5 Lessons Joe Biden should have learned from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss

In the summer of 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign was confident. Despite the pesky level of support shown for Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s team still foresaw a successful Democratic National Convention in August followed by winning the presidency in November. In the lead-up to Election Day no one on the Clinton team, amongst the Democratic party elites, or in the center-left conventional news media imagined there was any chance that Donald Trump — a lying, racist, misogynistic bully with not one single day of public service experience —had any chance of winning the race. The New York Times predicted that Clinton had an 85% chance of being elected. 

And yet, Hillary Clinton didn’t win. We all missed the signs because we refused to see what was right in front of our eyes.

If we were stupid in 2016, Joe Biden’s campaign is even dumber now. Clinton wasn’t popular enough to win the election, but she was at least close in 2016, winning the popular vote. Biden, in contrast, has never even been close to beating Trump according to  2024 polling. In April, Biden had the lowest approval ratings of any president in the last 70 years, and this was before his epically bad debate performance. In fact, Clinton polls ahead of Biden right now

The writing is on the wall. 

Not remembering what happened a mere eight years ago doesn’t constitute historical amnesia; it’s a deliberate dive into sheer lunacy.

We thought Clinton could win, yet she lost. Now we have a candidate who doesn’t come close to her numbers, and for some reason we are still debating whether he has the vim and vigor to pull this off? If we don’t take a moment to learn from the past and make the needed adjustments to open the convention and seek an electable candidate, Joe Biden is not just going to simply lose the election, he will do so spectacularly. And, most importantly, we will have all seen it coming because we have been through it before. 

One of the most shocking pattern matches between 2016 and 2024 are the arguments about what a total nightmare it would be to have Trump in office, as if that fact simply means we just vote for whomever else there is on the ballot. The argument goes that we have to support Biden, because Trump is worse, just as we were told to vote for Clinton because the alternative was dystopia. But guess what? Being worried about a potential win of one candidate does not necessarily translate into support of their opponent. That logic didn’t work for Clinton then and it won’t work for Biden now.

So, are we ready to remember what happened in 2016 and learn from it? Here are five lessons Democrats would do well to take to heart, and fast, unless the party wants to face a predictable disaster in November. 

1. You can’t wish someone into electability.  

Clinton was simply never as popular as her insiders wanted her to be, and it was that myopic mindset that kept them from seeing the reality that she had underwhelming support.  The problem with the Clinton campaign, ultimately, wasn’t just that she didn’t have the voter support needed, it was that her supporters refused to just admit it. Even worse, when confronted with the truth of her weak likability, they argued against it instead of taking it seriously. If someone doesn’t like a candidate, there is simply no arguing them into it. It may not be logical to you. It may go against your decision-making. But you aren’t shaming or bullying someone into changing their mind. Voters didn’t like Clinton, even when they were not supportive of Trump and that fact kept her out of office. 

All these factors are in play in the Biden campaign, only much worse. He was considered old when he ran in 2020 and since then that issue has been an ongoing concern even among people who initially voted for him. In February, polls showed 70 percent of voters found him too old. There are even jokes and merch claiming that a vote for Biden is a vote for a cadaver.  

And yet, for the most part, those concerns are gaslit by Biden and his team. Not only do we see Biden himself refuse to admit his flaws, but the reaction to those who don’t want to vote for him is to tell them they need to get behind Biden or else risk four more years of Trump. It’s as if the problem here is not an unlikeable candidate, it’s those of us who have the audacity not to like him. This perspective framed a lot of the conversation around Clinton in 2016 and it continues to circulate now. Biden isn’t popular enough to win. Not liking that reality isn’t changing it. 

2. You can’t ignore unpopular policy positions.

Clinton had to face a tremendous amount of misogyny. That was real. Just as Biden faces ageism. In his case, though, such concerns are indisputably valid. These realities, however, shouldn’t eclipse the fact that these candidates also hold unpopular policy positions.  

Since the debate, more attention has focused on whether Biden is fit to run for office than on the fact that many voters, particularly young ones, do not like his policies. If Biden were 20 years younger, he’d still be losing with a lot of voters who don’t like his track record. 

The problem is that focusing primarily on the dislikeability of these candidates as an identity issue allows too much of the conversation to circle around Biden’s age, just as it did with Clinton’s gender, and not on policy that doesn’t sit well with voters.

We’d do well to remember that Clinton held a lot of unpopular policy positions—she supported the War in Iraq, was cozy with Wall Street, presented herself as a hawk, and exercised poor judgment with her email. These were valid reasons why she lost votes. 

It’s also important to recall that Clinton’s unpopular record pales in comparison with public disapproval of Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, his seemingly unfettered support for Israel’s destruction of Gaza, and his refusal to support the free speech rights of students. In May, the Nation reported that Biden stood alone among Democrats “in the degree of his complicity in Israel’s morally indefensible and increasingly unpopular campaign,” leading to congressional Democrats polling ahead of the president in several key battleground states.   

