Hillary Clinton recently took “full responsibility” for her 2016 loss. Only she didn’t. Instead of explaining what the historian Thucydides once called the “truest causes” (aitiai), she went on to list at least three pretexts (prophases) for her defeat: sexism, FBI director James Comey, and the purported Russian hacking of her unsecured e-mail server and the John Podesta e-mail trove.
Clinton’s accusations also raise the larger question of why a presidential candidate wins or loses an election.
In general, there seem to be five hinges of fate: personality, positions on the issues, the general political atmosphere of the era, the quality of the campaign, and sudden and unforeseen outside events such as depression, scandal, or war. Even a biased media or lots of money pales in comparison.
We can fairly dismiss Clinton’s pretexts.
Take sexism. Hillary Clinton found her sex an advantage in being elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. For a generation, among the most powerful and successful figures in U.S. politics were three progressive, multimillionaire, Bay Area women who, in a most non-diverse fashion, lived within 50 miles of one another: Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi.
From 1997 to 2013 women of both parties were in charge of U.S. foreign policy as secretary of state, for twelve out of 16 years. One could make the argument that “the first female president” was an advantageous campaigning point, not a drawback; it was certainly designed to bookend Barack Obama’s successful trumpeting of being the first African-American president.
Blaming a deer-in-the-headlights FBI director James Comey is equally problematic. His passive-aggressive pronouncements irrationally first exonerated her, then did not, then did again. Faulting the FBI for her own likely felonious behavior of sending and receiving classified communications on an unsecured server (or of Bill Clinton’s trying to leverage Attorney General Loretta Lynch on an airport tarmac) is sort of like blaming the defeat at Pearl Harbor on the Japanese — true, but hardly the whole story given America’s responsibility for its own unpreparedness.
In similar fashion, had Donald Trump lost, he might have faulted the Washington Post for airing the decade-old Access Hollywood tape that nearly destroyed his campaign, as if the clear ill will and partisanship of Jeff Bezos’s Post were not empowered by Trump’s own private, hot-mic — but nonetheless crude — statements. The Germans claimed that harsh snows and the last-minute campaign in the Balkans had delayed and thus doomed their 1941 Russian offensive, as if the Red Army did not have a say or as if Germans were a tropical people.
As far as the Russians, they are Russians — always seeking to throw wrenches into the gears of U.S. elections. The Republicans claimed that their firewalls kept the Russians out of RNC e-mail; John Podesta using “password” for his password invited them in. And, of course, no one forced Washington journalists to collude through e-mail with the Clinton campaign, and no one ordered Hillary to jerry-rig a home-brewed server. The Russian-collusion bogeyman was probably as effective a campaign prop for Clinton as the supposed Russian-inspired e-mail revelations were for Trump.
1. McMurphy Trumps Nurse Ratched
More likely, Clinton lost the key, Rust Belt states that swung the electoral vote to Trump for our five classic reasons.
Her personality, in far different ways, was as polarizing as Trump’s. But Trump was far better as a TV showman, given his long stint on reality TV. Hillary’s voice, facial expressions, and comportment were not winning. Even on the rare occasions that she told the truth, she seemed more insincere than Trump, even when he was spinning a yarn.
Trump’s image as a bad boy was less damaging than Hillary’s as a scold. Both are roughly the same age and, to the eye, not in the best of shape, but Trump displayed an almost animal energy while Clinton often appeared frail, worn, and on occasion ill on the stump. In Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the reader sympathizes with the pseudo-patient and con Randle McMurphy, who does everything haywire, rather than “Big Nurse” Mildred Ratched, who does everything by the book; the former was at least undeniably alive, the latter only ostensibly so.
2. Against Something Is Not For Something
Second, Hillary Clinton had no real sincere position on any issue other than a desire to stay in public office for nearly a quarter-century, and her willingness to extend the eight years of the Obama agenda — an agenda that had never achieved 2 percent economic growth and that saw record labor non-participation, a doubling of the national debt to $20 trillion, and a world in chaos abroad.
