In their quick and Orwellian rewriting of the campaign history, the Clinton camp quickly moved from being in an election they could not lose to one in which multiple external factors conspired to make it an election which Hillary could not win. Even many Democrats continue to accept Clinton’s excuses and ignore what Andrew Sullivan calls, “one of the worst campaigns in recent history, leading to the Trump nightmare.” Matt Taibbi, who recently debunked the arguments from the Clinton camp that opposition to Clinton from Sanders’ supporters was based upon Russian propaganda, had excellent coverage of the race, which showed many of the weaknesses in Clinton and her campaign. He collected some of his articles in the book Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. The book concludes with an epilogue which explains why Clinton lost.
The epilogue dealt with many topics I have also written about, including the betrayal betrayal of liberal principles staring while Bill Clinton was president. He wrote about how the Clintons were doomed by their greed, as they violated principles to make money from their position without consideration of the consequences. He wrote that, The Clintons probably should have left politics the moment they decided they didn’t care what the public thought about how they made their money.” Instead we had an election in which Clinton’s lack of ethics, seen in stories ranging from the Foundation scandals to her paid speeches, verified the suspicions of voters that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted, negating Donald Trump’s major negatives.
The only “ideas” at the core of the DLC strategy were that Democrats were better than Republicans, and that winning was better than losing. To make Democrats more competitive, they made two important changes. One was the embrace of “market-based” solutions, which opened the door for the party to compete with Republicans for donations from Wall Street and heavy industry.
The other big trade-off was on race. The Clinton revolution was designed as a response to Dick Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which was based on dominating among whites from the South who nurtured resentments about the post–civil rights consensus.
To win those white voters back, the Clintons “triangulated” against liberal orthodoxies, pledging to end “welfare as we know it” and to punish criminals instead of “explaining away their behavior.” Liberal dog-whistling, if you will. Candidate Bill Clinton even went out of his way to attend the execution of a mentally deficient black man named Ricky Ray Rector during the 1992 campaign to signal his seriousness.
The original DLC positions on policing sound almost identical to current Trumpian rhetoric. “The U.S. has unwittingly allowed itself to unilaterally disarm in the domestic war against violent crime,” the group wrote, as part of its argument for a bigger federal role in law enforcement and the expanded use of “community policing.”
These moves worked in large part because of the personal magnetism of the Clintons. Bill and Hillary both seemed energetic and optimistic. Much of the world was enthralled by them, this power couple of intellectual equals. They were something modern, with their can-do positive attitude, which was marketed almost like a political version of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.
Moreover, Bill Clinton was nobody’s idea of a plutocrat back then. He was a self-made success story from a hardscrabble background, raised by a single mom in a rural Arkansas town literally called Hope. He was thought of both as an overgrown hillbilly and “the first black president.”
Clinton looked like a man of the people. He had to be torn away from campaign stops and chatted up everyone from truckers to waitresses to toll operators. He even had a bad junk-food habit, a quality then-Bill shares with today’s Donald Trump.
It helped that Bill Clinton’s first presidential opponent, George H. W. Bush, was a calcified Connecticut aristocrat who had been pampered in power for so long, he didn’t know how checkout lanes worked when he visited a supermarket.
They won, and kept winning, their success papering over fault lines building in the party.
In the sixteen years after Bill left office, a lot changed. For one thing, the Clintons personally emerged from the experience of the presidency deeply embittered by press criticism. They became fatalistic rather than optimistic about the burdens of power.
In that Politico piece after the election, an unnamed “longtime confidant” explained that Hillary and Bill decided to embark on a moneymaking campaign after Bill left office because they figured they would get criticized either way.
“Her outlook is, ‘I get whacked no matter what, so screw it,’ ” the person explained. “I’ve been out here killing myself for years and years and if I want to give the same speech everyone else does, I will.”
So the Clintons went from being plausibly accessible to ordinary people to living in a world where it was nobody’s business if they wanted to make $153 million in speaking fees.
Soon they were the politicians who’d been on Olympus so long, they couldn’t navigate the metaphorical supermarket line. Shortly before she announced her 2016 run, Hillary gave a speech to Goldman Sachs executives admitting that she was “kind of far removed because [of] the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy.”
