Stronger Together: Lessons Learned from 2016
by Kevin Kelton
Scholarly books will be written about the 2016 election. And like everything in history, from the Civil War to the cause of world wars, there will never be *one* singular reason for the way things worked out. But I am more convinced than ever that the major reason Hillary Clinton lost was her choice for a running mate.
Hillary should have chosen Bernie Sanders. I believe that together, they would be in the White House today. And we’d be watching a very different State of the Union tonight.
Don’t get me wrong. I respect Sen. Tim Kaine and acknowledge he did help deliver the critical 13 electoral votes from his home state of Virginia – not a small feat for a vice presidential candidate. In most other years, that would be considered delivering the goods for a running mate.
But 2016 was not most years. So I am writing this now because I don’t want to see another Democratic nominee make the same error ever again.
The fatal mistake Clinton made, and lots of political novices make, is thinking that the vp choice is about governing. It’s been said that Clinton felt she could have a good working relationship and governing partner in Kaine. Maybe she would have.
But running for president is not about governing. It’s about winning. You don’t get to govern after you’ve made a concession speech. I believe not tapping Sanders cost Clinton millions of votes, and tens of thousands in the critical swing states where she fell short by a whisker.
Choosing a presidential running mate is about building coalitions. It always has been, since George Washington chose John Adams, and through Lincoln-Johnson to Kennedy-Johnson to Reagan-Bush. Even Clinton’s husband Bill knew in 1992 he needed to pair his small state Washington “outsider” image with a member of the more entrenched D.C. establishment class that barely knew him (hence picking Sen. Al Gore).
In 2016, the big fissure in the Democratic party was not about geography or generational balance or insider-outsider status. It was about the divide between the wings of the party. The progressive left wing had demonstrated its strength and the power of its movement by bringing dark horse populist Bernie Sanders within striking distance of the nomination. They had earned a seat at the table, just as Sanders himself had. A unity ticket would’ve said more about Hillary and the party than any geographic or class-based balance that Kaine had to offer.
And of course, Sanders’ rockstar power would have ignited the party base. Imagine Hillary and Sanders barnstorming the nation to packed arenas of 20,000 screaming fans. It would have neutralized Trump’s free media advantage and the impact of seeing his giant rallies every day on cable news. A Clinton-Sanders ticket would’ve been worth half a billion dollars in free media. And it would’ve robbed Trump of many of his best talking points.
For those who will counter, but Hillary and Bernie could not have governed effectively together if elected, I say nonsense. A president gets to choose her Cabinet, her Chief of Staff, her National Security Advisor, and pretty much every major executive branch position. She doesn’t need a pal as vp. John Kennedy worked just fine with his political nemesis and polar opposite, Lyndon Johnson. (Yes, they actually did work well together.) Eastern elitist George Bush blended in just fine with the western common man Ronald Reagan and team. And Dwight Eisenhower certainly wasn’t hampered by not having a golfing buddy in Richard Nixon.
To those who say Bernie is more effective as a senator than he could have been as Hillary’s vice president, I say, look around. How “effective” do you think he is today?
I passionately supported HRC. I’m still proud of the campaign she ran and the vote I cast. But I will always believe she made a critical mistake in not choosing Sanders (or liberal darling Sen. Elizabeth Warren) to help close the deep fissures burning in her party. Like the Great Depression for Herbert Hoover and Vietnam for Johnson, history judges people based on their biggest mistake. Not picking Bernie Sanders was Hillary’s Vietnam, worse than the email scandal or not going to Wisconsin. A Hillary-Bernie ticket would’ve garnered enough extra votes to deliver Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (and probably Iowa too). And the nightmare of the Trump presidency would’ve been just that: a bad dream.
Democrats in 2020 would be wise to remember that our party is always stronger together. So hold your fire in the circular firing squad of the primary season. Keep your mind and your options open. Let’s not devour our own and lose sight of our much more dangerous common enemy. Unseating Donald Trump and Mike Pence from power will take more than their historically low approval numbers. We need a ticket that joins and balances both wings of our party to maximize our voter turnout.
We are liberals. We are compassionate. Our cause is just. And we are only strong when we all stand together.