On Election Day 2016, Hillary Clinton garnered a 2.86 million vote plurality, but Donald Trump won the presidency. In its aftermath, America stands bitterly divided, Trump continues to tweet away, and Clinton mourns her fate, punting on her possible use of Xanax, even as she occasionally indulges in a glass of chardonnay. Her words, not mine.
Instead of delivering an inaugural address, the former senator, secretary of state and first lady has been left to write What Happened, in which she vents, emotes, settles scores, and delivers a thank you to her supporters. Most of all, Clinton attempts to come to grips with reality, while relitigating the campaign and its outcome.
Call it Clinton unbound and unguarded. What Happened is self-revelatory, and at times mordantly humorous. Although the candidate’s pain is plainly there for us to see, it does not elicit schadenfreude from the reader.
On one level, Clinton is understandably unapologetic for her loss. Whatever could go wrong, went wrong. There was Bernie Sanders and his “bros”; James Comey and his letters; Carlos Danger and his selfies; Julian Assange and his Wikileaks; and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he who reigns in the Kremlin as Satan might rule in Hell. It is a tableau befitting Mardi Gras or a Boschian landscape, not an American presidential election
Yet, What Happened is not as politically insightful as it might have been. The book fails to demonstrate that Clinton absorbed Election Day’s biggest lessons: The white working class—nearly a third of the electorate—was still reeling from the Great Recession when it went to the polls, and the Trump Campaign was actually a movement of forgotten and neglected working Americans. The fact is that white Americans lost more than 700,000 jobs between November 2007 and late 2016.
First and foremost, Trump’s electoral win was about dyspeptic dad thundering, and the elites of both parties being forced to confront the reality that the American body politic was comprised of more than just coastal elites, the inner city, or both parties’ donor bases. Even the unfashionable had a right to vote, and this time they actually did.
While New York City and Silicon Valley had plenty to smile about as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, the stories from rural Ohio and Western Pennsylvania were markedly different. For the first time since 1993, American life expectancy had declined, driven by a jump in the mortality rates for middle-age and non-college graduate whites. Charles Murray’s imagined Fishtown from Coming Apart was no longer just an intellectual construct. It had become an opioid- and alcohol-fueled path to nowhere.
Unfortunately, What Happened makes no mention of how free trade created a whole population of left-behind Americans, Bill Clinton’s role in driving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or Hillary’s hand in crafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). At best, Clinton chalks up working-class decline to globalization and automation. But as a savvy politician knows, that’s not enough.
In case anyone forgot, President Clinton made NAFTA Exhibit A in his successful bid to demonstrate that he was a New Democrat. As luck would have it, Hillary Clinton was forced to ingloriously abandon the stillborn TPP in the face of Democratic opposition. Calamities deserve empathy, and here Clinton came up short. As Clinton writes, “I do recognize that my campaign in 2016 lacked the urgency and passion that I remember from 1992.”
Likewise, Clinton drew no causal link between Obamacare and how it cost the Democrats both houses of Congress, and a record number of governorships. Reliably Democratic Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland all have Republican Governors. Much as Obamacare repeal has turned into a Republican albatross in 2017, it never was a political gift to the Democrats.
The party led by Obama lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. It was only then, but not before, that Sen. Chuck Schumer owned up to what most observers were thinking—namely that Obamacare was a political mistake, and that the Democrats’ obsession with healthcare translated into neglect of the middle class. As Schumer conceded, the Democrats focus on “the wrong problem” had cost the party dearly. As he put it, “we took [the public’s] mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform…When Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought, ‘The Democrats aren’t paying enough attention to me.’” In that sense, Clinton’s defeat two years later was just another point in a miserable continuum. But as we all know, it wasn’t just about Obamacare.
Adding to Clinton’s woes was our cultural divide, and here Clinton did all she could do to throw gasoline on an already combustible pyre. While Bill Clinton could feel America’s pain and Trump knew how stoke its fears, Clinton, circa 2016, could only play the critic. Gone were the days of the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Clinton embraced the role of beer-track champion.
