In her new book, Why I Lost, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton puts some of the blame for her general election loss to Republican Donald Trump on her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Clinton writes:

His attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” campaign.

Like 2008, many in the Democratic establishment assumed the primary would be a coronation for Clinton. When Sanders announced his candidacy, it was with little fanfare. The political intelligencia viewed the Vermont Democratic Socialist as a gadfly who would barely register support.

To Hillary’s chagrin, Sanders’ campaign became a movement. There was a vacuum, which he filled. Many in the Democratic Party felt that they had held their nose and supported candidates in the past who were too close to what Sanders terms “large financial institutions.” There was also an anti-foreign interventionist strand in the party, which was disaffected by the hawkish policies supported by Clinton, including her support for a troop surge in Afghanistan, an invasion of Libya, and her support for Israel during its 2014 military campaign in Gaza.

No other candidate filled that vacuum like Sanders. He became a tribune for voters who had lost faith in the political establishment. By Sanders becoming the voice of the disaffected left, Clinton became styled as a voice of the establishment. This made the primary a lot more competitive than most expected and cast Clinton as the candidate of the big financial institutions and militarists in the general election.

Had the Republican Party nominated an establishment-oriented candidate, Sanders’ supporters might have chosen Hillary, arguing that she is the lesser of two evils. However, the GOP nominated Donald Trump, whose message of economic nationalism, criticism of financial institutions, and oft-mentioned opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. intervention in Libya made him more palatable to the disaffected voter. Hillary was required to ameliorate the chasm between center-left and liberal Democrats. This was valuable time she could have been using to win over moderates. Consequently, 12 percent of Sanders’ supporters marked ballots for Trump in the general election. Data from Political Wire shows this to be enough to swing the election to Trump.

In addition, some Sanders supporters chose Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, or could just not bring themselves to select Clinton.

Despite Sanders’ request that his supporters vote for Clinton, some saw Trump as more in line with their populist ideologies.

There is a great similitude with the Democratic Party’s predicament in 2016 and 1968. In 1968, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), whose flagship issue was ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, lost the Democratic Presidential nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey had supported the policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson of continuing the war.

Iowa Governor Harold Hughes and Vermont Governor Philip H. Hoff unsuccessfully beseeched Humphrey to resign as vice president to separate himself from the unpopular administration, but Humphrey instead walked a political tightrope, not wanting to alienate himself from the Democratic establishment, while trying to secure the support of McCarthy supporters.

In part, because of the influence of McCarthy and his vociferous supporters, on Sept. 30, Humphrey announced that as president he would order a unilateral bombing halt in Vietnam “as an acceptable risk for peace.”

Even after that concession, McCarthy did not play the role of a good soldier by publicly supporting Humphrey. Many of McCarthy’s supporters stayed home on election day, unwilling to cast a vote for Humphrey. In fact, McCarthy did not formally endorse Humphrey until a week before the general election. His endorsement finally came as Humphrey, once far behind in the polls, had rallied to being within just two points of Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon.

McCarthy’s endorsement of Humphrey was less than enthusiastic. He proclaimed to his supporters: “I’m voting for Humphrey, and I think you should suffer with me.” McCarthy’s late and tepid endorsement was blamed by some Democrats for Humphrey’s whisker-close loss to Nixon.

Four years later, U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD), like Sanders and McCarthy, became a voice for the disaffected Democrats. McGovern overcame 200-1 odds to win the nomination. McGovern staked out territory on the left, supporting “a definite early date for withdrawal of every American soldier from Vietnam,” a $1,000 income supplement for every American, and a major truncation of the U.S. military budget. This message rocket launched him to unexpected frontrunner status. His opponents were forced in the unenviable position of running to his right in the Democratic primary.

Accordingly, Humphrey, running again for the nomination, appeared less progressive, hurting him with liberal voters. After a victory in the hard fought California primary, McGovern secured enough delegates to win the nomination.

In the general election, some moderate and conservative Democrats who supported more establishment candidates in the primary broke ranks and supported Republican Richard M. Nixon in the general election campaign. AFL-CIO President George Meany, who could have been a great help to McGovern, branded him: “an apologist for the Communist world.”

The group known as Democrats for Nixon used Humphrey’s denunciation of McGovern’s primary plan to cut military spending in an advertisement. The narrator states: “Senator Hubert Humphrey had this to say about the McGovern proposal. ‘It isn’t just cutting into fat. It isn’t just cutting into manpower. It’s cutting into the very security of this country.’”

McGovern won only the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon won 94 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents, and an astounding 42 percent of Democratic voters.

Like 1968 and 1972, the Democratic Party is currently enveloped in a schism between establishment center-left Democrats and liberal insurrectionist progressives. Humphrey in 1968, McGovern in 1972, and Hillary Clinton in 2016 were not able to unify the two bloodlines and lost the general election.

Hillary offers the right diagnosis, that the long primary campaign helped the Republicans in the general election. In addition, the Republicans picked a nominee who was simpatico with Sanders in support of economic nationalism and in excoriating the political establishment. 2016 was a year of political discontent. Both Sanders and Trump were able to capitalize on it. Hillary was seen as a tribune of the establishment and could not convince voters she would be a change agent.


