The Journey to the White House Does Not Begin with Baby Steps

Your move, Democrats.

Your move, Democrats.

During the Democratic primary, I was very much influenced by the thoughts and arguments of Robert Cruickshank—a senior campaign manager at Democracy for America. Cruickshank was a Bernie supporter, while I backed Clinton, yet we both agreed that the Democratic Party must advance bold and dramatic policies that helped all Americans in order to be successful electorally.

I supported Hillary Clinton because I thought she had the best chance to win. That said, I was very concerned with her penchant for gradual progressivism; particularly her inability to view higher education as a fundamental right and not a market commodity.

I worried that Clinton’s messaging was too narrow and specialized. Instead of altering the narrative behind why key policy choices should be pursued, Clinton was busy coming up with complex ideas that were viewed as bipartisan. It seemed as if she was petrified of rocking the boat in a moment where the boat was taking on water.

In May, I warned against such tactics:

By resting on their incrementalist laurels…Democrats could make an electoral mistake. If they preach gradual progressivism, then they could give Republicans an opening to become the party which offers the American people a transformative vision. Just today, the New York Times editorial board warned that Democrats must address how they have “strayed at times from [their] more aspirational path.” Merely throwing lean bones to the dramatic-change camp will not cut it for Democrats going forward. Eventually they will have to address the “broad vein of discontent” that pulses through America today and calls for an overhaul.

The American people wanted an overhaul and the Democrats gave them maintenance.

It is easy to see why Hillary Clinton’s campaign took comfort in doing so. They analyzed the success of the 2012 Obama campaign which regressed from “hope” and “change” to “hold the line.” Barack and co were victorious in the end because 1) the Republican nominee wasn’t a change-heavy candidate and 2) we were only four years removed from the financial crisis, so people cut Obama a little bit of slack.

Those two conditions completely switched in 2016—this time around the Republicans nominated a dramatic-change candidate and the Democrats had a more difficult time blaming the financial crisis for the lack of economic progress. Moreover, it forced Clinton into a defensive posture, or what Matt Carp calls “fortress liberalism” which “rallies around that leader’s personal qualifications, while defending past achievement and stressing the value of party loyalty.”

At some point, Democrats are going to have to learn that they can’t win back-to-back presidencies by stressing incremental progress. Perhaps this hypothesis borders on oversimplification, but I think recent history backs up the claim:

1992: Bill Clinton wins (change candidate) against George HW Bush (incrementalist candidate)

1996: Bill Clinton wins (incrementalist candidate) against Bob Dole (incrementalist candidate)

2000: George W Bush wins (change candidate) against Al Gore (incrementalist candidate)

2004: George W Bush (incrementalist candidate) wins against John Kerry (incrementalist candidate)

2008: Barack Obama wins (change candidate) against John McCain (incrementalist candidate)

2012: Barack Obama wins (incrementalist candidate) against Mitt Romney (incrementalist candidate)

2016: Donald Trump wins (change candidate) against Hillary Clinton (incrementalist candidate)

In my lifetime, no party has been able to win two elections in a row by arguing for piecemeal development. That is essentially what Hillary Clinton attempted to do in 2016. Viewed from this vantage point (which I did not have access to during the actual election—bloody hindsight), it becomes a little clearer as to why Clinton’s messaging felt sort of…off.

It’s also important to note that incrementalist candidates, from either party, only ever won when they were the incumbent and weren’t facing a change candidate.

Therefore, if Democrats are to win in 2020 it will be imperative that we choose a candidate who doesn’t concern themselves or their messaging with the nitty gritty details of policy, but who advances broader questions that challenge long-held American assumptions about health care, university, financial systems, and labor rights.

Will Donald Trump still be in the change camp come 2020 or will he be stuck arguing for the status quo? If recent history is any guide, the latter seems more plausible—though who can say for sure with Donald Trump? Such a reality means he will be susceptible to a candidate who produces political force “by multiplying mass and acceleration.” Otherwise, we could be looking at another four years of President Trump.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.