It’s November 3, 2020, and yes, you read the headline on your social media feed right. Donald J. Trump did it again.
He won re-election for President. Just four years ago, he stunned the political world, winning the American Presidency over former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was perhaps the most qualified person and the first woman nominee of a major political party ever to seek the office of President.
Shaking your head, you do a double-take. How in American politics did Trump win not one, but two improbable runs for President? How could the Democrats twice blow a sure win?
The victory comes after Democrats shot at Trump twice. They winged him in the right shoulder with Articles of Impeachment in the House of Representatives. They missed in a duel in the Senate where Republicans and Democrats in states that Trump won in 2016 voted not to convict him of withholding foreign aid to Ukraine to advance his selfish personal interest.
The Democrats thought that following the impeachment inquiry, undoubtedly, the American people would see Trump as a corrupt, self-dealing depot, and remove him from office at the ballot box.
What went wrong? It’s called political strategy. Democratic bosses in 2016 and 2020 studied long and hard, but they studied wrong.
First, in 2016, the National Democratic Committee mostly cleared the field for Hillary Clinton and presumed she would win over a host of Republicans vying for the Republican nomination. Their mouths began to salivate when Trump and Melanie walked down the staircase at Trump Towers in New York and announced he would enter the Republican Primary.
The hearty laughter of liberals was felt across the country confirming 2016, as an extension of the Obama Presidency. No doubt the specter of the New York playboy, the “Barnum and Bailey” of New York real estate added to an already crowded field made the entire Republican gentry a laughable slate.
Clinton had served her country well as First Lady during the Impeachment Hearing of her husband President William Jefferson Clinton. She remained steadfastly by his side.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, raised a United Methodist, daughter of a fabric store owner and homemaker in Chicago, it appeared, was destined to become President.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton made a gallant effort to secure the Democratic nomination for President. She was way-laid at the end by the “Yes You Can” act of faith, which messaged the candidacy of Barack Hussien Obama, the nation’s first African American President. She then served Obama and the United States admirably as Secretary of State.
In 2016, again, Clinton’s time had come. She was up for the challenge and poised to shatter, what had heretofore, been a glass ceiling for women in politics, taking the oath of office as President of the US.
Her pathway cleared for the nomination, and with a “keystone cop” slate of Republican candidates including the buffoonery of Trump, the Presidency seemed secured. She had only one Democratic opponent, former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley. Unable to raise sufficient funds to give Clinton a run for her money, O’Malley quickly exited the debate stage, leaving Clinton’s lone opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, a registered Independent, but a self-proclaimed, Democratic Socialist, with an emphasis on the Socialist.
Clinton’s trek back to the Oval Office was on course. Then at a July 27, 2016 news conference, Trump made a direct appeal for a foreign adversary, the Russians, to spy on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Russia,” Trump said, “if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” an apparent reference to emails Clinton deleted from a private account she used during her time as secretary of state.
According to the report of a special investigator, Robert S. Mueller, III, “Russian intelligence officers hacked into Clinton’s campaign email accounts and hacked into the computer networks of the DNC; and then used online personas and Wikileaks to release stolen emails and documents.”
Clinton’s opponent appears to have cheated. Later that day, before the sun could set on Trump’s request, the Russians had launched a cyberattack against the heir apparent to the Obama Legacy. Embarrassing emails began to appear across the breadth of the internet, ciphering off voters from the Clinton political ledger, causing her to lose by a handful of votes in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, votes which went to the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
What was problematical about clearing the field for Clinton was not the subsequent sabotage by the Russians, but, the fact the Democratic Party cut off debate on what direction Democratic Party members wanted to pursue on the backdrop of the Obama years. The only ideas the general electorate heard in 2016 were the ideas espoused by the Republican candidates. There is little wonder that the Trump talking points took root in the psyche of American voters.
The first mistake can be narrowed down to no debate on the issues. The only issue Democrats talked about in 2016 was the election the first woman President. While electing a woman President was a feel-good aspirational moment, it does not tackle kitchen table issues; immigration, education, crime, or taxes. Republicans talked about these issues, and the Republican talking points became the views held on these issues by leading conservative Independents. When coupled with the Democrats’ lack of robust debate and the Russian cyberattack, you get a recipe for derailing as a sure bet to win the Presidency.
The second mistake that worked against the Democrats in 2020 was the fact that unlike 2016, they did not limit the field of candidates. While a limited slate of candidates was one of two kisses of death for the Democrats in 2016, this is the precise strategy the Dems should have employed in 2020. A smaller field would have allowed the Democrats to streamline their message to take on an incumbent President. As it turns out, over thirty-two candidates representing ultra-lefties, liberals, moderates, and the alt-right, with two billionaires thrown in for good measure applied for the job.
Wow, how can the DNC come up with a platform that keeps such diverse Democratic views under one tent for a November Electoral College run against Trump?
The above question is not rhetorical. Answer it if you can.
In 2020, its Trump’s turn to foam at the mouth at the prospect of running a pro “Make America Great Again” theme against the socialism agenda of several of the Democratic front runners.
While Trump’s presidency was revolutionary in turning the system on its head, Elizabeth Warren and Sanders would destroy the system and start all over again to make America great for all Americans. Again, another feel-good aspirational moment in the annals of American politics.
Independent Americans wishing for a more polite American President- less prone to utter “bullshit” in the town square- creating a new socialist system is perhaps, a bridge too far for Independents to wrap their heads around.
These Democratic ideas of what a post-Obama Presidency should have been are four years in the past. It is difficult to go from a despotic right-wing administration to a socialist utopia where health care is free, and any American can earn a college degree free of charge. For Americans in the middle of both bases, one reality is about as senseless as the other. There is no need to change horses in the middle of the stream if the change brings a new set of upheavals. In a nutshell, this was the Democratic 2020 dilemma.
The fourth mistake Democrats made was making 2020 about beating Donald J. Trump. All Democratic presidential seekers desired to make Trump a one-term President. Here again, in Democratic politics, another laudable aspirational goal. In reality, this goal pacifies the blue base but does nothing in moving independent-minded Americans towards changing Presidents. The more the Democrats beat the drum of defeating Trump, the more they needed to provide legitimate reasons for why any other administration would be better than what the country had been up to the last four years.
What then would have made a difference for Democrats in 2020?
First, discard the moniker that the “top priority in 2020 is to beat Donald J. Trump.” The Democratic nominee should never run on a platform to beat Donald Trump at all costs. The more you run against Trump, the stronger he gets. He has a counter for that: “The Democrats are never Trumpers. They hate me.”
Secondly, the Dems should have run against Vladamir Putin. Yes, that’s right. Putin is not on the ballot you say.
Are you sure about that?
Putin is the number one threat to American democracy, as evidenced by his meddling in the 2016 election.
In 2020, Dems should make the General Election a referendum on Putin. The candidate should position him or herself as a hardliner on Putin and restoring the American superiority over the Russians. Recently, Putin said he is prepared to drop nuclear bombs near American shores and dare the American President to challenge him in a Cuban Missle Crisis standoff. Putin pledges not to blink.
The question becomes, who do you trust to go eyeball to eyeball with Putin and not blink?
If that November 3, 2020 newspaper headline is correct, Lord, help us all.
Harold Michael Harvey is the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. An avid public speaker, contact him at email@example.com