Why did Hillary Clinton lose? What Happened?
“What Happened” (without the question mark, because it purports to describe the answer) is, of course, the title of her just released memoir of the 2016 election. We all know “what happened” and are living with the consequences. Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, most especially in three big “blue wall” states she was expected to win (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania), which cost her the only vote that really matters, the Electoral College majority vote.
But the 10-month-old questions of why and how it happened will get a fresh rehash with the release of “What Happened.”
I need to stipulate immediately that I haven’t read the book-length Clinton version of “what happened” yet. I did listen to an excellent long interview with her about the book by the guys (former Obama campaign players, by the way) who interviewed her for 47 minutes on their podcast, “Pod Save America.” I thought she came off well in that discussion, mostly taking, within the bounds of reason, responsibility for “what happened.” Mostly, as I recall it, she blamed herself for not thinking far enough outside the box to anticipate how strange a campaign might become with an opponent like Donald Trump.
As I’ve confessed a few times before, I’m not Clinton’s biggest fan. I mostly hold her vote for the Iraq War against her (don’t believe she ever explained it adequately nor took responsibility for it fully). Still, I voted for her without qualm or hesitation in November and oh do I wish she had become our first-ever Madame President. (Still hope to live long enough to see that highest, hardest glass ceiling broken.)
I find the postmortems mostly off-point. Millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump because they believed he would help them in ways that he will not. Many others weren’t excited about him, but convinced themselves that Clinton would be worse. According to me, that was a mistake and a big and obvious one.
The he’s-not-good-but-she’s-worse reasons many of them gave over the months (e-mail servers, Benghazi, her sin of standing by her womanizing husband, etc., plus many that were not just exaggerated but plain false) don’t come close to adding up (for me), especially considering the alternative. I don’t claim to know how much was sexism (any consideration of which must include the offsetting votes she may have gained by the historic nature of her candidacy). It’s generally true and helpful to recall that partisan loyalty is deeply enmeshed in the DNA of many American voters.
Polls tell us that Clinton also had a “likability” problem. That one sends me to the moon. She wasn’t running to be your best friend, or your friend at all. You would never be in the same room with her.
Judge her on her record, her proposals, her priorities, her competence, her character (with the caveat that there’s a limit to how much you can know the real of character of people you know mostly as TV performers). But please, just so I can come back from the moon, don’t judge candidates on which one you would rather have a beer with. You won’t be having a beer with any of them.
What I really don’t care about is the list of reasons that usually arise when discussing why Clinton lost. Based on the podcast I cited above, she seems to blame Bernie Sanders a good bit, which doesn’t help anything.
Others can retrospectively find every strategic/tactical error she made (why didn’t she go to Michigan and Wisconsin more?), which is the kind of Monday-morning-quarterbacking that is useless. (After you’ve thrown the interception, we all know if would’ve been better if you had thrown to that guy who was wide open on the other side, or even taken the sack. None of us had to make that decision with huge men trying to throw us to the ground.)
OK. Please disregard that rant. Having not read Clinton’s book, my best idea at the moment is to pass along this link to a sort-of review by Jon Meacham for the New York Times. I call it a sort-of review because Meacham not only read “What Happened,” he also read a great many other books written by candidates who had lost presidential elections.
It’s true that many recent unsuccessful nominees did not write such a book. And no one ever got one into the bookstores as quickly after the election as Clinton did. But, after an interval, many presidential race losers did reflect on and write about the experience and reading summaries of them via Meacham I felt a certain collective wisdom emerging from excerpts he provided, like this one from Richard Nixon’s book, written in 1962, two years after he narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy (and before he came back to win the presidency in 1968).
Introducing this quote from Nixon, Meacham says that “Nixon was forever defensive — it was part of his persona — but he gamely took on the armchair analysts about 1960 …”
“Had I lost by two million votes, or more, no one could say ‘if you had just done this or that you would have won. But when a shift of ten or twelve thousand votes in three or four key states would have overturned the result, anyone could make a pretty good case for the proposition — ‘if only you had taken my advice, you would have won.’ ”
Nixon, Meacham says, “listed no fewer than 16 purported ‘sure roads to victory’ — Nixon put quotation marks around the phrase to convey irony — from ‘I should have refused to debate Kennedy’ to ‘I should have been more ‘liberal’ (particularly on civil rights), as Rockefeller supporters wanted.” Or, conversely, ‘I should have been more ‘conservative’ (again, particularly on civil rights), as Goldwater people argued.”
Hillary Clinton tells us she will not try again. Nixon, writing in 1962 as he prepared for what would be another failed campaign for governor of California, and who still harbored Oval Office dreams that would eventually come true (and turn into nightmares), couldn’t help in 1962 being what Meacham called being “self-serving” about why he had lost. Wrote Nixon:
I believe that I spent too much time in the last campaign on substance and too little time on appearance: I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look.
