It seems like ever since Election Day 2016, twice-failed candidate Hillary Clinton has been showing great creativity in concocting scapegoats and excuses for her failure to defeat what should have been the most easily beatable Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964. Clinton has pointed the finger at almost everyone but Hillary Clinton, even though she and the Democratic Party itself bear the lion’s share of the blame.
Before getting into why Clinton lost, let’s go over why some of her chosen scapegoats are bullshit.
Excuses #1 & 2: The Russians and the Comey Letter
Did the Russian intelligence services undertake to tamper with and affect the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election? It seems likely. Did that tampering make a material difference? Did the Comey letter to Congress, announcing the re-opening of the Email Server investigation, have a decisive effect?
It’s obviously hard to say but there is justifiable skepticism that either played a significant role in the final outcome. You still must ask, however, how was the election so close that this is a question? Faced with an incompetent racist misogynist like Trump, even a deeply flawed candidate like Clinton should have crushed him so thoroughly that a couple percentage points, either way, would be of negligible consequence. Even if the Russian meddling and the Comey letter were clearly decisive, Hillary Clinton still deserves the blame for letting the election be close enough for them to be that critical.
Excuse #3: Jill Stein Voters
In my earlier post about the failure of third parties, I conceded that the Democrats have one superficial point. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the three decisive states that Trump won by a razor-thin margin, putting him over the top in the Electoral College, Jill Stein’s vote totals were larger than Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton. If everyone who voted for Stein had voted for Clinton instead, the Democrat would have carried those three states to a majority of electoral votes.
However, that excuse attempts to deflect blame from Clinton for letting the election be close enough for Stein votes to matter. Also, Stein voters have the right as Americans to vote their conscience and cannot shoulder the blame for Clinton failing to hold onto voters who backed Barack Obama in the previous two elections. It’s not their fault that Clinton couldn’t articulate a sufficiently compelling reason for them to vote for her instead of Jill Stein.
Finally, as I have said in other posts, the real problem, in this case, is our First Past the Post voting system and the Electoral College, both of which serve to punish voters who support minor party candidates.
Excuse #4 Traditional Democratic Voters Failed to Support Clinton
Another refrain was that certain traditional Democratic voting blocs, specifically African-Americans and Latinos, failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to support the party’s candidate. This pathetic excuse betrays the institutional arrogance of the party establishment, which sees minority voters as the Democrats’ birthright, that these groups are somehow duty-bound to support the Democrat because the Republicans are, well, Republicans. This is identity politics at its most cynical.
Those voters didn’t “fail” to vote for her. Hillary Clinton failed to give those voters a compelling reason to vote for her.
Excuse #5: The American Voters Are Misogynist
Clinton’s status as The Inevitable One, the First Female President by Birthright, was virtual gospel to the Democratic Party establishment, and her defeat at the hands of a toxic misogynist like Donald Trump made it almost too easy to blame the misogyny of the voters for her loss, but reality gets in the way of this claim.
First, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes, so if we had a genuinely democratic election for president, the United States would have elected its first female president by a comfortable margin (although not as comfortable as the popular margins by which it elected and re-elected its first black president).
And if you look at the states where Hillary lost the election, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, more people there voted for a woman (either Clinton or Stein) than voted for Donald Trump.
I believe that, especially in those three states where Clinton lost the election, that any candidate that ran on a genuinely progressive platform of economic populism, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, would have crushed Donald Trump and his xenophobic fake populism. Hillary Clinton’s gender was the least of her problems with those voters.
Does misogyny still have a real and ugly presence in this country? Of course. Did some voters not vote for Clinton because she was a woman? Maybe, but I suspect those voters already had other reasons to vote against her.
What were the real reasons? Read on.
Reason #1: She Lost the Obama Voters
Hillary Clinton lost the election, narrowly, in three states that Barack Obama won by comfortable margins in 2008 and 2012. Many of the Trump voters in those three states voted for Obama in the previous two elections, slamming a torpedo into the idea that all Trump voters were motivated by racism. But why did she lose those voters? Now we get to the nub of the issue.
Reason #2: She’s Not an Effective Campaigner
If you look closely at Hillary Clinton’s relatively short list of political campaigns, the record is not very impressive.
In her first campaign, the Senate campaign in 2000, Clinton was initially losing in the polls to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, only overcoming that lead as the wheels came off the mayor’s campaign (and his marriage). Rick Lazio, a relative unknown, took over but despite outspending Clinton by a wide margin, he never offered much of challenge.
