Hillary Clinton’s book-length reflection on the 2016 presidential race, What Happened, struggles to answer the haunting question of how a highly experienced candidate with a massive political machine lost to Donald Trump and his vile clown campaign. The book is less interesting when it talks about the campaign, and much more so when Clinton is assessing the future.
Clinton accepts responsibility for her loss, and allows that she might have “missed a lot of chances.” Most of the book, however, is about casting blame and settling scores: Putin did it, Comey did it, and so did Bernie, the media, Fox News, sexism, Clinton fatigue, Electoral College, partisan loyalty, voter suppression, and many other factors. With Trump losing the popular vote and drawing an political inside straight to win three critical states by 77,000 total votes, thus winning the Electoral College, any of these plausibly might have made the difference. But as Hillary admits, none helps explain how the contest with Trump’s bizarre candidacy was close in the first place.
Many chapters have a title describing a human trait or state of being: “Perseverance” and “Resilience” and “Frustration.” Missing is the trait that most bedeviled Clinton: credibility.
Clinton acknowledges the criticism that she didn’t have an economic message, but claims she talked about the economy in every speech. Her problem, however, was that many voters wouldn’t believe a word she said.
Part of this stems from her own admitted inadequacies as a candidate. Her “message”—poll-driven and focus-grouped to death—lacked authenticity. The book is full of 20/20 hindsight concerning what she woulda, shoulda, coulda done or said but didn’t. She wrote that she constantly suppressed her own instincts because of focus-group findings or staff cautions. Most revealing was the scene her publisher released as part of promo for the book: the debate where Trump acted like a “creep” stalking her across the stage. It was “one of those moments,” she wrote, “where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching, ‘Well, what would you do?’ Do you stay calm or turn as say ‘Back up you creep.’”
Hit pause and poll the audience? Why not just react humanly? She was too disciplined, packaged, and cautious for that. Much to Hillary’s frustration, this contributed to the absurdity that, as Allen and Parnes put it in Shattered, Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, their own reported version of last year’s campaign, “[Trump] could be genuine while lying; she came across as inauthentic even when she was telling the truth.”
Of far greater importance is the credibility problem that establishment Democrats suffer generally. Clinton’s loss can be treated as idiosyncratic, but under Obama Democrats lost over 1,000 state legislative seats and control of both the House and the Senate. Putin, Comey, and Bernie didn’t do that. Hillary isn’t to blame for that.