Once Obama got wise in January 2016 that he was the most popular when he was not seen or heard, he dropped out of sight and kept silent. Meanwhile, 17 Republicans along with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton hogged the national spotlight and tore one another apart. Through it all, Obama’s eight-year-long stream of dismal popularity ratings gradually improved. But his newfound transient popularity did not mean that most Americans liked Obama’s policies or judged them as successful.
The result was that Hillary played a losing 1968 Hubert Humphrey to Obama’s lame-duck Lyndon Johnson — she risked an occasionally meek nip on the administration’s ankles but was otherwise silent about her own positions to the extent they even existed. In a year when people wanted a change from the prior eight years, Clinton offered none. “I am a woman” and “Trump is a monster” were not serious campaign issues, but they sum up the totality of why Clinton wished Americans to vote for her. Most still did, but not in the key states where Obamism had wrought disaster.
3. Populists Bite Back
Third, voters had, once again, tired of Washington politics. The aura of 2016 was “drain the swamp” change. A septuagenarian socialist, who was not a Democrat, nonetheless almost won the Democratic primary on the theme that a Washington insider Bernie Sanders was at least not a Clintonian apparatchik mired in quid-pro quo beltway payola.
In a normal year, a sober and judicious Jeb Bush, or a proven competent governor such as Scott Walker, or a charismatic ascendant such as Marco Rubio would have won the Republican nomination.
Trump’s supposed vulgarity and crudity only enhanced his image as a reckless (but nonetheless defiant) Samson determined to pull down the supporting pillars of the rotten Washington temple.
But not in 2016, when voters wearied of sermons about their ethical shortcomings delivered by liberal and conservative grandees who were not subject to the consequences of their own ideologies — whether on trade, globalization, illegal immigration, health care, the budget, or foreign policy. Many voters saw Hillary, accurately, as the epitome of self-interested professional politics, leading always to personal enrichment. Trump’s supposed vulgarity and crudity only enhanced his image as a reckless (but nonetheless defiant) Samson determined to pull down the supporting pillars of the rotten Washington temple — even if the wreckage fell on himself, he’d ensure rubble on everyone else as well. Hillary was the EU; Trump was Brexit.
4. Super Bowl III: The Colts Upset the Jets
Fourth, arrogance, ignorance, and sloth are a fatal trifecta—sort of like the conditions that led the Baltimore Colts to be disastrously upset by the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. The Colts’ tried and true and careful Johnny Unitas proved no match for erratic and flamboyant Joe Namath.
Haughtiness, insularity, and laziness characterized the conduct of the Clinton campaign. Even a novice outsider could see that Obama’s successful electoral matrix — record minority turnout and bloc voting, coupled with the drop-off in turnout by a disengaged white working middle class (tired both of left-wing identity politics and Republican bluestocking elitism) — was not going to be transferrable to an off-putting 69-year-old, white multimillionaire.
Not only did Hillary Clinton lack Obama’s youthful vigor and mellifluousness; she also seemed at times geriatric, snarky, and screechy. The result was that she did not win the minority vote at the levels she needed. Further, she galvanized the supposedly ossified and irrelevant white working classes to finally come out and vote, in their own bloc fashion, against her. Obama had guaranteed her his downside but never delivered his upside.
Clinton’s only chance to make up for missing identity-politics voters by appealing to the working classes of the Midwest was to replay her 2008 Annie Oakley Democratic-primary role — by drinking boilermakers in Milwaukee, or bowling in Scranton, or reminiscing about shooting guns as young gal. But eight years ago, the Democratic party was still aw-shucks Bill Clinton’s. In 2016, it was captive to the identity-politics polarization so effectively deployed, in community-organizer style, by Barack Obama.
