Tuesday, April 25, 2017


I have just recently read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. The title plays on the Clinton campaign's mission to shatter what she herself labelled "the highest, hardest glass ceiling," but which instead ended up leaving that ceiling solidly in place, shattering instead both Clinton's and the Democratic party's hopes and expectations for 2016 (meanwhile saddling the country with the Trump presidency). The authors covered the campaign primarily through "background" interviews and a commitment to wait until after the election to go in print. It is interesting to speculate how the book would read had Clinton won (as most observers, including the authors) had once expected her to do!

For all their criticism of Clinton and of her campaign, the authors remind the reader at the outset that Clinton "collected nearly 65.9 million votes - more than any Republican nominee in American history, just 64, 822 fewer than Barack Obama in 2012, and almost 3 million more than Donald Trump. And she did that while facing a set of trials and tribulations unlike any other in American campaign history: a partisan congressional investigation; a primary opponent who attacked her character; a rogue FBI director; the rank misogyny of her Republican rival; a media that scrutinized her every move while failing to get that Republican rival to turn over his tax returns; and even a Kremlin-based campaign to defeat her." 

That is actually quite a lot! Unfortunately, it turned out to be not quite enough. So the book becomes a kind of autopsy of what is rightly called a "doomed campaign."

Indeed, it is striking how pervasive that sense of doom is throughout the book. Hillary herself is described as someone who "over the course of her life, no matter how good things got for her, she was always waiting for the other shoe to drop." And then then there is the staffer's gloomy mantra repeated periodically: "We're not allowed to have nice things."

People who obsess about the sport of politics, which is disproportionately what most political coverage in the media focuses on, will revel in reading about the dysfunctional features of the campaign itself, the conflicts and competition among staffers, all the usual fare of political coverage. And, in its own way, of course, that is interesting. Even more interesting to me is the conflict between two approaches to political campaigning - presented in the book as a somewhat generational divide between politics as "science" and politics as "art." In this account, Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook personifies the scientific, data-driven approach, while older, more experienced politicians like campaign chairman John Podesta and, above all, Bill Clinton himself personify the more traditional "art" of politics. It was Bill Clinton, for example, more than anyone else, who seemed to appreciate "the transatlantic phenomenon of populist rage."

The account reveals a Hillary Clinton who was superbly qualified for the presidency but who was never all that good at what it takes to win it. It is, I've often observed, one of the curious constants of the human condition that some people are liked no matter what they do, while others just can't pass the likable test, no matter what they do. That this itself may reflect a characteristic weakness on the part of human beings in general - and political electorates in particular - does not make it any less true, even if it does make it that much more poignant.

But, even in politics, being likable isn't everything. Clinton did, after all, still win many more votes than Trump. which ought to count for something. While the book inevitably highlights Hillary's personal difficulties in making herself liked, her campaign's real problems lay elsewhere. 

And there were lots of elsewheres, as the book's account demonstrates. There was James Comey. There were the Russians. And there was the enormous harm done to the Democratic party's cause in 2016 by non-Democrat Bernie Sanders' mean anti-Clinton campaign. (The authors call Sanders' campaign "a character assassination.") 

Indeed, Bernie Sanders' populist attack from the left was largely a mirror image of Trump's populist attack from the right. Recognizing the power of the populist threat was something that "Bill Clinton and the older set within the campaign" perceived much better than others. Hence their (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to move the campaign in the direction of "more contact with voters outside the demographic wheelhouse that created the safe path to winning the nomination."

Herein lay Hillary's greatest failure, the failure to grasp "that Trump had tapped into a vein of the electorate that Hillary couldn't locate - and, just as important, that his much narrower focus within the Electoral college provided a viable path to victory." In Clinton's case, this was especially tragic, because the people she was "doing nothing to inspire" were precisely "the poor, rural, and working class voters who had so identified with her husband."

Hillary had her faults. Her staffers had their faults. But the ultimate fault was what still bedevils the Democratic party as it struggles to find a way forward - a fundamental state of being out-of-touch that has separated the party from its traditional base of support, even as it has sunk itself deeper and deeper into the swamp of elitist identity politics. Fixing that disconnect is, I suspect, imperative if the party is to regain power. Addressing that issue is infinitely more important (and ultimately even more interesting) than the predictable preoccupation with who in the campaign said what about whom!

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