Perhaps, as Meacham implies, Nixon was being a little sarcastic. But he was nonetheless prescient. The amount of campaign coverage that is now about atmospherics, including the handsomeness-or-lack-of-same among candidates, is getting embarrassing.
Gerald Ford was the only person to accede to the presidency after being appointed to the vice presidency. Then he lost his 1976 bid for not-exactly-re-election to Jimmy Carter. Ford wrote in his 1979 memoir, “A Time to Heal,” that when then-California-Gov. Ronald Reagan decided to challenge Ford for the 1976, he called Ford to tell him personally of his plans.
I found that detail touching in an old-school-manners kind of way. But Ford, according to his memoir, took it hard and told Reagan that it would divide the Republican Party and only help the Democrats. Reagan disagreed, and ran anyway. Ford defeated him narrowly in a primary campaign that went all the way to the convention floor. Ford then went on to lose narrowly to Carter and ending up agreeing with himself that Reagan’s primary challenge cost him the election.
Linking that race to the most recent election, Meacham wrote:
In a way, Reagan was to Ford what Bernie Sanders was to Hillary Clinton or Eugene McCarthy was to Hubert Humphrey or, four years later, Ted Kennedy would be to Jimmy Carter: a charismatic figure who won the hearts of many and whose popularity failed to translate to the eventual nominee. [Quoting Clinton here]: “Bernie and I had a spirited contest of ideas, which was invigorating, but I nonetheless found campaigning against him to be profoundly frustrating,” Clinton writes [in ‘What Happened.’]
“He didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law. For Bernie, policy was about inspiring a mass movement and forcing a conversation about the Democratic Party’s values and priorities. By that standard, I would say he succeeded. But it worried me. I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them. When you don’t deliver, it will make people even more cynical about government.”
I don’t know how to feel about Clinton’s put-down of Bernie-the-unrealistic-dreamer. Smells a little sour-grape-ish to me, and I gather there’s a lot of score settling in “What Happened.”
Sanders’ leftish ideas, like single-payer health care, are spreading among Democrats. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dem nomination fight in 2020 comes to a single-payer advocate against a save-and-improve-Obamacare person.
Back, for a quick sec to the Ford memoir, about which Meacham writes:
In the end, despite a great Ford surge through the fall, Jimmy Carter won the White House. Like Hillary Clinton, like Humphrey, like Nixon, like McGovern, Ford ruminated, if briefly, on what had gone wrong.
“What if I hadn’t pardoned Nixon? How many people voted against me because of that? What if I had kept Rockefeller on the ticket as my running mate and hadn’t selected Dole? Bob, a loyal friend, had campaigned very effectively and we had won the crucial farm states. But would Nelson have made the difference in New York, Ohio or Pennsylvania?”
Clinton admits that she is left with a similar, sad, unknowable list of what-would-have-happened-if-I-had-said-this-or-done-that.
To borrow a phrase from George W. Bush, Carter misunderestimated Reagan, and Carter has never tried very hard to conceal his contempt for the man who crushed his bid for re-election. Carter wrote that he was “pleased that Governor Reagan was the nominee,” adding: “With him as my opponent, the issues would be clearly drawn. At the time, all my political team believed that he was the weakest candidate the Republicans could have chosen. My campaign analysts had been carefully studying what he had been saying during the Republican primary elections, and it seemed inconceivable that he would be acceptable as president when his positions were clearly exposed to the public.
Carter’s book, “Keeping Faith,” was published in 1982, two years after Carter had lost his re-election effort to Reagan. Unlike most of the others, Carter wrote less about the campaign and more about his efforts to free the U.S. hostages in Iran, but when he does discuss his 1980 defeat to Reagan, he comes across (to Meacham) as a man who simply could not get his head around the idea that American would actually buy what Reagan was selling. Writes Meacham, quoting Carter:
I did not realize then [in the summer of 1980] that the press and public would not believe that Reagan actually meant what he was saying — although we tried to emphasize the radical nature of his departure from the policies of my administration and from those of my predecessors in the White House.
While Carter didn’t provide much analysis of how and why he lost, Meacham writes that “Clinton has given us an exhaustive post-mortem, from Russian trolling to her strategy to win white working-class voters. She acknowledges that (quoting Clinton from “What Happened”):
“There was a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear in 2016. I’ve learned that even the best plans and proposals can land on deaf ears when people are disillusioned by a broken political system and disgusted with politicians. When people are angry and looking for someone to blame, they don’t want to hear your 10-point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry, too.”
I’ve pillaged and plundered enough from Meacham’s excellent long piece. As a Minnesotan, I must report that Walter Mondale did not write a postmortem on his 1984 defeat to Reagan. Nor did Humphrey do exactly that, but in his 1976 autobiography, “The Education of a Public Man,” Hubert Humphrey wrote of what was going in in his head when he lost to Nixon in 1968:
What am I going to do? There isn’t anything I want to do. I wanted to be President. … I was ready. I’d really trained for the presidency. I know government. We had such great plans. We could have changed things. Damn it, I love this country. We could have done so much good.
Have a good Thursday.