Irrespective of Biden’s age, his unpopular policies placed him well on track to lose in November and no amount of proving his vigor can fix that. 

3. You can’t trust the conventional news media to get the story right.

During the Clinton campaign, the conventional news media stuck to a script, one that assumed Clinton was going to win. When Sanders won the debate against Clinton, the news media literally admitted that despite that win, they still were going to cover it as though Clinton had come out on top.  But here’s the thing. The media debacle of 2016 should have taught us that we can’t let the conventional news set the agenda, because at the end of the day, their focus is on supporting a corporate elite and building a devoted audience, not on covering the news in an accurate and balanced way. Study after study showed that the news media effectively got Trump elected and it’s no better now. 

The news media sticks to tired talking points, rehashes the same arguments with the same boring sides-taking, refers to polling that is often skewed and inaccurate and refuses to allow significant policy issues to enter their dialogue.  Even more, as in 2016, the news media continues to allow Trump to set the tone and intensity of his coverage, all the while refusing to cover his opponent in a meaningful way.   

This is why it is important to take the post-debate coverage and calls for Biden to drop out of the race with a healthy dose of skepticism. Almost all coverage has focused predominantly on how Biden has responded to pleas for him to drop out, which party insiders support him, and how he matches up against Trump. Rather than offer evidence of how an open convention could take place and instead of covering the issues that matter most to voters, the media sticks to the sensational drama of whether Biden will agree to step aside and skips over the issues, like inflation, healthcare and immigration, that matter most to voters

4. You can’t dismiss Americans’ disdain for the political oligarchy.

Perhaps the biggest blind spot in 2024 is the fact that potential Democratic voters are totally and unequivocally sick of the political oligarchy that runs the DNC and the Democratic Party and has circled the wagons around Biden just as it did with Clinton.  As Jon Stewart pointed out this week on “The Daily Show,” voters are fed up with the “arthritic status quo” and “suffering gerontocracy,” which has thus far been “unable or unwilling to respond in any way to the concerns of voters.”

Shortly after the debate, DNC leader Jaime Harrison claimed that the “hand-wringing” over Biden was “coming from the media” and “not the people.” This after anyone with eyeballs could see that Biden wasn’t fit to run and also after poll after poll showed Biden did not have strong voter support. That stunningly tone-deaf comment was followed by Harrison’s claim that the DNC would continue to have Biden’s back. Harrison’s comments made it clear that his plan was to protect party oligarchy, not voter interests, just as it did with Clinton in 2016.   

These days the DNC seems to do nothing more than ask us for donations and anoint the next party insider. With Clinton the DNC did everything it could to make sure that Sanders couldn’t beat her. Rather than listen to voters and represent party values, the DNC has increasingly moved to select insider candidates and make it virtually impossible for anyone else to take the nomination. 

Today, as Norm Solomon, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, points out, the Democratic Party is totally tied to Wall Street and corporate interests. So, voters just no longer trust it when it “claims to be fighting for working people [or] claims to be on the side of the victims of the corporate capitalist system” because it is incessantly siding with the victimizers and refusing to name the victimizers of oligarchy.” The party just doesn’t “have a coherent message that makes sense to people.”

Now with Biden, party leaders claim that this is a matter of loyalty to Biden, missing the point that voters just don’t trust the party itself. Remember that back in 2016 DNC leader Donna Brazile released a book where she claimed that the nomination process had been rigged. Since then, the party has not recovered its image because it hasn’t offered voters significant change. Until the DNC learns its lesson from the 2016 election, they will continue to risk losing voter support.    

5. Listen to Michael Moore. 

Michael Moore was the one lone public intellectual voice that called the Trump win in 2016. He predicted Clinton’s loss when no one wanted to believe it. And like many of the other times that he has expressed unpopular views, he took flak for it. But, he was right then, and he is right now.  

Moore isn’t just predicting that Biden will lose. He has called on Biden to step aside right now. Resign today. Describing what he witnessed at the debate as the worst form of elder abuse he had ever seen, Moore went on to make his position clear: “I don’t think we should be waiting until September or October to deal with this. We have to deal with this right now. This is not about whether he’s fit to serve another four years. After what we saw on debate night, this is about whether he should serve another four days in the toughest job in the world. That’s the question we should be asking.”

Moore is right in 2024 as he was right in 2016. We shouldn’t be debating whether Biden should stay in the race, we should be discussing whether he should stay on the job one minute more. 

We have to remember the obvious. The debate was the last nail in a coffin that was months in the making. The good news, though, is that Biden’s disturbing debate performance creates an opportunity to seek a better option in a race he is set to lose otherwise. 

They say that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. In this case, we aren’t even talking about history. We are talking about paying attention to two election cycles. Not remembering what happened a mere eight years ago doesn’t constitute historical amnesia; it’s a deliberate dive into sheer lunacy.

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