In her 2006 re-election contest, the Republican effort to find a viable challenger was too sad to be called a farce. Thus, in her two Senate elections, Clinton coasted to victories in a Democrat-friendly state without being seriously tested.
Clinton went into the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries with the aura of inevitability around her. She had the name recognition, the money, and the support of the party establishment. Her only opposition was a first-term Senator from Illinois with a funny name, but he wasn’t expected to put up much of a challenge. Barack Obama was just staking his claim for 2012 or 2016, or so they thought. Hillary Clinton turned out not to be as inevitable as originally believed.
After four years as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton ran again in 2016 and the road to the nomination looked much clearer than it had been in 2008. Her only challenger was a self-described socialist who apparently was born before the invention of the comb. Bernie Sanders’ campaign initially produced only knowing chuckles from those few who were paying attention, but after Sanders took 22 primaries and served notice that the progressive wing of the Democratic party meant business, no one was chuckling. Fortunately for Clinton, the Democratic National Committee was far less neutral in the primaries than they were supposed to be.
In the general election, the only obstacle between her and the White House was a political amateur and failed businessman who had entered the race for the Republican nomination declaring that Mexican immigrants were mostly rapists (although some might be good people). He insulted a war hero. He pretended to raise money for veterans but kept the money for himself until called out for it. He was caught on tape almost boasting to Billy Bush about committing sexual assault. He suggested that a female journalist on Fox News who asked him tough questions was on her period. He urged people at his rallies to beat up protestors.
This man is now our president because former Obama voters in three states preferred him to Hillary Clinton.
Why? I’ll get to the substantive reasons later, but the superficial reason is that she is not effective on the campaign trail. Her speaking style reminds me of a middle school principal giving detention to the entire student body. She doesn’t uplift, but bellows, hectors, and harangues.
The first President Clinton and President Obama, whatever you think of them as presidents, were natural campaigners, projecting an outward aura of empathy that made people want to trust them. Even George W. Bush, who had to be one of the least truthful people to occupy the Oval Office since 1974, seemed more genuine in speeches than Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders is perhaps the least polished speaker in modern political history, but there is no mistaking his sincerity. Elizabeth Warren may lack subtlety, but she practically oozes a sense of earnestness that makes you automatically want to root for her.
“Genuine,” “empathetic,” “sincere” and “earnest” are not words that leap to mind while watching Hillary Clinton speak in public.
Make no mistake. Hillary Clinton is 100,000% more qualified for the job of president than the current buffoon-in-chief. I don’t know her personally, but I’d guess she’s probably more effective and relatable in a one-to-one setting. Most successful people are. That’s not how voters get to know presidential candidates, however, and Clinton’s inability to create any sense of a personal connection with large crowds has been her Achilles Heel throughout her political career. It has certainly prevented her from overcoming her more substantive deficiencies.
Reason #3: Her Iraq War Vote
This probably hurt her more in the 2008 primaries than it did in 2016, as candidate Obama was able to make his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War a point of contrast between him and Clinton. Of course, in practice President Obama was not substantially different on foreign policy than a President Hillary Clinton probably would have been, especially with Clinton serving as Obama’s Secretary of State, where Clinton pursued a muscular foreign policy agenda that showed her vote in favor of the Iraq War was neither a fluke nor an aberration.
This probably hurt her less in 2016 only because Trump had nothing resembling a coherent foreign policy agenda (and still doesn’t more than a year into his presidency), and Sanders ran on economic justice issues.
Reason #4: Goldman Sachs
The fact that Hillary Clinton had a more intimate relationship to Wall Street than Stormy Daniels has with her co-stars is probably less problematic than a lot of other issues, if only because a fawning, subservient attitude toward the economic elites is not even remotely uncommon in Washington. It does, however, make it hard to separate yourself from the likes of a narcissistic and entitled trust-fund baby like Donald Trump, and it makes it easy for voters to think of you when he promises to “drain the swamp.”
Reason #5: The Clinton Foundation
Even if there were nothing improper about the Clinton Foundation soliciting huge donations from nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, the stench of apparent impropriety is strong enough to knock out a bull elephant. It looks a lot like pay-to-play foreign policy, and you know what they say about something that looks and quacks like a duck.
Reason #6: Her Last Name
The Clinton name, the brand that made Hillary Clinton the presumptive front-runner in both 2008 and 2016, is a double-edged sword these days, three decades removed from their first appearance on the national political stage.
As President, Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Many of those working-class whites who voted for Obama twice blame NAFTA for their jobs disappearing and blame Bill Clinton for NAFTA. When Trump railed against NAFTA and TPP, those voters listened.
