Time does not heal all wounds. Since November 8, 2016, the national divide has only grown deeper. During the campaign, Donald Trump stoked the fires of cultural and economic resentment while Hillary Clinton worshipped at the twin altars of identity politics and political correctness. The social and demographic tectonics that led to the Trump presidency are still shifting. The election continues to be relitigated hourly in a non-stop loop.
With Chasing Hillary, Amy Chozick of The New York Times offers a clear-eyed assessment of what went wrong inside the Clinton campaign bubble. Drawing upon a decade of covering Clinton, first at the Wall Street Journal and then at the Times, Chozick depicts a campaign removed from America’s geographic and cultural center. While James Comey may have actually cost Clinton the White House, neither the candidate nor her minions were doing all that they could to get her to 270, the magic number. At times, they did just the opposite.
Most glaringly, Team Clinton seemed oblivious to the aftermath of the Great Recession and its resultant middle class anxieties. To put things in perspective, in April 2015, with the presidential race about to heat up, nearly half of Americans, 48 percent at that, self-identified as working or lower class. As Mandy Grunwald, a long-time Clinton advisor, framed things, Clinton could sound like she “DOESNT think the game is rigged,” only recognizing that the “public thinks so”—not exactly an “I feel your pain” reaction, and definitely not her husband’s kind of response.
In contrast to the candidate, Chozick depicts former president Bill Clinton as still connected to the concerns of everyday Americans. Chasing Hillary documents Bill going “red in the face” almost daily as he warned his wife’s campaign of Trump’s “shrewd” understanding of white working class voters, voters who were Bill’s base in 1992 and 1996 but were neglected by Hillary’s data-driven endeavor.
Chasing Hillary also describes how Robby Mook, the campaign manager, rebuffed Bill’s request that Hillary deliver a speech at Notre Dame, something that he and President Obama found time to do. As Mook saw things, “Catholics weren’t the demographic that Clinton needed to spend her time talking to.” On Election Day, Catholic voters returned the favor: Trump bested Clinton by four points among that key demographic.
Disturbingly, the book makes clear that Clinton’s take on Trump’s “deplorables” was no one-off gaffe. Rather, it reflected her private and oft-repeated taxonomy of Trump’s supporters, one that elicited guffaws over chardonnay and canapes across Martha’s Vineyard, Beverly Hills, and Silicon Valley.
Specifically, “BASKET #1” was comprised of Clinton haters and die-hard Republicans. “BASKET #2” was voters adversely impacted by the economic downturn. As for “BASKET #3,” the deplorables, this included “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic—you name it.” Suffice to say, insulting voters may win the hearts of donors feasting on a Friday night at Cipriani Wall Street; elsewhere, not so much.
Clinton, in Chozick’s view, was also damaged by a lack of rationale for her candidacy. While her personal ambition was most certainly there, an answer to the question “why” was AWOL. Comparing Clinton to Ted Kennedy and his infamous interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd wherein he seemed stumped after being asked why he wanted to be president, Chozick writes, “there was no meat on the bone. There was nothing for me, or anyone else, to grasp onto as ‘that’s why Hillary is running for president.’”
Chasing Hillary spends three pages cataloging the 84 messages and themes that were weighed by Clinton’s campaign in an effort at a response. In the end, all lacked the simplicity and viscera summoned up by “Make America Great Again.” Somehow “Building a Fairer Future” and “A Better Bargain for a Better Tomorrow” just didn’t cut it, at least not after the economy took its biggest dip since the Great Depression. Clinton wasn’t FDR.
Ironically, early on the Clinton campaign did its bit to promote Trump, along with Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, aka the “Pied Pipers.” A 2015 campaign strategy memo to the Democratic National Committee spoke of building up these three, advising, “We don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates.” As frequently happens, answered prayers are the most dangerous—or, as the saying goes, be careful for what you wish for.
The book also probes the fraught relationship between Clinton and Joe Biden. As Chozick tells it, Biden was scared of running against Clinton, fearful of what could happen to him. Chozick paraphrases Biden as saying to the press (off the record): “You guys don’t understand these people. The Clintons will try to destroy me.”
Chozick’s own relationship with Clinton appears to have been rocky at times, despite the author’s expressed personal fondness for the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state. Toward the beginning of the book, Chozick recalls the first time that she, then a 17-year-old, met Clinton in Texas in 1996. Back then, Chozick’s assessment was that Clinton “seemed nice.” Pages and years later, Chozick thanks Clinton for teaching her about grit and “how to revolt against the dunces.” Her gratitude, however, is alloyed: “Hillary taught me all of that. So what if she hated me?”
Sure, Chozick shares about hook-ups, grabby campaign staffers, and her own efforts to become a wife and mother. But Chasing Hillary is way more than that. It stands to do to Clinton and her campaign what Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain did to the president and Steve Bannon—deliver a highly readable and essential chronicle of the election that just was and likely will always be with us.
Lloyd Green is the managing member of Ospreylytics, LLC, a research and analytics firm. He served on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.