Only a unifying figure can beat Trump in 2020, former Clinton adviser says

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

If Democrats don’t put forward a unifying candidate in 2020 and try to win back at least some voters who supported President Donald Trump in 2016, they will lose, a prominent Democratic operative said.

“I imagine by the time people start actually voting, what they’re going to be looking for is someone that can bring the country together,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a top 2016 adviser on the Hillary Clinton campaign. “Either that’s the kind of nominee we’re going to have or we’re going to lose.”

Palmieri, in an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game,” said that the political press now is overestimating the degree to which the Democratic primary electorate will move to the left.

“The press equates enthusiasm and interest on the Democratic side with ideological extremism, and those two things, I don’t think, go together,” Palmieri said.


Palmieri said she has been “laughing out loud at how wrong these predictions always are and yet no one ever seems to say with any sort of humility, ’That’s what it seems like now but here’s what I know: It will be different in a year.’”

“There are constants in politics, and predictions being wrong a year out are one of them,” she said.

Four years ago at this time — a year out from the first primary contests — “nobody was thinking … that the 2016 campaign was going to end up being an election about the kind of country we are.”

Jennifer Palmieri (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Democrats were “all freaked out” by the massive amount of money being raised by a super-PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, “that they were going to spend on [attacking] Hillary,” Palmieri said.

“As it turns out I think they spent most of that money trying to take down [Sen.] Marco Rubio and other Republicans,” she said. “That money never got spent on us, and yet we lost.”

Palmieri wrote a book that came out a year ago called “ Dear Madam President ,” in which she exhorts female leaders to imagine new models of leadership that are feminine and not carbon copies of male leadership.

But the book is also a tale of Palmieri’s soul-searching in the wake of the 2016 election, which she said felt like “the universe exploded.” Palmieri’s grief at the time was compounded by the tragic death of her older sister from early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 58.

In the book, Palmieri connects her own disorientation to the pain of other Americans, namely Trump voters. After Trump’s win, Palmieri writes, “disruption had come to my industry the way it had to so many others.”

“Nothing made sense to me anymore. Right. This is how the man who worked in coal his whole life and now can’t find a decent job feels,” she wrote. “This is how the cab driver who has been run out of business by Uber feels. This is how everyone feels whose life plan was blown up by some unexpected and confounding force.”

In that vein, Palmieri said on “The Long Game” that since 2016 she has gone out of her way to spend more time with people who think differently and who are politically conservative, taking trips to the South and reconnecting with old acquaintances from her childhood who are reliable Republican voters.

The stakes, Palmieri said, are high. America, is “in search of itself and if there’s a way that we can all exist.”

Palmieri said it was too early in the process to give any particular Democratic candidate an edge but said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is one candidate who is “underestimated.”

“She’s different in that she’ll grab on to an issue that might not have a ton of support or certainly comes with a lot of controversy, and she just doesn’t let go, and she doesn’t care. And she knows she’s going to get attacked for it and she sticks there anyway,” Palmieri said. “That’s something a little different.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock should also get a hearing from the Democratic party, Palmieri said, because of his ability to work with a very conservative legislature.

Palmieri demurred when asked if allegations against Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., of mistreating staff, would be disqualifying if they proved to be accurate.

“It just depends on … how voters are feeling about it,” she said.

Palmieri wrote an essay for Politico Magazine saying that criticism of Klobuchar had an element of sexism to it but clarified that she was not arguing that misbehavior by female politicians should be excused.

“No one should do this, male or female,” Palmieri said.

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