OPED: Top political leaders out of touch

Carl P. Leubsdorf
Tribune News Service

For three of the nation's most prominent political figures, today is still yesterday. Two years later, they're still re-fighting the 2016 campaign.

President Donald Trump is constantly replaying — and exaggerating — his 2016 success, as if he needs to convince himself he really did win, and did so without the help that even some Republicans concede he got from Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton is still trying to explain why she lost what should have been a sure thing. She's blaming almost everyone but herself, especially the voters who spurned her, most recently in a speech in India that wasn't far enough away for many Democrats.

And Bernie Sanders is out on the campaign trail, still talking of mounting a political revolution. And he's still trying to stir up support for the same unrealistically expansive anti-establishment agenda that produced enthusiasm but insufficient votes to defeat Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

Their arguments may seem a bit shopworn in a country that inevitably prefers to focus more on the future than the past. That political predilection was shown again in last week's special Pennsylvania congressional election, where Democrat Conor Lamb's fresh face and low-key centrist campaign overcame the negativist Trump-style effort by a Republican who stylistically exemplified old-style politics (despite an impressive resume).

Of the three, Trump might have the best reason for a continuing fixation on 2016, given special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of his campaign's possible collusion with the Russians. Despite White House protestations, every week brings more information about connections between Trump business interests and Russian operatives and financiers.

The president has made clear he would like nothing better than for 2020 to become a replay of 2016 against Clinton. But that is probably the last thing most voters want, especially most Democrats, given their disdain for both combatants last time.

That was evident in the negative reaction to the former secretary of state's latest rendition of reasons for her defeat, in which she described Trump voters as backward-looking people who opposed rights for black people, jobs for women and success for Indian-Americans, a rendering reminiscent of her ill-conceived campaign rejoinder against his support from "the deplorables."

"I don't think that's the way you should talk about any voter, especially ones in my state," said Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a strong 2016 Clinton supporter. "I just think that's not helpful," added Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Both are seeking re-election in states Trump carried by mirroring ex-Marine and ex-prosecutor Lamb's successful focus on bread-and-butter economic issues in a district Trump won by 20 points.

Sanders, meanwhile, continues to spotlight his efforts "to elect progressives in communities Democrats have long written off," though those places tend to prefer more moderate Democrats like Lamb, rather than those more liberal. While he always draws good crowds, the liberal candidates for whom the Vermont independent campaigned in last year's special congressional elections all lost, and he didn't campaign for the moderate ones who did best, like Lamb.

With a new book coming out right after November's midterm election signaling a likely second presidential bid, it remains to be seen if Sanders can regenerate his 2016 enthusiasm when his rival won't be Clinton, but some younger, fresher Democrats.

(The one exception may be former Vice President Joe Biden, who sounds like he wants to run, though he will turn 78 in 2020. Sanders will turn 79. More than age, history will be against him.)

The last five times Democrats regained the presidency from the Republicans, their candidates were fresh national faces: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

That is clearly the best 2020 prescription for them — and the biggest danger for Trump — though it's understandably unclear yet who that new face might be.

— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.