So instead Clinton doubled down on the tired theme that Rust Belt losers needed to shape up and get with the globalized progressive project and a demography-is-destiny new America. Obama had deprecated Pennsylvanians as has-beens clinging to their Bibles and guns; Hillary updated them, adding “half of Trump’s supporters” as irredeemables and deplorables. Miners were toxic losers who needed to learn how to build solar panels rather than mine coal. In contrast, Trump called them “our miners.”
She made her disdain concrete by never campaigning in Wisconsin and only sporadically visiting the Blue Wall states eastward to the Carolinas. And she was convinced that demography had doomed the white working classes and empowered Latinos and blacks in red states such as Arizona and Georgia.
Clinton’s inept campaign aimed, then, not just at a win (which was attainable by nonstop populist barnstorming and message massaging in the Rust Belt) but, greedily, at a “mandate” that was impossible, given minority-vote falloff and Democratic estrangement from the working classes. Apparently, no one told the campaign that open borders were not a popular national issue, and that Democrats could not win Texas even with Latino bloc voting, and that they could do so in deep-blue California but without any electoral significance.
Clinton surrounded herself with Pajama Boy whizz kids who looked and sounded as if they were on vacation from DuPont Circle in D.C., or Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Clinton surrounded herself with Pajama Boy whizz kids who looked and sounded as if they were on vacation from DuPont Circle in D.C., or Manhattan’s Upper West Side (and who appeared as Stanley and Livingston explorers to the natives of southern Michigan or eastern Pennsylvania). Meanwhile, Trump advisers, such as Kelly Ann Conway and Steven Bannon, acted and talked like they had been around the proverbial American block.
Hillary had the money edge, all the establishment endorsements, a united Democratic party, and a captive toadyish media. Yet she still lost to an outspent Trump, who had never run for a single public office and whose own party and media elite damned him as much as they did his enemies. His victory will remain one of the most amazing campaign outcome in U.S. election history — especially in a postmodern electronic age in which “analytics” and “data” are supposed to make human capriciousness a relic of the past.
5. From Clinton Cash to Non-secure E-mail
In 2016, there was nothing comparable to the unpopular Iraq War or the frightening 2008 financial meltdown that had propelled Obama to the White House. But there was a succession of scandals — almost all Clinton’s — that confirmed the image that she was not just unethical, but predictably so.
Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash is underappreciated for its effect on the campaign. Through painstaking research, it tied together all the strands of Clinton nefariousness: the Clinton Foundation as an excuse to hire political flunkies and provide free jet travel; the quid pro quo State Department nods to those who hired Bill Clinton to speak; and corruption under Hillary Clinton, from cellphone concessions in Haiti to North American uranium sales to Russian interests.
Add to the Clinton sleaze Hillary’s unsecured server and communications of classified material, the creepy New York and Washington careerists who turned up in the Podesta archives, and the political rigging that warped the conduct of the Democratic National Committee.
The result was that Hillary could no longer play the role of the “good” Clinton who “put up” with her husband’s “good ole boy” sleaze. Her new image was that of an equal partner in crime — or perhaps even a godmother who used the capo Bill as muscle. In comparison, Trump steaks, Trump University, Trump taxes, and Trump ties were old-fashioned American hucksterism, but with one important difference: Trump’s excesses were a private person’s; Clinton’s were those of a public servant.
Maybe Democrats can nominate another 69-year-old, multimillionaire female political insider who will run an identity-politics campaign.
The correct exegesis for losing in 2016 should explain the Democratic strategy for winning in 2020: Run a vigorous, mellifluent, and sympathetic candidate; put forth new solutions to old problems; empathize with noncoastal America and camp out there, too; run a campaign as if it were in danger of losing rather than already past the finish line; and prune away Washington, D.C., hangers-on, with their acceptance of corruption as the new normal.
Or instead maybe Democrats can nominate another 69-year-old, multimillionaire female political insider who will run an identity-politics campaign on her gender, on the fact that she is not the monstrous Donald Trump — and on the premise that all the world, from the FBI to the Russians, are out to get her.