THE BLOG
07/05/2016 12:28 am ET Updated Jul 05, 2017

Memo To Democrats: Learn From Brexit, Or Lose

Lesson No 1: We Can Lose.

We can lose in the Fall even when leadership on the other side is clueless, wrong, outrageous, clownish, expecting to lose, unprepared, unqualified, underfunded, split, backward-looking, having a laugh, behind in polls and summoning up the worst in voters.

"Yes we can" lose to that!

The Brits just did.

In their referendum on June 23 on whether the UK should remain in the European Union or leave, after (by British standards) a never-ending campaign, the Leave side, headed by a Trump look-and-sound-alike, Boris Johnson, along with a rag-bag of political oddballs and unsavories, blustered, bullied, insulted, and chanced their way to a win over Remain, by 52 to 48 percent.

The consequences: melt-down in UK politics --both main parties now in leadership fights, the opposition party set to split, separatist movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland surging, the Leave camp fallen out among themselves, the country riven -- and markets worldwide have shuddered, with the Pound battered.

It was a total surprise. But that was not the result of media bias, poor prior opinion polling, an ill-informed electorate, or some British tryst. Instead, observers were so distracted by the antics, offensiveness, and incompetence of Leave that they failed to observe the breadth and depth of the shortcomings of the Remain campaign.

Indeed, defeat originated not in the shambolic Leave campaign, but in Remain.

And we Democrats are making the same mistakes as Remain.

Lesson No 2. Like Remain, we can bring defeat upon ourselves.

The Remain case: the UK was more prosperous long-term, more globally influential, and more at home in the EU, and immediate economic chaos would follow quit and Leave had no plan for that. There was copious evidence, money, and "a safe pair of hands" behind this case. And from long before the campaign began, the polls said Remain would win handily. So a slam-dunk. Sounds like us for 2016, doesn't it?

But no: instead, dunk-slam!

This was the result of five errors by Remain, which we Democrats are also making.

Error No 1.

Those "safe pair of hands" were tainted. The Prime Minister and Chancellor had made their political careers pandering to Euro-skepticism. So their leadership of Remain was an all-too-evident core U-turn. And voters saw straight through it. Leave exploited this weakness simply by leaving it out there.

Here, likewise, our presumptive nominee self-promotes as a qualified safe pair of hands. But she has made two core U-turns: on trade -- reversing from "gold standard" Trans-Pacific Partnership after a career for free trade, and "apologizing for Iraq" after a career before and after as a Neo-Conservative.

Voters see straight through it, awarding her the highest negative ratings of any presidential candidate ever, bar Trump. When we dismiss those ratings as misogynistic partisan prejudice or as "just her likability problem", we miss this big point. And, in contrast to Leave which simply left the credibility issue out there, Trump overtly runs to her left on both of hers.

Error No 2.

Remain compounded this error by dissembling on the core Leave issue.

Prior to the referendum, the Prime Minister negotiated a new arrangement with Europe, including the most sensitive matter in the sovereignty debate -- migration. In the UK, that issue doesn't concern illegals, but rather the surge in incoming legals from poorer Eastern European countries since the mid-2000s when they acquired eligibility for so-called "EU free movement of labor". As here, this gave rise to sentiment that migrants were "depressing British wages, taking our jobs, and changing the character of the place".

Immediately prior to the referendum campaign, the Prime Minister claimed to have negotiated substantive concessions from the EU on these specific matters, allowing the UK to control total migration effectively.

But he had not; the deal was no more than a feeble gesture. And potential Leave voters saw straight through his subterfuge. That compounded both his core credibility problem and the sense among them that they were not only being ignored but that they were being deliberately deceived by someone who just "doesn't get it".

Here, potential Trump voters are not primarily concerned with sovereignty but with their long-deteriorated prosperity, illegals, and with being heard. And we Democrats are not dissembling with our claims of successful post 2008 economic rescue and gains in the 1990s.

But we are missing the point. In particular, our presumptive nominee proclaims progress -- including passage through the Great Recession and advances in the 1990s. In some senses she is right. But in some senses, Remain was also right to claim that the relationship with Europe had been renegotiated. And just as with those Remain claims, when she asserts those economic wins, potential Trump voters perceive that their daily experience is simply being denied. They do not see the macroeconomic collapse averted but the calamity that is -- half a century of stagnant incomes, and wealth with power accruing to the few, including to people "just like her".

