For months we couldn’t take our eyes off the 2016 reality show that was the Donald Trump campaign. Political rubberneckers just had to slow down for an extended look at the damage Trump was evidently inflicting on civility, democracy and the Republican Party.
But for all the declarations that the GOP was in crisis — this columnist certainly not exempted from such bleating — Tuesday ended up being a transformational night for Republicans. It turns out it wasn’t the Republican Party that was in disarray.
It was the Democrats all along.
While our collective gaze was affixed on the Trump phenomenon, the real story was the growing disaffection with Democrats, their candidate and their policies.
Thus, while President Obama’s personal approval rating might be high, it is impossible to take Tuesday’s results as anything other than a direct repudiation of his policies. In this, he is the mirror image of Donald Trump, who is personally unpopular, but who voters seem to think has a better governing philosophy.
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And, of course, the Democrats’ other major problem was their candidate, who will now enter history as one of the worst presidential aspirants the nation has seen. Twice in the past eight years Clinton has ripped defeat from the jaws of victory as the nation served her with another electoral restraining order. While many of us considered Donald Trump to be the unelectable candidate, in the parlance of the board game Clue, the culprit was Hillary Clinton in the Secretary of State’s office with the private server.
Clinton never gave voters a reason to elect her, as she spoke in microwaved progressive bromides about gender and income inequality — issues that have been litigated ad nauseum in campaigns over the years. Ironically, her strongest outreach to those in the center-right was found in a series of leaked speeches given to Wall Street executives in which she defended capitalism — speeches that were almost certainly obtained and released by Russian agents.
But it was the milquetoast response Clinton received among Democrats that likely sunk her the most. In the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee County, Wis., Clinton garnered almost 44,000 fewer votes than Obama had just four years ago; Clinton lost Wisconsin and its valuable 10 electoral votes by a meager 27,000 votes.
Nationally, even though votes are still being counted, it appears Clinton significantly underperformed Obama’s 2012 numbers. In retrospect, the story was never that Trump was going to have trouble getting Republicans to the polls to vote for him — it was that Democrats would stay home rather than support Hillary Clinton.
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Yet Democrats suffered losses well beyond Clinton’s flaccid showing. Democratic performance in races for the U.S. Senate was nothing short of catastrophic; in the nine most competitive races, Republicans won six, keeping the Senate in GOP hands leading into the Republican-friendly 2018 midterms. The staleness of the Democrats’ message in this cycle, however, was best represented by the stunning losses by Senate retreads Evan Bayh in Indiana and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, both old-school Democrats failing to regain their former seats. Evidently voters had no desire to party like it’s 1999.
All the signs were there for those looking for them; the Democratic Balkanization into competing interest groups (Black Lives Matter, feminists, safe space enthusiasts, college students who don’t want to pay back their student loans) has written the working class out of the left’s story. They don’t see the economy coming back and they were confused about what Clinton’s promise to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision or her self-congratulation about being the first female president had to do with their ability to find a good job.
And this is why Hillary Clinton just lost a national election to a man who once defended the size of his hands during a primary election debate. On Tuesday, voters used their own to deliver a single digit message to Democrats in every level of government.
Christian Schneider is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow him on Twitter@schneider_cm.
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