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What Kind of History Did Hillary Clinton Make?

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

What Kind of History Did Hillary Clinton Make?

Hillary Clinton is on her book tour, and you’re still hearing a lot of damning-with-faint-praise plaudits that salute her for “making history” – in the Boston Globe, Glamour, Democrats speaking to RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere.

Yes, Clinton was indeed the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination in American history. But the “SHE MADE HISTORY!” rallying cry is a lot of hand-waving to distract from not merely her defeat, but that she had perhaps the easiest path to winning that nomination of any presidential candidate in recent memory, other than Al Gore in 2000. There’s a strong argument that Hillary Clinton was the Democratic party’s presidential nominee-in-waiting since spring of 2008 when she lost the nomination to Barack Obama. If she didn’t have the nomination quite handed to her by the party, she didn’t need to yank it away from anyone else, either.

She was the heaviest of favorites in the primary from the beginning. Back in 2012, 86 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable opinion of her, and 61 percent said they wanted her to be the party’s nominee; the next closest was Vice President Joe Biden with 12 percent. That’s about as big an advantage as one can imagine in this era.

Her primary win would be more impressive if she had defeated Biden, but the vice president chose not to run, in large part because of unforeseen family tragedies. The rest of the field was a freak-show: Jim Webb running for the nomination of a hawkish rural Democratic party that didn’t exist anymore; bland, forgettable Martin O’Malley, neither centrist nor leftist but just kind of there; weird and awkward Lincoln Chafee, pledging to convert America to the metric system. Not even boxing promoter Don King ever lined up a bunch of tomato cans like this.

That left Bernie Sanders, the 75-year-old Socialist with little name ID who resembled Larry David and came from a state with three electoral votes. Even then, in late October 2015, Clinton led Sanders in national polling, 62 percent to 31 percent. She headed into the primary fight with way more money, the endorsement of just about every major figure in the Democratic party, and the widespread perception that the Democratic National Committee was attempting to grease the skids for her. The Democratic Party’s “super-delegates” – elected officials whose votes are the equivalent of many, many primary voters – preferred her, 570 to 44.

That’s a huge set of institutional advantages, and yet she still almost bobbled the nomination away! In hindsight, her difficulty in putting away Sanders week after week should have been a screaming klaxon of her deficiencies as a presidential candidate. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver was prophetic when he wrote in May, “the Democratic Party must decide if they want the candidate with the momentum who is best positioned to beat Trump or if they are willing to roll the dice and court disaster simply to protect the status quo for the political and financial establishment of this country.” Democrats chose to roll the dice, and came up snake-eyes.

“Hillary made history by winning the nomination” is another way of saying “Hillary made history by managing to not lose the nomination with institutional advantages that no other candidate is likely to enjoy for the next few decades.”

And then she headed into a general election with another slew of institutional advantages: her campaign spent twice as much as Trump’s did, the media detested Trump, and the Republican nominee stumbled from one mess to another. Many prominent Republicans skipped their party’s convention in Cleveland while the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia went off without a hitch. Clinton may complain about FBI Director James Comey’s last minute reopening (and re-closing!) of the  bureau’s investigation of her, but it’s not like Trump had a smooth final month with the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape in early October. Sure, the first line of Hillary’s obituary will mention she was the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. But it’s likely to continue, “and the loser in the most shocking upset in American political history.”


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