“I felt like, coming out of it, too many journalists ascribed what happened to tiny little tactical decisions, and I think our problems were a lot bigger and a lot deeper than that.” I asked Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, what the media got wrong about her dramatic loss in 2016 when we met in the Union library. “So, for example, one of the arguments was that Hillary never went to Wisconsin, and if she had gone to Wisconsin she would have won. In fact, we spent more money per capita in Pennsylvania than in any other state and we had the biggest rally of the campaign – primary, general, Democrat, Republican – in Pennsylvania the night before the election and we still lost.” So, how does he explain “what happened”?
“I think our greatest weakness was our inability to push past a lot of what was incoming and really speak directly to the voters about what she could do for them.” He looks towards the future, determined that the party learn from Clinton’s campaigns failures. “We need to ask whether the Democratic Party is moving forward fast enough on our data infrastructure, on the right way to listen to voters and get feedback on where the campaign is going and if we are reaching enough people.”
The Democratic party is currently on something of a soul-searching mission. Faced with a deeply unpopular candidate, who provoked disgust and rage in many Americans, the party was unable to muster enough enthusiasm from the American public to defeat Donald Trump. Now it finds itself in the wilderness. What’s next? Mook has a surprisingly optimistic outlook for someone so instrumental in such a terrible loss. “I think that today, the Democratic Party represents our founding principles as Americans: we the people are trying to form a more perfect union and seek the common welfare of all. That’s what our party is standing for right now.” He laughs in frustration as he says: “I actually wish we could have a healthier dialogue with Republicans about the right way to improve our education system, the right way to get cheaper, better healthcare. We can’t do that right now. Because they are living in this phony world where the government can somehow disappear and people could somehow live healthy and productive lives. That’s just not possible. I’m sorry, that’s a lie.”
When asked about his greatest fears about American politics, he is quick to answer. “That people won’t turn out again. Donald Trump became President by the slimmest of margins. He barely got more votes than Mitt Romney in Wisconsin. Think about that. Barack Obama comfortably won Wisconsin and Donald Trump barely got more votes than Mitt Romney. So, if anybody’s out there thinking that their vote doesn’t matter – sometimes I don’t know what more we can do. The balance of power in the Virginia legislature came down to literally one vote… it’s almost criminal not to vote.”
There was some pushback after Barack Obama’s “return to politics” speech in September, where he spent much of his speech urging young people to turn out to vote. Some pundits pointed out that President Obama failed to talk about voter suppression and its effects, which lowers turnout among young people and minority communities. I pressed Mook on this. “The Republican Party has definitely used voting laws to suppress the votes of young people and certain communities of colour in the United States – there’s no question of that. We actually just won a lawsuit in Florida where they simply banned voting facilities on college campuses, which thankfully the Supreme Court there ruled was a violation of the constitutional amendment that allowed young people to vote.” However, Mook is unwilling to pass the buck on the Democrats’ responsibility to energize the public in a way they did not in 2016. “It is incumbent on us as a party to try to pick somebody who is going to inspire young people to go vote.”
Donald Trump did not prove incentive enough for people to turn out for the Democrats in 2016. But, since then, the White House has been embroiled in scandal after scandal, with allegations of corruption, ineptitude, and reports of dangerously ignorant behavior coming from within the administration itself almost every week. I ask whether the Republican party has been taken over by a criminal element, but Mook is too careful with his words to use my phrase. “I think that Donald Trump has broken the law many times during his career to make money. But I think what’s scarier to me is the fact that someone could legitimately argue today that a foreign intelligence service effectively got inside a major American political party and might be pulling strings.” He points out that there are still many things we don’t know. “But here’s what we do know – during the Republican convention, our current attorney general was meeting with the Russian ambassador, that the Republican party platform, out of nowhere, was changed to take a more pro-Russian stance on the Ukraine, and that the current attorney general during his hearing – during his confirmation hearing – lied about whether he had had contact with the Russians.”
Mook is more familiar with the dire consequences of foreign cyberattacks on political races than just about anyone. He explains: “I think the Democratic Party needs to come to terms with the fact that foreign nations are going to try to influence our own primary and we are going to face choices within our own primary about how we react to that foreign influence. It happened in 2016. It’s not fun to talk about… I don’t blame anyone involved but it happened and if we ignore that fact we’re not going to think ahead of time about how we handle it.”
It is difficult to comprehend how rapidly and totally politics changed over just one decade. The internet, social media, and cyberwarfare have all irreversibly changed the nature of politics. Robby Mook’s campaign for Hillary Clinton was unable to keep pace with the ruthless new digital world. He is now spending his time researching and helping to promote cybersecurity in elections. Having clearly learned a lesson from last time around, he seems desperate to prevent a two-term Trump presidency.