The causes of Hillary Clinton’s defeat will be debated for years, but in the first cold light of the day after, one big cause seems clearer than others: Her complacency. Years of it. A chronic case of complacency, in fact.
There was Clinton’s political complacency: She never so much as visited such usually reliable blue states as Michigan and Wisconsin after the primaries, scoffing at Donald Trump’s claims that he could remake the electoral map and assuming for too long she could safely retain her “blue wall” of safe states (several of which, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, cost her the White House, even as she held a lead in the popular vote).
There was policy complacency: Clinton never developed the kind of central animating idea or program that wins elections and can be communicated in a heartbeat. “Stronger Together’’ is a slogan, but not a call to arms. Nor did she heed the signs. Last spring, the Bernie Sanders insurgency delivered a powerful piece of intelligence to Clinton world, that the status quo was not cutting it with the Democratic base, and that she was far from universally liked even in her own party. She made some concessions to the Sanders-nistas in the Democratic platform over the summer, then largely reverted to form.
There was personal complacency: Just as she did in 2008 against Barack Obama, when the Clinton campaign ignored some states altogether and focused on the biggest contests, Clinton miscalculated that an upstart insurgent couldn’t beat her, and that anxious voters eager for change would settle for less. Once again, she was wrong. Her reasoning appeared to be that after 25 years on the national stage, she wasn’t credible as a messenger of change. But a nimbler, more self-aware candidate might have found a way to assure Trump voters that she had heard them and to deflect their anxiety to her own advantage, as her husband did with Newt Gingrich’s GOP revolution two decades ago.
“She put most of her energy and money into the battlegrounds assuming what was supposed to be safe was,” says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “She and the campaign did not take Trump’s threats about turning blue to red seriously, and they were wrong. Second, they didn’t listen to the message of Bernie Sanders. … The roar from those primaries should have done more to push her to put forward and fight for an agenda to deal with economic insecurity and economic inequality. Trump appealed to these groups through fear, anger and rage. She needed to offer an alternative, and not sure that she did.”
To be clear: It’s not that Clinton dogged it. On the contrary, her famous work ethic was always in high gear.
Yet from the start, Clinton ran her 2016 campaign as a cautious, defensive crouch, painting first Sanders and then Trump as basically unqualified, but ignoring or minimizing the widespread signs of their powerful anti-establishment appeal, while failing to offer a persuasive alternative aspirational message of her own. Given her status as an avatar of the establishment, it may have been the best she could do. But it wasn’t enough.
If Bill Clinton—campaigning for reelection as governor of Arkansas after voters angry at his increase in vehicle license fees had defeated him two years earlier—famously said that his daddy never had to whip him twice for the same mistake, his wife never really learned that lesson.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton campaigned against Obama—an optimistic newcomer to national politics—as a sober veteran who knew how to work the system and was ready to be commander in chief on Day One. This year, in her race against Trump—an angry, pessimistic newcomer to politics of any kind—she adopted much the same approach, and paid a similar price.
In fact, Clinton sometimes seemed to go out of her way to dismiss Trump’s constituency, most notoriously by branding “half” of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” That, too, was a smug mistake that her husband, who sees every sinner as just one step away from redemption, would have been unlikely to make.
A larger problem is that the country in which Clinton was competing this year is no longer the one in which her husband won and governed. The electorate is younger and more diverse, yes, but demography was not the destiny Clinton hoped it would be, because the nation is also angrier and more fearful, in part because of dislocations and disappointments caused by the economic globalization that she had her husband have long embraced. Trump’s protectionist promise that he can bring back lost working-class jobs in Ohio and Pennsylvania may have been false on its face, but that barely mattered.
It’s not as if early warning signs weren’t apparent. As long ago as May, the veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake was cautioning that while Clinton’s steady-as-she goes message was effective with voters on questions of national security, her economic platform was unpersuasive. On Wednesday, she reinforced the point.
“I firmly believe the Democrats simply have to come up with a more robust economic frame and message,” Lake says. “We’re never going to win those white blue-collar voters if we’re not better on the economy. And 27 policy papers and a list of positions is not a frame. We can laugh about it all we want, but Trump had one. It’s something that we absolutely have to fix.”
Clinton had another burden. She was counting on Obama’s backing to lift her support in the swing states he carried, while also fighting the historical reality that winning a third consecutive term is a heavy lift for any political party. She never seemed able to acknowledge that Obama’s mere existence—his policies on issues from healthcare to immigration, and his status as the first black president—had helped fuel the rise of Trump, so tightly did she wrap her cause in his.
Because Obama rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress with the narrowest of partisan majorities, it never enjoyed the broad bipartisan backing that has been the hallmark of major changes to the social contract, from Social Security to civil rights. So Congress has been unable to revisit the measure to rectify its inevitable flaws (even some quite technical ones) because Republicans would have seized on any such opening to kill it. So now the focus is on the law’s problems: Rising premiums and lack of access to care, not its benefits.
(On the other hand, Obama is leaving office with job approval ratings about as high as any he has enjoyed in his presidency. If those ratings hover in the mid-to-upper 50s, that’s no mean feat in a country that, by most available measures, remains as politically divided as at any time since the run-up to the Civil War. In this hyperpartisan age, 50 may be the new 70.)
Finally, Clinton faced at least one other overriding reality: Sexism endures, and it has proven very difficult to elect women to executive jobs. Most female heads of state around the world have been chosen in parliamentary systems, by their peers, not the electorate at large.
It may seem perverse that in Clinton’s case, a woman who would have shattered precedent as the first female president of the world’s oldest democracy lost in part because she was seen as (and sometimes almost seemed to present herself) as old hat. But Clinton in some respects may have been a victim of her own generation’s success at promoting equality for women; pollster Lake says most voters no longer see electing a woman as constituting change.
“There was a time when gender represented change more than it does now,” she notes. “When you ask people today, they tend to say, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve elected a lot of women, and not that much has changed.”
So now Hillary Clinton is a poster child for the perils of pioneering, when she would have preferred to be a president. In the end, this just wasn’t her time. And the change she could never quite manage to convince voters she was offering must wait for another day.
Todd S. Purdum is senior writer at Politico and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, as well as author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What Was Hillary Clinton’s Real Downfall?
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Todd S. Purdum