Most politicians are tightly scripted. A news reporter asks a question, and the politician has a preformulated response. If the question is: “Will you run for President in 2020?” the candidate responds in the present tense: “I am not running for President. I love the job I am doing.” If asked about a past impropriety, the politician responds: “We have answered all the question on that. We are moving forward. I am continuing to work for a growing economy, a better healthcare system, and an education system where all students can reach their true potential.” If asked about a potential challenger, the candidate opines: “Well, I look forward to a spirited campaign, where I can continue to discuss my work to help my constituents succeed.”

When politicians believe the microphone is off, they stop being polite and start getting real. Most are far less scripted when the cameras and microphones are off. Once in a blue moon their constituents get to see what is under the veneer, how they really feel. This dynamic occurred recently when a conversation between U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI) was overheard on a hot microphone.

Following a hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, Chairwoman Collins forgot to turn her microphone off. Accordingly, America got to hear what she really thinks during a conversation with Reed, the committee’s ranking member. During the conversation,Collins said to Reed: “I swear, [the Office of Management and Budget] just went through and whenever there was ‘grant,’ they just X it out. Collins continued: “With no measurement, no thinking about it, no metrics, no nothing. It’s just incredibly irresponsible.” Reed responded, referring to President Donald Trump: “I think he’s crazy, I mean, I don’t say that lightly, and as kind of a goofy guy. “

Later in the conversation, referring to a statement by U.S. Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) where he said if Collins were not a female he would challenge her to a duel, Collins said to Reed: “Well, he’s huge and he — I don’t mean to be unkind, but he’s so unattractive it’s unbelievable.”

American political history is littered with examples where politicians informally stated what they really think, or made private jokes without realizing their proximity to a live microphone.

One frank conversation that could have set off a world crises occurred in 1984. Immediately before delivering a weekly radio address, President Ronald Reagan joked: “My fellow Americans. I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” He later found out his microphone was on and that his statement was broadcast worldwide.

In 1991, U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) told a dirty joke to his fellow Democratic Presidential aspirant Bill Clinton while both men waited to address a roast for U.S. Representative Dick Swett (D-NH). A C-SPAN microphone picked up the joke about fellow Presidential candidate Jerry Brown and two lesbians. Kerrey joked that Brown (who was single at the time) went into a bar and expressed interest in one of two women sitting at the bar. The bartender told Brown both women are lesbians. Brown asked the bartender how he knew. The bartender proceeded to illustrate a graphic sex act he witnessed between the two women. The punch line had Brown saying he would like to perform the same act on the woman and asking: “Does that make me a lesbian?”

Kerrey apologized for the remark by exclaiming that the comment “was encouraged by the spirit of the event. There were a lot of locker-room jokes going around . . . including some about me—‘one-legged’ jokes” (Kerrey lost a leg in Vietnam).

Later during that campaign cycle, it was Clinton who had to employ damage control. A news reporter asked him what he thought about the report that the Reverend Jesse Jackson had endorsed U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) over Clinton. The report was later proved inaccurate. Jackson had not endorsed any Presidential candidate. Believing the camera was not on, an incensed Clinton responded: “It’s an outrage, a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do. For him to do this, for me to hear this on a television program, is an act of absolute dishonor.”

Clinton’s answer took news headlines away from Clinton’s message, as the news media focused like a laser beam for the next few days on Clinton’s statement. Jackson replied: “I am disturbed by the tone of the blast at my integrity, my character. I feel blind-sided by what I saw and heard him say.”

In 1994, U.S. Representative Martin R. Hoke (R-OH) was about to be interviewed jointly with U.S. Representative Eric Fingerhut (D-OH) after President Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union Address. A female television producer asked Hoke to unbutton his jacket. Hoke responded: “You can ask me to do anything you want.” Hoke then said to Fingerhut: “She’s got ze beega breasts.” The incident was taped, though not broadcast live. The tape was soon played on Cleveland television stations, prompting Hoke to publicly apologize and declare: “I need a 2-by-4 to the head.”

In 1997, then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was caught on a live microphone telling a counterpart at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Expansion Summit: “All this for short-term political reasons, to win elections. In fact [U.S. politicians] are selling their votes, they are selling their votes…. It’s incredible. In your country or mine, all the politicians would be in prison.”

At a campaign rally in Naperville, Illinois in 2000, where the Republican nominees for President and Vice President, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, were on the podium waving to the assembled crowd and getting ready to speak, Cheney noticed Adam Clymer of The New York Times with other members of the press. Cheney said to Bush: “There’s Adam Clymer, Major League Asshole from The New York Times.” Bush responded: “Oh yeah, he is big time.” The microphone picked up the conversation, and it became front-page news. The reason Bush and Cheney had such a negative view of Clymer is that he wrote an article concluding that Cheney donated just 1% of the money he had earned in the energy industry to charity.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 hijackings, Acting Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift delivered an address to the Commonwealth, announcing that State Police Superintendent John DiFava would replace Joe Lawless as Airport Security Chief. With the microphone still on, Swift stated: “They Work for me and they know I’m in a firing mood. Just kidding. I hope my mic wasn’t on.”

In 2010, U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina was caught on an open microphone lampooning her opponent, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Talking with campaign aides, Fiorina mentioned that a friend of hers had seen Boxer on television “And she said what everyone says. ‘God, what is that hair? So yesterday.’”

Senators Collins and Reed are the most recent in a long litany of politicians who have been caught speaking their true feelings. One would think that politicians would use abundant judiciousness when entering a room where there could be a microphone. In fact, it would be wise to assume that live microphones are everywhere. Serious consequences may result when politicians are caught off guard and speak “candidly” as opposed to “politically.”


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