At the Arkansas Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraiser in July, Bill Clinton gave the worst speech I’ve ever heard him give. It was a stylistically flat and meandering talk that led a number of the 2,000 in attendance to skip out before it reached its end over an hour after it began. Showing that he still is the greatest political mind of his generation, however, Clinton’s comments that rainy evening showed he understood the mood of America in a way that the strategists in charge of his wife’s campaign did not.
Clinton’s speech was a mismatch for the setting. It included little in the way of zingers against Donald Trump, nostalgic reflection of his time in Arkansas, or loving chronicling of his wife’s dedication to public service — all messages certain to jazz a crowd of longtime Clinton supporters. Instead, it combined a sociological analysis of the despair of rural, working class America, exemplified by his story about a campaign trip to the coal country of West Virginia where opportunities were few and where his wife was blown out by Bernie Sanders in the primary, with a call to action by Democrats to respond to this hopelessness and the resentment that it was producing politically (what Clinton called a “road rage” electorate).
Clinton argued that new technological investment could bring hope back to life for the next generation in communities where he had visited and that it was necessary for the Democratic Party to contrast itself with Republicans on such bread-and-butter economic issues, both to gain votes and to live up to the core values of the party. As Clinton summed up his argument: “We’ve got to do a better job of explaining to people that we’re in it for them and that anybody that spends all their time trying to keep you mad at somebody else is not really your friend. … They want your vote, not a better life for you.”
From what we now know, Clinton was also telling the Brooklyn-based leadership of his wife’s campaign for president what he said here in July: The campaign needed an overarching economic argument to appeal to working-class whites in places like the coal country and the Rust Belt, the hundreds of counties used to voting Democratic where Clinton was ultimately blown out, costing her the election.
By all accounts, those younger, very talented leaders of the campaign were about as eager to hear it as those damp Arkansans sitting in a heavily refrigerated arena in July. As Politico’s Annie Karni reported after the election, Bill Clinton had continually “wonder[ed] aloud at meetings why the campaign was not making more of an attempt to even ask that population for its votes. … Bill’s [position] was often dismissed with a hand wave by senior members of the team as a personal vendetta to win back the voters who elected him, from a talented but aging politician who simply refused to accept the new Democratic map.” At one meeting, “senior strategist Joel Benenson told the former president bluntly that the voters from West Virginia were never coming back to his party,” according to Karni.
Instead, the Clinton campaign tried to run up the score on Trump in the diverse cities and vibrant suburbs across the country by relying on well designed but nonstop negative attacks on Trump. While Trump’s startling sexism, racism and xenophobia needed to be part of the 2016 conversation, Clinton’s well-funded super PAC was the perfect instrument for those messages. The Clinton campaign itself needed to forward a more positive visionary message focused on bringing the hopefulness felt by many Americans during the Obama years to parts of the country that had been left behind. (In the campaign’s defense, there were signs that it planned a more positive push down the stretch run until it felt forced by James Comey’s announcement that the FBI was examining additional Clinton emails to return to that which internal polling showed to be working best in cities and suburbs.)
Folks like Benenson are clearly right about West Virginia, the southern Appalachians, and the mostly white counties of the rural South. In those counties, it is not simply economics but core cultural issues that separate them from acceptance of contemporary Democrats. But, in the rural counties of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that cemented Donald Trump’s victory, where voters had voted Democratic as recently as 2012, things are different. There, the combination of the Clinton campaign’s investment in a field operation to work in tandem with the labor unions that maintain organizational heft, alongside a forward-looking economic message from Clinton that did not run away from globalization, but instead identified tangible ways to allow communities to survive in a quick-changing global economic order through specific investments, would have done right by the Clinton campaign and by the traditions of the Democratic Party.
As Clinton said in that speech that felt pretty awful at the time but turned out to be prescient: “We can move away from all this anger and all this resentment and hatred to a future that all our children can share together.”