As the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump continued to pile up, Al Gore was in Florida this week to remind the recalcitrant under-30 crowd that they could, if tempted by the siren songs of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, hand the election to the Republican nominee. Remember Ralph Nader, the Green Party villain? And don’t forget that his spoiler campaign in 2000 paved the way for George W. Bush and the disasters to follow: Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Katrina and all the rest.
The left-of-center political and media establishment has been beating that drum relentlessly. To be a liberal, a progressive, a leftist—whatever label you prefer—and spurn Hillary Clinton, is to be some combination of petty, foolhardy or sexist. This election is too important to consider alternatives.
Yes, there are compelling arguments for people who don’t like Clinton to cast a strategic vote for her anyway: Trump’s flirtation with white nationalists, the mounting evidence that he has sexually assaulted women throughout his life, and his erratic, childish temperament might persuade some voters that running up the score on a Clinton win is a worthwhile compromise.
But the command to fall in line behind Clinton is mostly being articulated in a different and insidious way: one that shifts the burden from the candidate to the voter. It’s up to a presidential candidate to win over voters, to convince them he or she has their best interests at heart. This is one of the most fundamental and obvious truths of a democracy and is easily forgotten by partisans looking to herd as many bodies as they can to their side.
A little under 10 percent of the electorate is considering the two third party candidates because both major party nominees are historically unpopular.
Clinton must make a compelling case to the people, many of them millennials, who are considering a vote for Johnson or Stein. She must find a way to reconcile the flawed nature of her own campaign, still lacking a coherent message or rationale all these years later, and show these voters she is the person to trust. This is not about countering Trump. Voters still want to know who you are and what you stand for. They are less interested in how you are different from someone else, no matter how vile that person may be.
Consider that Stein, the Green Party candidate, and Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, ran for president in 2012. Commentators seem to forget that President Barack Obama, facing significant headwinds during his re-election bid, had to contend with the same third party forces and a Republican candidate in Mitt Romney who also seemed to promise an apocalypse for liberals. (Granted, in the age of Trump, their concerns seem laughably quaint.)
What did Obama do? He won rather convincingly; Johnson and Stein’s roles in the election were nonexistent. Why? Because Obama was a more capable candidate, able to succinctly make a case to Americans for his re-election. And his candidacy wasn’t clouded in the same sort of controversy that still haunts Clinton to this day. Obama didn’t vote for the Iraq War or play a pivotal role in a White House that gutted welfare and sowed the seeds (along with Ronald Reagan) for the 2008 crash.
Of course, there are caveats. Clinton has been in the public eye for many more years, and as The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb noted, a sort of expiration date sets in for elected officials who hang around for more than a decade. Clinton has had to contend with a country that punished ambitious women. It’s also possible some of Johnson’s supporters are sexist. And if Obama doesn’t have blood on his hands from the 1990s, he is guilty of stocking his first cabinet with Clinton-era centrists too unwilling to reign in Wall Street.
Clinton had the field cleared for her years ago and faced down an insurgent in Bernie Sanders who, while momentarily thrilling, was too limited to win a Democratic primary. Her margin of victory, given Trump’s meltdown, may determine how much she thinks she owes libertarians and the left. The only lesson Clinton will draw from a landslide is that she doesn’t have to change or can resume the centrist posture that is instinctual for her.
Rather than point fingers and fear-monger, professional Democrats have to ask themselves why a slice of the electorate still views Clinton so skeptically. It’s not entirely a vast right-wing conspiracy and sexism; I imagine Elizabeth Warren, had she run, wouldn’t have struggled so hard to corral young voters. Democrats have to recognize that in a year of remarkable global upheaval, in which voters are turning away from financial and cultural elites as their fortunes slide, Clinton was not an ideal candidate. Promising Obama’s third term minus Obama is not going to convince third party voters to abandon their cause. The left still has reason to worry about Clinton’s interventionist streak, and what militaristic adventures they may bring.
It’s useful to consider the past. Al Gore picked a staunchly conservative Democrat as his running mate and lost his home state of Tennessee. If his campaign wasn’t offering any kind of home to liberal voters alienated by the Clinton regime, why did he deserve their votes? How do we know the mistakes of the Bush years wouldn’t have been repeated by Gore, a neoliberal who may have been no less eager to invade Iraq? One of the worst foreign policy disasters of the last half century was aided and abetted by Democrats. Its supporters, including the next leader of the Senate Democrats, still walk among us.
A vast majority of Johnson and Stein voters are aware their candidate is not going to be the next president. What they also know is that if they don’t make their voices heard, President Hillary Clinton can, and probably will, write them off.