Martin Schram: Big picture politics, painted by the numbers


NEWSBREAK: Happy days are here again, statistically.

Middle class incomes soared to the highest level ever during Barack Obama‘s presidency — up 3.2 percent to $59,039 in 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

Also: The official poverty rate dropped to 12.7 percent — just about where it was in 2007, before the Great Recession devastated the economy in the last years of President George W. Bush‘s tenure. And: The percentage of Americans without health insurance continued to drop during Obama’s last year in office — to the lowest level ever.

Step back a bit and look at the big picture. Start with the Census Bureau’s official 2016 paint-by-the-numbers portrait of America’s political landscape. Now step back just a bit farther and, with that big picture in mind, recall Bill Clinton strategist Jim Carville’s verity — “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Well, if all of that is correct, then here’s the inescapable big-picture truth: Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump couldn’t possibly have been elected America’s 45th president. No way.

Now this: In one of those amusing twists, the Census Bureau’s big news broke in the same week Hillary Clinton‘s publishers released her new book, titled, “What Happened.”

Turns out, the federal figures and Clinton campaign saga are part of the same story.

•The Clintonian What Happened: While the defeated Democratic presidential nominee of course accepts responsibility for her shortcomings and mistakes, she mainly wants to make sure you haven’t made the mistake of forgetting about the devastatingly hurtful contributions of James Comey and Vladimir Putin.

The then-FBI director blundered into committing the biggest October surprise in presidential history. Comey mind-bogglingly announced that, based on what he called new evidence, he was reopening his closed investigation of her use of a private email server for official emails — shattering her homestretch campaign progress. Soon after, he announced it turned out to be no big deal — case closed, but damage done.

Russia’s president ordered a sustained covert effort to undermine America’s democracy and secretly worked to defeat Clinton by stealing and leaking her emails, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.

•The Census Bureaucracy’s What Happened: Focusing on economics (and never politics!), the bureau discovered that in the Obama years, the economic recovery from the throes of the Great Recession apparently was more successful than ordinary people, ordinary journalists and (by their own measure) extraordinary policy experts had generally assumed.

The increases in median income were found in all demographic groups. The nation’s unemployment rate in August was 4.4 percent, which was about where it had been before the recession began. And Obama’s legacy Affordable Care Act (shorthanded as Obamacare), while being vilified by Republicans for most of the Obama years, proved to be an absolute success when it came to achieving record lows in the number of Americans who have no health insurance (and thus freeload off of America’s taxpayers by getting their health care in the most expensive way, by showing up at hospital emergency rooms).

•So Here’s What Really Happened: While Clinton is correct in noting the damage done to her campaign by Comey’s blunderbuss naivete and Putin’s covert attacks on America’s democracy, the fact is that huge numbers of voters had very negative views of Clinton, the Obama years and what Democrats would do for middle class Americans before Comey and Putin ever did their deeds.

Trump was drawing huge crowds in 2015, shortly after entering the race — and many in his crowd were the sort of folks who, in decades past, would have been rock-solid, blue-collar, card-carrying union-member Democrats.

In July 2015, I wrote a column noting that Trump’s crowds reminded me of the folks I first observed as a political cub reporter in 1968, when Alabama’s Gov. George Wallace, running as a third-party independent, began campaigning in Northern Rust Belt cities. People who had favored the liberal, integrationist Robert F. Kennedy (until he was assassinated in June of that year) were turning out for the conservative segregationist Wallace. Why? Because, they said, these were the only two who talked like they had guts, telling it like it is, talking to ordinary folks just like they were.

I ended by warning that those who were treating Trump as just a political punch line might discover on Election Night 2016 that “America’s fed-up, mad-as-hell voters just chose your next president.”

What happened in 2016 was a colossal failure of Democratic message politics. Clinton, on the stump each day, and Obama in his last years as president, failed to talk common sense to the folks who saw themselves as America’s forgotten middle class. They were, in the end, the Democrats’ forgotten foundation.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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