This time out, Clinton told Ohioans that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and companies out of business.” At a tony Wall Street fundraiser, Clinton lashed as out at Trump supporters as “deplorables.” On that score, What Happened contains a lengthy attempt to explain away Clinton’s remarks about coal, but only offers a meager and half-hearted apology for denigrating Trump’s base. The disparity between the two is telling.
But Clinton finding herself on the short end of 2016’s culture war was not simply the result of unforced errors. Rather, it was the product of Clinton’s convictions, and the logical result of Clinton’s worship at the twin altars of identity politics and political correctness. When it came to paying obeisance to the Catechism of the Coalition of the Ascendant, no item was too small for Clinton to ignore.
What Happened contains Clinton’s self-congratulatory musings for having the first presidential campaign to hire a chief diversity officer. It also memorializes her embrace of the Left’s latest doctrinal craze—intersectionality, in which an offense to one segment of the Democrats’ demographic base, no matter how microscopic or trivial, constituted a potential offense against all. Viewed against the decline in minority community turnout and support for Clinton, this was clearly not the path to 270 electoral votes.
Clinton also takes a bow for her campaign’s kickoff web video, which featured a montage of the Democrats’ voting coalition—that is Millennials, women, minorities, and a same-sex couple, but one that had no place for police and firefighters. Things have definitely changed. Back in 2008, Clinton aimed to make communities “secure and safe,” called for 100,000 more cops, vowed to take on “the menace of meth,” and pledged to cut the murder rate of certain cities in half. Not any more.
Indeed, it is at the intersection of crime and political correctness where Clinton demonstrates how far the Democratic Party has travelled since then-Governor Bill Clinton stepped off the 1992 campaign trail to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, the self-lobotomized cop killer. What Happened also records Clinton’s conversations with Lezley McSpadden, mother of the late Michael Brown, but omits any context surrounding Brown’s death, which resulted in riots in the suburbs of St. Louis in 2014.
Clinton neglects to mention that Brown was shot by the police after he had lunged for Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s gun. Likewise, she leaves out the part of Brown having tussled with a convenience store owner. Regardless, Clinton gets it right as she observes that “by nearly every measure, the Democratic Party has moved to the left over the past fifteen years, not the right,” which is not necessarily a good thing. The country could use a reasoned and powerful voice from the center.
Embarking on what would become her final candidacy, Clinton also lost sight of the electorate’s disdain for dynastic politics. Clinton was not the one-time frontrunner whose candidacy would ultimately fail, or whose slog toward the nomination would be anything but a coronation. Florida’s Jeb Bush fell flat, albeit without same the time, drama, and angst. After spending over $150 million, winning a grand total of three delegates, and losing every primary contest, Bush dropped out of the running on February 20.
Against this backdrop, the relative success of Sen. Sanders’ prolonged attempt to wrest the Democratic nomination away from Clinton should not have shocked her, but it apparently did. To put things in perspective, if Minnesota’s Sen. Eugene McCarthy could have forced President Lyndon B. Johnson out of the 1968 presidential race, and former White House speechwriter Pat Buchanan could have put a dent in President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 reelection effort, then Clinton had no right to expect a free pass.
Parenthetically and without a trace of irony, What Happened recalls the first Democratic presidential campaign Clinton worked on was Gene McCarthy’s. Suffice it to say, Clinton does not even try to explain away how McCarthy was any different from Sanders.
Looking back, Trump and Clinton are the two most loathed candidates of our lifetimes. These days, both suffer from double-digit negative ratings, with Clinton bringing up the rear on that score, and Trump confiding to an advisor, “People really f—ing hate me.”
If there is any consolation for Clinton it is that she got one very big thing right—that Russia is no friend of the U.S. Hardly a day goes by without Trump, his campaign, his business, or his family members making the headlines for their ties to Moscow. Make no mistake, a Clinton presidency would have been dysfunctional in its own way. But the incumbent president is in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s cross-hairs, and the vice president and senior White House staff have all been forced to lawyer up. You can hear Hillary Clinton chuckling right about now, and saying “I told you so.”
Lloyd Green is the managing member of Ospreylytics, LLC, a research and analytics firm. He was opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.