In a sense, Hillary Clinton is married to one of the biggest albatrosses around the neck of her campaign.
But there is also a deeper problem expressed in the current division between the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and the insurgent progressive wing. The Clintons are the face of that party establishment, which took power in 1992 as the “New Democrats,” a more pragmatic, business-friendly brand of Democrat.
In the intervening two-and-a-half decades, we’ve realized that a “New Democrat” is a Democrat who has figured out how to govern like a Republican, effectively screwing over their core constituencies of labor, women, and minorities, while still hanging on to their votes because the Democrats are still the lesser of two evils for those voters. This is the two-party system at its worst.
One problem Hillary Clinton’s can’t escape is the fact that her name is the brand for the wing of the Democratic Party rapidly falling out of favor with its core voters, especially its youngest voters.
Reason #7: The Nickname Stuck to Her
Donald Trump has a schoolyard bully’s love for slapping his rivals with juvenile mocking nicknames. Most of the time, they just put his spoiled-child personality on full display, rarely having any impact on the discourse between the adults.
When Trump labeled Bernie Sanders as “Crazy Bernie,” that got a few laughs and cheers inside the #MAGA bubble, but out in the real world, no one cared. Likewise, when he tags Elizabeth Warren as “goofy” or “Pocahontas,” it was an applause line at his rallies, but elsewhere people just shook their heads in disgust.
When he says, “Crooked Hillary,” however, that’s a different story. It’s axiomatic that folks on the right would simply accept that name as reflecting a self-evident reality, but that nickname doesn’t bounce off of her outside of that bubble like they did for Sanders and Warren. Fairly or not, “Crooked Hillary” also rings true across the center of the political spectrum, where a lack of trust for the Clinton name helped a lot of those 2008 and 2012 Obama voters cross the tracks for Donald Trump.
I also think if you privately polled those voters who plastered their cars with “I’m With Her” stickers, those who to this day speak of so-called “Bernie Bros” the same way Alex Jones listeners speak of the “deep state,” you’d find a measure of ambivalence toward Clinton. She was, however, a woman and a credible Presidential candidate, which made her flaws irrelevant to those for whom her gender was the most relevant thing. Unfortunately for Clinton, there weren’t enough of those voters to put her over the top in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Perhaps worse, the “crooked Hillary” label really lands with Democrats on Clinton’s left flank, those who don’t think that Senator Sanders got a fair shake in the primaries.
And those voters are the biggest problems for Clinton and her wing of the party going forward.
Reason #8: Hillary Clinton
Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton can’t run away from her biggest liability. It follows her wherever she goes, wearing a matching pantsuit, and it isn’t just her lack of finesse on the campaign trail. The political persona that Clinton has forged for herself probably seemed like a good idea in her head at the time, but by the time she ran for president, and definitely when she ran a second time, she seemed more like a dinosaur than the way forward.
Sometime before she ran for her first Senate seat, I think Hillary Clinton convinced herself that, in order to be President, a female candidate could not show even the slightest sign of weakness, especially on foreign policy. In 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration lied its way into a war with Iraq, Clinton probably believed that a “No” vote could be spun as being “soft on terrorism” when she eventually ran for President. Even after that vote helped cost her the nomination in 2008, she doubled down as Obama’s Secretary of State on talking tough and carrying a big stick, still thinking that a hawkish posture was a woman’s only road to the White House.
I think her Wall Street ties come from another bill of goods she sold herself, the idea that, in order to be a power player in politics, a female candidate has to play the inside game even better than all the old white dudes across the table from her. Sadly, she bought into the idea so thoroughly that, with the sole exception of gender, she is ideologically indistinguishable from all the old white men who went before her. In other words, she failed to represent her gender nearly as well as she represented the status quo.
If the Democratic Party would have nominated a genuine progressive, a true economic populist like Sanders or Warren, that candidate would most likely have crushed Trump in those three key states (and could even have eked out victories in two other battleground states, Ohio and Florida, that went for Trump). Just reversing Clinton’s narrow losses in the three key states would have changed the outcome of the Electoral College. Adding Ohio and Florida would have given the Democratic nominee 325 electoral votes, almost duplicating Obama’s defeat of Romney in 2012.
Running another candidate as the Democrat nominee would have allowed the nominee to confront Trump on the actual issues, his greatest weakness because he has no command of them. The Democrats lost because they chose ahead of time to favor a candidate who ran a substance-free campaign, hoping Trump’s toxic personality would be enough. In so doing, Hillary Clinton allowed a darling of the alt-right to portray himself as a “populist” and outflank her on the left.
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