That is the point. In her emphasis on the rescue since 2008, she sounds to Trump's potential voters like she doesn't acknowledge or care about the secular stagnation that has befallen them since the 1970s, including during her husband's administration. Every time she speaks "economic success", they hear deceit by someone who just "doesn't get it". The fact that these issues were charismatically championed among Democrats by the presumptive loser in our primaries only aggravates her personal vulnerability on them.

No amount of "more to do" compensates on these matters if her first statement is to claim successes.

Error No 3.

Remain leadership were lured into focussing their campaign, not just on challenging, but on mocking every one of the ridiculous -- and very Trump-reminiscent -- claims that Leave made. Doing so made Remain feel superior, virtuous, united, and right. So they mocked with relish.

But that focus and tone dismissed the real and all-too-valid issues underlying voters' impulse towards Leave. However great the economic costs to the UK of leaving the EU, however risible the twaddle pedaled by the Leave campaign, and however ugly the extremist and racist groups which associated themselves with that campaign, there was and is a fundamental choice to be made between prosperity and sovereignty. That is not to be mocked, dismissed, or discredited by association.

We Americans have faced that choice. In 1776, we chose sovereignty despite the cost to our prosperity for the next half century or more, including a second British war. But our conclusion for independence was far from forgone. George Washington, the slave, dissented. Seeking his freedom, he absconded to join the Redcoats against his namesake owner, our Commander in Chief and subsequent first President. And not just slaves; though little acknowledged now, there were many Loyalists, so much so that despite the eloquence of our nation's founding documents, it is unclear what a poll on independence among then-eligible voters would have concluded in 1774.

So whatever one's view on sovereignty versus prosperity, one is not, by definition, contemptible because one holds a different view on it to someone else.

Yet by focussing relentlessly, indignantly, and self-righteously on the daily nonsense spewing from Leave campaign HQ, that is exactly the message that was heard by potential Leave voters. And, naturally, that provoked very sharp reactions among them, reflected in the poisoned debates, even within families and among friends.

Likewise, by attacking Trump's every outrageous claim with such relish--in TV ads, tweets, and sarcastic, indignant, censorious, finger-wagging and arched-eyebrow-elevated speeches--we convey to his potential voters that we consider their real concerns to be as contemptible as the drip drip of ridiculous statements he makes.

But however great the economic costs of implementing Trump's ideas, however risible his tweets, and however ugly the extremist and racist groups which have associated with him, wage stagnation and loss of political power are not to be mocked, dismissed, or discredited by association.

"Go to my website to see my plan ..." is no answer to this conundrum; few in their right minds do that, including potential Trump voters. "Blah blah ... for the 21st century" is no better, nor is "My record is ...", nor "I'm still standing ..." nor "I fight every day for every hard-working ...", nor "money out of politics ...", nor "experience and solutions ...", nor "much done, more to be done ...", nor "safe hands in a dangerous world ...". Given our mocking-by-association of his potential voters' valid concerns, these soundbites communicate vacuity and are dismissed as "political correctness". And we are deaf to the consequent and resonant truth in that charge only because our first impulse is to jump all over the dog-whistle that also lies in it.

The lesson that our presumptive nominee draws from Remain's failure is that she must vigorously and promptly contest every one of Trump's claims. But the tone-deafness in that obsessive personal focus on his every absurdity will drive an ever deeper wedge between ourselves and his potential voters. If we go on nitpicking, deriding, and condemning him personally, we will find ourselves lured into the same trap that ensnared Remain--to be perceived as being as contemptuous of his potential voters' genuine and valid concerns as we are of him.

Error No 4.

Dubbed "Project Fear", Remain led negatively--its core message to Leave-leaning voters was "quit the EU and prosperity will be hurt". The analysis is almost certainly correct, but neither being correct nor negativity is the point. Instead, the delivery of the chosen message could hardly have been more incompetent.

Three months out, Remain launched with 200 pages of mind-numbing econo-trade-gobbledegook by the Treasury. Economists salivated. But for normal folk, that thudding tome merely concluded that after Brexit, the growth in prosperity would be trimmed--by £4,300 per family--in 20 years time, depending on exactly how the UK exited. Twenty-years time; yawn! A bit less prosperous; yawn! Depending on; yawn! And by £4,300 per family, not £4,400--evidently spurious precision.