There was another change.
The original Clinton strategy of the Nineties had stressed a rejection of liberal mantras about identity politics, and even the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign had aggressively run against the “fairy tale” of Barack Obama.
That Hillary Clinton generated quite a lot of heat among white voters on the campaign trail. The emotional high point of her campaign came during the Pennsylvania primary, after Barack Obama had made his infamous “they cling to guns and religion” speech.
Hillary Clinton wasted no time in calling Obama “elitist and out of touch,” hammering him for his “demeaning remarks…about people in small-town America.”
I was at some of her Pennsylvania rallies that year, when she railed against her eggheaded opponent and riffed on her background as the “granddaughter of a factory worker” who was raised “outside” of a big city. Her mostly white and middle-class audiences whooped and hollered.
Hillary may have been very wealthy already by then. But the former “Goldwater Girl” clearly enjoyed playing the role of the champion of the silent majority. Her stump speech in that race was an almost exact replica of Nixon’s “forgotten Americans” theme from 1968: Hillary’s version was a call to the “invisible Americans” of the betrayed middle class.
But she lost that race, and the size and breadth of the Obama victory against McCain inspired the change to what her aides described to reporters as the “far narrower” Obama mobilize-the-base strategy in 2016.
But decades of those triangulating politics made her an unconvincing vehicle for that plan, and unforeseen developments like the Bernie Sanders campaign forced her to spend an enormous amount of time trying to hold the Democratic coalition together.
Meanwhile, on the other side, she was now pushing a strategy that couldn’t possibly have been less appealing to the so-called white working-class voter. Always an economic globalist, Hillary Clinton was now an enthusiastic convert to multiculturalism as well, the worst conceivable combination.
In the end, the Clinton revolution went the way of a lot of revolutions. The longer any group of intellectuals sits at or near power, the more they tend to drift away from their founding ideas and resort more and more to appeals to authority.
Trump’s rise massively accelerated this process. By late summer 2016, the Clinton campaign spent virtually all its time either raising explorations of Trump’s evil up the media flagpole or denouncing anyone who didn’t salute fast enough.
The Clinton campaign dismissed flyover Republicans as a “basket of deplorables” and then developed their own Leninist mania for describing factional enemies and skeptics within their own tent. In place of parasites, cosmopolitanites and wreckers, the campaign railed against “Bernie Bros,” “neo-Naderites,” “purity-testers” and a long list of other deviants.
In 2014, before the start of his wife’s presidential run, Bill Clinton was saying things like, “The biggest threat to the future of our children and grandchildren is the poison of identity politics that preaches that our differences are far more important than our common humanity.”
But by the last months of the general election race, the Clinton camp had done a complete 180 on identity politics, deploying it as a whip in an increasingly desperate effort to keep their coalition in place. They used language against other Democrats they would previously never have used against Republicans. Even ex-hippies and New Dealers were denounced as bigots whose discomfort with Clinton was an expression of privilege and an attack against women, people of color and the LGBT community.
Meanwhile members of the press who wrote anything negative about Clinton, made jokes, or even structured their ledes in the wrong way could be guilty of anything from “both-sidesism” (Lenin would have loved this tongue-mangling term) to “false equivalency” to the use of “weaponized” information, to say nothing of actual treason.
“You are a criminal agent of Putin conspiracy. And a profound enemy of progressive politics,” raged Democratic strategist Bob Shrum to journalist Glenn Greenwald, after the latter made a sarcastic comment about the campaign’s outrage toward previously lauded FBI director James Comey.
There are a lot of people who will probably say that all of these tirades against Clinton’s critics were on the mark. But it’s surely also true that once you reach the stage of being angry with people for wanting a reason to vote for you, you’ve been in this game too long.
The Clintons probably should have left politics the moment they decided they didn’t care what the public thought about how they made their money. Their original genius was in feeling where the votes were on the map and knowing how to get them. But that homing mechanism starts to falter once you make a conscious decision to tune out public criticism as irrational and inevitable.
