Jake Sullivan’s rethink

Jake Sullivan was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Eight months after the election, he still isn’t over Clinton’s defeat. That’s understandable given the closeness of the election, its surprising outcome, and Sullivan’s view of the man who won it.

But unlike many Clintonistas, and the candidate herself, Sullivan has managed to move beyond blaming James Comey and the Russians. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe, Sullivan is shouldering some of the blame for Clinton’s defeat and trying to understand his mistakes.

Sullivan thinks the Clinton campaign failed to focus on diagnosing the problems Americans face and relating to their pain. He says Clinton chose, instead, to treat the election like “a job interview” and focus on prescribing policies.

It’s easy to understand why Clinton made that choice. She loves to prescribe and doesn’t care much for listening.

Reading Jaffe’s piece put me in mind of the discussion Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had at the Bush Library this weekend. Asked to name the most important quality a president can have, Bush identified “humility,” the humility to listen.

Bill Clinton agreed. He said “the most important thing is to be humble, to listen, to realize everybody’s got a story.

He learned this, the former president said, while traveling around rural Arkansas during his first campaign — an unsuccessful run for Congress. If Hillary was accompanying him (doubtful), she did not learn the same lesson.

No Democratic presidential candidate in my nearly 60 years of following politics has related as well to ordinary Americans as Bill Clinton did. No Democratic presidential candidate during the same period has related to them more poorly than Hillary.

Sullivan also spoke of the “establishment’s intellectual exhaustion.” He cited the mammoth 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as the most striking example of this phenomenon. Republican and Democratic national security analysts for years had touted the pact as essential to U.S. national security and containing China. Sullivan supported it, too (as did I).

But, says Sullivan, few of those experts paid any attention to the details of the pact and its potentially negative effects on American workers. Instead, they assumed that free trade was a net positive and focused on other issues. In the process, the elite lost touch with the concerns of the very people it was supposed to serve and defend. Sullivan sees this as symptomatic of a much larger problem.

Sullivan’s effort to learn from such mistakes reminds me of the movement Bill Clinton helped lead in the late 1980s to rethink the Democratic party’s approach to winning support among the non-elites — the Democratic Leadership Council, and all that. Will we see this sort of rethinking from contemporary Democrats?

I doubt it. For one thing, it took three decisive defeats in presidential elections to produce the rethink of the late 1980s. For another, the current Democratic base is no mood for a rethink — at least not one that pays attention to the concerns of working class whites.

Finally, most Democrats may well believe that the Trump presidency will be so disastrous that in four or eight years they will be able to elect the far left candidate of their choice. They may even be right.

Jaffe’s article is based on time spent following Sullivan as he spoke to a group of Yale law students. Their main concern appears to be, in Jaffe’s words, “the long-term prospects for people like them in Washington.” Stated differently, the concern is that when they graduate from Yale Law School, they might actually have to practice law instead of assuming their rightful role of telling people how they must live.

One student asked Sullivan: “Is this the death knell of the technocracy and the elite?” If Sullivan hadn’t already grasped the problem of left-wing elitism, this meeting likely would have driven it home.

Sullivan offered reassurance. He said: “Goldman Sachs is running our economy, so there will always be a place for expertise.”

He’s right, I think, about the perpetual need for expertise. My hope is that the experts who populate Washington in the future will be more grounded and less elitist than some of the Yale law students Sullivan met with.

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