By John A. Ostenburg
My blog is titled “The Outpost Observer” for a reason. I’m not an insider; rather, I’m one who observes from afar. As such, the commentary I am offering on the recent presidential election is that of an amateur and not a professional. True, I’ve been around politics for as long as my memory serves me; however, I never have been in the heat of a national campaign, so it’s likely I’m missing some nuances in my analysis. Nonetheless, here it is.
No question about it, the Hillary Clinton campaign for the White House was impacted by lots and lots of outside influences: Russian hacking, the FBI’s handling of the investigation into her e-mails while she was secretary of state, gross distortions perpetrated by both Donald Trump and his supporters, etc., etc., etc. Yet, the Trump campaign also was impacted by numerous outside influences: release of his tape-recorded admissions of sexual misconduct, his refusal to release his income tax filings, the revelation that he most likely paid no federal income taxes at all for several years, and so on. So, what was the difference? Why did her problem-areas have sticking power and his did not?
Some commentators offer the explanation that the country was angry over economic problems, gridlock in Washington, and things of that sort. That’s certainly true, but it’s also true that Mr. Trump didn’t really offer any solutions to those problems: his standard answer for every question about jobs, the economy, crime, partisanship, etc., was simply to say “I’m going to make America great again!” That hardly seems to be a policy statement capable of winning a national election.
I read recently that former President Bill Clinton was at odds at various times with those who were running his wife’s campaign for the White House because he didn’t feel that Secretary Clinton’s handlers were having her focus on the most important elements of a political campaign. I have no way of knowing what exactly the former president was thinking — if, in fact, the reports of his dissatisfaction are accurate — but I have some thoughts of my own on how the campaign seemed to ignore a few fundamentals necessary for successful political victories.
First, and foremost in my mind, was the way the major thrust of the campaign was focused on Donald Trump and not on Hillary Clinton. Nearly every ad, every campaign appearance, every debate, seemed to give more attention to why Mr. Trump should not be elected president than it did to why Ms. Clinton should be.
As I recall from my very first campaign for the Illinois House of Representatives back in 1988, I was told that it is not enough to be against something; you also have to be for something. Candidate Trump seemed to realize this fundamental, and that’s why he always talked about building a wall, draining the swamp, defeating ISIS, and so forth. Granted, his plans for how he would accomplish those goals never were articulated in any sensible and workable way; yet, as the election results seem to indicate, it was enough for him simply to put those ideas forward in every campaign stop in order to win over those who were most disenchanted with the federal government.
Yes, he also said nasty things about Secretary Clinton (just as she did about him), but he balanced his negative remarks by also stressing what he was going to do if elected. The voting public in critical states obviously ignored the shallowness of his pronouncements on things he would accomplish and were satisfied simply with his promise that he would do something. Even though Secretary Clinton had an agenda that was much more positive for Americans on the whole, much of what she articulated in her campaign appearances, aside from the emphasis on how unqualified Mr. Trump was (is) to be president, was about what she would preserve (Social Security, a woman’s right to choose, environmental protections, affordable health care, the Obama doctrine on foreign policy, etc.) rather than on what new things she would put forward when in office.
Second, I think the Clinton campaign forgot another very fundamental component for winning elections: politics is a game of addition; not subtraction. Whether it was Secretary Clinton’s comments about coal energy being a thing of the past, or her off-the-cuff remark about Trump supporters being a “basket of deplorables,” or various other verbal missteps, the campaign seemed continually to be alienating large segments of voters.
True, Mr. Trump also alienated large segments of the voting public, but his alienation seemed more focused on folks who were not going to vote for him anyway. By contrast, for example, Secretary Clinton needed the working-class vote, which traditionally goes to Democratic candidates, and her comment about coal-workers helped to move a larger number of those working-class voters into the Trump column.
Likewise, the “basket of deplorables” remark reached far beyond the hate-filled alt-right groups that were backing Mr. Trump and who were the target. Virtually every one of us had some friend or family member who supported the Trump candidacy. While we disagreed with them, even argued aggressively with them on occasion, we didn’t think of them as “deplorable.” Secretary Clinton threw too many people — including lots of longstanding Republicans who otherwise are respectable individuals — into that basket by her ill-thought-out comment regarding Trump supporters. She was supposed to be the “nice” candidate; the remark helped paint her as the “nasty” candidate.
Third, another fundamental of effective campaigning is to lock up your base first. What was preached to me from the first day of my first campaign for public office was the importance of firming up the “sures” first, then working to win over the “maybes,” and forgetting about the “nos.” Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were important states for a Democratic win. What happened that allowed all those states to end up in the Trump column?
Nearly every commentator prior to the election emphasized the importance of the so-called “Blue Wall” to assuring a Democratic victory. As such, it certainly should not have been something of which the Clinton campaign staff was unaware. By virtually every standard, the Democratic Party organization in those states was far superior to that of the Republicans — and especially to that of the Trump campaign. What happened that those traditional campaign workers weren’t activated, or motivated, to assure those states remained in the Democratic column? Based on one report that I received from a Clinton volunteer who walked precincts in Michigan, the party regulars in that state didn’t seem at all in sync with the Clinton folks.
Obviously there are many, many reasons why Secretary Clinton was able to gain 2-million-plus votes over Mr. Trump and yet lose the Electoral College. However, what is most shocking about this situation is that it was such a surprise on election night. The “Blue Wall” was supposed to hold and it did not. Why didn’t the Clinton campaign staff see that coming and do more to keep it from occurring?
So now, we Democrats are going to have to endure four years of a Republican president and a Republic Congress, and even more years than that of a Republican-controlled Supreme Court, and in the process are likely to see many of the things we hold dear thrown by the wayside. As Newt Gingrich has warned us, the goal of Republicans is to “break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.” Know what that model is? It’s a living wage, retirement income, healthcare, equality for all.
For me, it’s very sad to think that a little more attention to just a few fundamentals of effective political campaigning — given the closeness of the election results — could have kept that from happening.
John A. Ostenburg is in his fifth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is an active member of committees of the National League of Cities, the Illinois Municipal League, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, and the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association, and also is serving as SSMMA president for the 2016-17 term. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at JOstenburg@aol.com.