One month out, the Governor of the Bank of England warned that Brexit risked inducing immediate disruption and recession, refusing to say if the Bank would cushion the downturn or not. This was a far more effective delivery of the message.

But the Treasury followed up with another "econo-thudding" report projecting two quarters of -0.1 growth upon Brexit, only just qualifying as recession. That convenient cookery--and further instance of spurious precision--was duly mocked.

And markets were quiet throughout, sure that Brexit itself would not happen. So the message did not communicate from markets to potential Leave voters either.

Foreigners tried to "help" Remain; a long stream of notables and world leaders issued warnings. But if their messages were not dismissed as biased--including Mme. Lagarde's due to her Euro associations--they were heard not as warnings but as threats. Even Mr. Obama tripped into that trap, saying the UK would be "put at the back of the queue" in discussions on US trade relations. Given the threatening undertone, these messages proved to be offensive rather than informing.

And all these negative economic arguments were made, in British terms, eons before the vote--three months out is an eternity, not least in the minds of Leave-leaning voters. So their impact was lost by the latter part of the campaign. That left debate at the end dominated by migration and sovereignty, Leave's preferred issues. Even the Chancellor's last-minute intervention, threatening an emergency Brexit budget of tax hikes and spending cuts was treated as the risible panicked nonsense it was.

Do not just shake your head at all this from Remain; we Democrats are doing the same. We have led with a negative argument, emphasizing the damage his policies would do. Our analysis is almost certainly right. But like Remain's, it is yawn-some and hard to drive home--for lack of a clear accessible anchor on which it can be hung and while it is unclear what precisely his policies will actually be. The Federal Reserve and markets have remained quiet about the risks, both likely counting on him losing, so they have not communicated the dangers to his potential voters. Foreigners have "tried to help" us, but their warnings are dismissed by those voters as "talking their own interest" and "free-riding on America"--as indeed, in part, they are. And in the relevant time-frame, there are eons to go till the election--plenty time for the focus of debate to pivot back to Trump-friendly terrain.

Error No 5.

Remain judged that the polls, demography, and Scotland II would do it for them.

Polling ahead of the EU referendum put Remain well ahead, compounding its instinct, in designing its campaign, to aim to hold voter territory rather than to gain it--hence "project fear". A core message of risks from exit, so the logic ran, would drive ditherers/undecideds/don't knows, who tend to be risk averse, towards Remain. And Remain counted on the young demographic, which is overwhelmingly pro-EU.

After some scares, that campaign mindset had ultimately succeeded in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. So all that was needed, thought Remain, was Scotland II (where youth turnout hit all time highs) and all would be well.

The presumption that the EU referendum could be won in the same way as the Scottish referendum proved to be catastrophically wrong.

First, Scottish independence necessitated a new currency arrangement because it was unlikely that independent Scotland could continue to use the British Pound. That provided an accessible focal point on which the otherwise rather convoluted economic case against independence could be hung. Not so for the EU debate as the UK is not in the Euro.

Second, the substantive presentation of the economic arguments by senior politicians only occurred a few weeks out from the Scottish vote, maximizing its impact. As noted, Remain launched its economics much earlier and totally flubbed the delivery.

Third, in the 2014 Scottish referendum, turnout by the young was extremely high, spurred by the excitement of a vote for independence. In contrast, Remain provided nothing to excite young people about the EU, only scaring them with "project fear". In the event, youth turnout was so low that the proportion of eligible 18-24 year-olds who voted Remain (25 percent) was lower than the proportion of eligible over 65 year-olds who did so (34 percent). The young overwhelmingly pro-EU demographic simply switched off.

Again, do not just shake your head at all this; we are doing exactly the same. We are looking for a rerun of 2008 and 2012; Obama coalition II of minorities and women ganging up on white men. We relish those one-on-one polls showing our presumptive nominee ahead nationally, so needing just a few swing states to win. And Nate Silver tells us she has an 80 percent chance of winning. So we are mounting a fear campaign to hold rather than gain ground, hoping to drive typically risk-averse ditherers/don't knows our way.

Meanwhile, we ignore polls showing us vulnerable to a Ralph-Nader-2000 effects from the Libertarian and Green candidates: with those also polled, we are only just level with Trump, even now, at his absolute nadir. We ignore that Betfair, the measure of market expectations, had also consistently put the probability of a Remain win at around 80 percent, even up to as late as one month out. We also have a difficult-to-convey economic argument lacking a clear anchor on which it can be hung, which we have launched way too early.

