the presidency. Across the country governors, state senators, and even the local school boards lost campaigns to better financed opponents, because the state campaign coffers had essentially been looted in pursuit of one national office. And again, most of this would probably have been overlooked had that race succeeded. But it did not, and it took the national party down with it.

It is pretty clear from the comments Facebook that the divisions among the Democrats from 2016 are nowhere close to being healed. I have seen little evidence that the national party has undertaken much self-reflection or reform. And this does not bode well for 2018, much less 2020.

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