It was a huge gamble to push forward toward the White House after they crossed this mental line. Moreover to run for president at a time when you’re admitting in private that you’re out of touch with regular people is wildly irresponsible, a violation of every idea even they once had about how to win elections.
All of these things played a role in the still-stunning loss to Trump. They spent virtually all their time attending corporate fund-raisers—more than 400 of them, according to one source I spoke to in Washington the day after the election—and relatively little on traditional canvassing. And they relied upon a preposterous computerized fortune-telling machine called “Ada” to gauge the feelings of voters, instead of sounding them out in person.
After the loss to Trump, the inclusive, upbeat Fleetwood Mac vibe of the original Clinton revolution vanished forever, replaced by anger, recrimination and willful myopia. A movement begun by future-embracing intellectuals ended on notes like, “I don’t want to hear it,” which became a ubiquitous phrase in Democratic circles.
“Samantha Bee Doesn’t ‘Want to Hear a Goddamn Word’ About Black Turnout” was HuffPo’s headline, after the comic’s postelection tirade against any explanations for Trump’s rise other than “white people.”
“I don’t want to hear it” became an expression of solidarity. It felt like a real-world extension of a social media response, where publicly blocking people during this season became a virtue even among upper-class white guys (Vox’s Matt Yglesias boasting in the summer of 2016 about having blocked 941 people on Twitter is one bizarre example).
The “hear no evil” campaign was surely in part messaging from the Clinton campaign, which went from pooh-poohing any poll numbers that showed a tight race (the media was often blamed for pushing poll numbers “without context” in search of a better horse race) to describing Trump’s victory as the inevitable triumph of an irrepressible white nationalist movement.
We somehow went from “suggesting it’s close is a vicious lie” to “we never had a chance” overnight.
The Clintons throughout their history had been survivors. They made it through controversy after controversy by unfailingly finding the lee shore in a storm. Their talent at spinning was legendary.
Any journalist who ever tried to call a Clinton aide for a comment on a negative story was inevitably treated to a master class in double-talk. The bad thing didn’t happen, or they didn’t do the bad thing if it was done, or even if they did do it you shouldn’t report it, because it helped worse people, and so on. They were like junkies: They always had a story. Their confidence was unshakeable and exhausting, their will to persevere a thing to behold.
But in the end, they ran out of stories, except one last one: They lost because there was no hope. They went from optimism, to fatalism, to absolute pessimism, all in the space of 25 years.
The pessimism of the Democratic leadership is like that of a person in a catatonic crisis. Once they were heroes for finding a way to win by selling out just enough on race and economics. But now that that strategy has been closed, they seem stunned to the point of paralysis by the seemingly incurable divisions of our society, as if they’re seeing them for the first time.
Meanwhile the pessimism of Trump’s revolution is intentional, impassioned, ascendant. They placed a huge bet on America’s worst instincts, and won. And the first order of business will be to wipe out a national idea in which they never believed.
Welcome to the end of the dream.
Taibbi is right that the Clintons should have left politics when they decided to concentrate on making money, regardless of how unethically. It is possible to see how such greed and lack of ethics would have compelled Hillary Clinton to remain in politics, as this is what enable the Clintons to make their fortune in influence peddling. What is even harder to understand is how the Democratic Party, which claims to be so shocked by the corruption under Bush and now under Trump, was so willing to ignore their actions.
The nomination of Hillary Clinton by a major political party was ethically inexcusable. It was even stranger that they would rig the process to enable her nomination. Party rules established after the loss by McGovern, and reinforced by the loss of Walter Mondale, supported the nomination of a more conservative Clinton-type candidate who they thought was more electable. The party further changed their rules and policies in 2016 to virtually rig the process for Hillary Clinton–who still managed to be challenged in the nomination battle despite all the factors in her favor.
Rigging the nomination for Clinton backfired as the party establishment failed to understand that times have changed since McGovern and Mondale lost badly. Instead Clinton was now the type of candidate least likely to win, and a liability against a perceived outsider such as Donald Trump. The party rigged the nomination for the candidate who could not win, and ignored how an unexpected candidate like Bernie Sanders who could have led the party to a major victory.