What Happened

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Is Bernie to blame is not the question – working class white voters are the main reason Trump won and Bernie would have won them too

When an excerpt from Hillary Clinton’s new book about her 2016 presidential campaign, What Happened, was released on Tuesday, it may not have come as a complete shock that she singled out Senator Bernie Sanders for major blame for her general election loss to Donald Trump.

While Hillary Clinton does have a point, doing this is just a lame attempt to deflect attention from her relatively poor performance as a campaigner as well as the heavy political baggage she carried.

How could a woman who was probably the best prepared presidential nominee in history lose to a man who was clearly the worst prepared? How could such a disciplined nominee lose to a someone who made one unforced error after another?

Did Bernie Sanders soften her up somewhat during the primaries? Of course. But while his gentlemanly attacks on her integrity were based on facts that she tried to ignore – like her $375,000 speeches to groups of well-healed bankers – Trump’s ad homonym attacks on her femininity and his childish name-calling – like “Crooked Hillary” – surely took a much greater toll.

Clinton lost the election for four reasons – her poor campaign performance, her lack of a rationale for running (except for her overwhelming sense of entitlement), her personal political baggage, and her inability to compete with Trump for the votes of working class white voters.

One of the most memorable Democratic debate moments came when Bernie Sanders graciously let Hillary Clinton off the hook when he declared, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Hillary nodded in agreement, obviously relieved that her main primary opponent would not make this an issue.


Minutes later, however, she quite viciously attacked Bernie for his position on gun control, his beau gest quickly forgotten.

Beginning at the Democratic Presidential Convention, Bernie provided Hillary with very substantial help. He pled with his followers – many of whom despised Hillary – to put aside their personal feelings and to support her. He went on to campaign for her and other Democratic Congressional candidates. At the end, millions of his supporters held their noses and voted for Hillary.

Now she contends that there were no substantial differences on issues between herself and Bernie. But there are three problems with that view. First, her own positions on criminal justice, public assistance, sexual discrimination, the minimum wage, and college tuition assistance – among other policy issues — have shifted back-and-forth over the decades, while Bernie’s have rarely changed at all.

Interestingly, in her book excerpt, Hillary contends that Bernie inconveniently pushed her way too far to the left during the Primary. Apparently still at heart a Democratic centrist, she expediently (and perhaps, insincerely) shifted her positions to appeal to the relatively left-wing Democratic primary electorate. And now she has the chutzpah claim that there was little daylight between her positions and Bernie’s.

And third, there remained quite substantial policy differences between Bernie and Hillary – healthcare, gun control, the minimum wage, and free college tuition among them.

But in fairness, Hillary has remained consistent and true to herself in one major respect. When it comes to blame for her electoral failures, while she certainly does appear to accept a portion of it herself, she has no problem spreading the rest of it around. She is still angry at Bernie for having the gall to run against her in the primary after she had worked so long and so hard to receive the Democratic nomination by popular acclaim.

Of course, she was quite capable of overcoming this anger when it came to accepting Bernie’s  very substantial help during the fall campaign against Trump. Still, she will go to the grave believing that what had been hers was stolen from her. Despite being the best prepared candidate in history, her quest for the presidency was not really that much about the issues. It was much, much more personal than that.

Hillary’s argument that Bernie helped cost her the election could be reversed: She cost Bernie the election. During the primaries, in poll after poll, Sanders led Trump by double digits. They were essentially tied among working class white voters, while Sanders – like Clinton – killed Trump among Black and Hispanic voters. And when we add in Sander’s base, voters under thirty, he would have won going away.

Both Sanders and Trump connected with demoralized working class white voters – some of whom were later labelled “deplorables” by Clinton. While some Working Class White Voters were indeed racists and neo-Nazis, the large majority simply believed that our economy had stopped working for them. And in one primary after another, Sanders soundly beat Clinton among working class white voters.

If either of them wants to make a case for being unfairly treated during the primary, it would certainly be Bernie. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic Party Chair, could certainly never be accused of having been impartial. Amazingly, she scheduled as few candidates debates as possible, and when the smallest number of viewers would see them. She was ably assisted by former Interim Democratic Chair Donna Brazile, who managed to slip at least one debate question to Hillary in advance. Ironically, campaign debates were Hillary’s strong suit, so she might have done still better without these little bits of help from her friends.

In one major respect Hillary is a sympathetic figure, having endured decades of marriage to a serial philanderer and sexual predator, and then running against Trump, a man who surely earned the title of misogynist-in-chief. The man was not even above criticizing her for being “disgusting” for having taken too long on a bathroom break during a Democratic debate.

Perhaps Hillary’s inspiration for running was her goal of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling for all women. Ironically, a clear majority of white women voted for Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being a women’s libber. If Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape was not a deal-breaker, then just maybe Hillary was not quite the woman she thought she was.

Full disclosure: Bernie Sanders and I ran track together in high school, and were roommates for one semester at Brooklyn College. When he ran for president, I provided the media with information about Bernie’s high school and college days.

About the Author

Steve Slavin has a PhD in economics from NYU, and taught for over thirty years at Brooklyn College, New York Institute of Technology, and New Jersey’s Union County College. He has written sixteen math and economics books including a widely used introductory economics textbook now in its eleventh edition (McGraw-Hill) and The Great American Economy (Prometheus Books) which came out last month.

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