John Feehery: 7 lessons from 2016

John Feehery: 7 lessons from 2016
© Getty Images

I should have listened to my mother.

Mom has been warning me about this election for a year now. People are fed up, she says. They are mad. And change is going to come.


I didn’t necessarily disagree with her, but I certainly didn’t think that either Bernie SandersBernie SandersUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats Democrats say they're committed to reducing emissions in Biden plan MORE or Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE were viable political options. 

I had assumed that political strength would come from organizational strength, from fundraising resources and from experience. 

Never assume. 

We still don’t know what will happen over the next six months. Perhaps both Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE and an establishment candidate from the GOP will seize their nominations from the populists on the left and the right. 

But in the meantime, we should pause to consider what the American people are telling us, thus far.

First, they are telling us that capitalism is broken. 

On the left, they blame the capitalists for this. On the right, they blame the government. 

This is somewhat understandable, after the fiscal crisis in 2008. But frustration has been building for longer than that. Wages for middle-income workers have stagnated for two decades, while the wealthiest 1 percent have done exceptionally well. You can appreciate why those working-class voters are getting more and more angry. 

Second, they are telling us they don’t like globalization. 

Both Sanders and Trump want to build walls to keep immigrant workers and foreign products out of the country. Many Americans, especially those who rely on the manufacturing sector for their livelihoods, see global competition as a threat to their jobs. 

Third, voters believe the political system is fundamentally broken. 

The basic assumption is that every politician is on the take. Campaign fundraising, especially from big donors, might be seen as essential by those running for office, but it is viewed with a jaundiced eye by the average voter. 

Jeb Bush thought he could shock and awe the Republican field with his huge fundraising haul, but I think that just made him seem like a captive of the wealthy. Trump has made the case that he is so wealthy he can’t be bought. Sanders has become the king of the small donor. 

Fourth, they don’t really care about foreign policy. 

Sanders doesn’t talk about it. Trump clearly knows nothing about it. And the voters don’t seem to mind. 

Sure, they care about safety. They don’t want terrorists coming into this country and killing innocent Americans. But they want simple solutions to those threats, not the finely nuanced polices outlined by Bush or Clinton. 

Fifth, the American people are not moved by paid advertising. 

I know that’s a shock to some of my friends who most profit from ad-making, but it is undeniably true. How many millions of dollars have been wasted by super-PACs like Right to Rise to no great advantage to their supposed benefactors? 

Clinton can run all of the negative ads against Sanders she wants, but I doubt that will change perceptions of him. He’s a self-admitted socialist.

Trump has dominated earned media, and by doing so, he has dominated the conversation on the right. If you can’t make the news, the voters will forget all about you.

Sixth, they are telling us they don’t value governing experience, especially on the right.

In 2008, voters placed their faith in Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEbay founder funding Facebook whistleblower: report Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination McAuliffe rolls out ad featuring Obama ahead of campaign stop MORE despite his very thin résumé. 

In 2016, the candidates with the most government experience (Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie) are faring the worst. Trump obviously has never served in government, while Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHouse passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE have about the same amount of experience Obama did. 

Finally, the American people don’t like big institutions. They don’t like big government. They don’t like big corporations. They don’t like big media. They don’t even like big religions. 

The establishment is seen as protecting big institutions at the expense of the little guy. Well, what we are seeing in this election is the revolt of the little guy. 

My mother warned me this was going to happen. I should have listened to her. 

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).