And finally, young Americans have been enthused by the presumptive loser in our primaries. Though he will doubtless campaign hard, as will the President, the young, even young women, are at best indifferent to our presumptive nominee. So our strategy to get them to the polls is, effectively, fear--to which the young, as exemplified by young Remainers, are totally immune.

Error for Error.

You may encounter other explanations of Remain's failure.

British economists lament public loss-of-respect for experts in general, and for their profession in particular, noting that their warnings about the consequences of Brexit went unheeded. Though there are lessons for them to learn about self-presentation, economists should look primarily to the substantive non-economic issues in play in this referendum, as well as to the long litany of errors in the political presentation of the Remain case. It would have taken extraordinarily strong professional standing for the views of economists to hold against such a deluge of Remain campaign incompetence.

Others blame the low-profile role played in Remain by the Opposition Party Leader. But if a right wing pro-Remain Government depends on its sworn left wing enemy to step up and help it secure a victory, then, as described, that is only further proof, if that was needed, that something is very wrong indeed with the strategy.

Given the other tactical errors, reliance on scaring voters into voting Remain was probably the most critical of all. That tactic worked for those who were already Remain-inclined. But others, offended by all the other elements of Remain's presentation were, it seems, only angered rather than persuaded. And, in particular, Remain failed to scare its own young voters. Thus, Leave prevailed.

Remain's strategic failures should have been expected. The decision to call the referendum in the first place--a completely discretionary choice by Prime Minister Cameron, hoping thereby to resolve long-standing internal party disputes--was an epic blunder. Policymakers prone to errors of that magnitude cannot be expected to design effective strategic campaigns. Even the wave of national sympathy following the assassination of young pro-Remain MP Jo Cox just a week out from the poll was not enough to get Remain across the finish line. The Prime Minister has accordingly--and all-too-belatedly--resigned in disgrace.

Likewise, our presumptive nominee's team continues, even just within the past few days, its well-worn practice of racking up spectacular unforced errors.

Can we be certain that, absent its five errors, Remain would have won?

Well, the polls had for a long time been heavily in their favor, and, as indicated by the subsequent market crash, the economic argument was likewise. And though there is a long and honorable strain of euro-skepticism in British political life, alongside considerably-less-honorable outright media euro-hostility, the result was relatively tight--less than 5 percentage points in it--so much so that Leave leaders themselves, after the vote count had started, declared that they expected to lose. Nothing is certain in politics, but this campaign was eminently winnable for Remain.

But instead Remain made five big mutually-reinforcing and--given how close the eventual result was--decisive errors.

Lesson 3. The stakes are high; do something else.

Our presumptive nominee's response to any concerns is to assure that she "takes nothing for granted" and that she will work harder. It sounds serious and earnest.

But complacency and idleness were not Remain's problems; the strategy was wrong.

And ostentatious earnestness and self-sacrifice in the cause of such a failed strategy will only make matters worse.

We need to rethink.

The stakes are so high that no option should be off the table.

In that regard, note that our presumptive nominee remains only presumptive because she failed to secured the necessary 2,383 delegates from those pledged to her. Her nomination only goes forward with the endorsement of our super-delegates. The father of all Remain's errors, leadership, remains open for us to address.

My view on it, which I first advanced last Fall and which has only been reinforced by subsequent events including here and in the UK, is that neither of our two leading candidates meet the challenge. Both, even at their best, are profoundly vulnerable to attack from Mr. Trump, even at his chaotic and offensive worst, even though one has a "smart safe pair of hands" card and the other has an "amiable can reach the young" card to play against him.

My suggested solution--which I advanced in these pages at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-doyle/open-letter-to-michelle-o_b_8445788.html--and on which I remain dead serious is that the person best able to play both cards, to fend off the danger, and to complete a successful successorship to President Obama is our current first lady, Michelle.

"That is impossible", you say. I say "Do you want to lose or not?"

But however we ultimately settle our leadership issue, what is clear is that if we Democrats continue to copy Remain error-for-error, we cannot evince surprise or dismay in November if, ultimately, we lose our own eminently-winnable poll too.

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Peter Doyle
July 4, 2016