“Was I doomed from the start?” Hillary Clinton wonders toward the end of What Happened, her new book about her failed 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton never quite admits it in so many words, but she probably was.
Although she now says Donald Trump, a former reality TV huckster, was a much stronger candidate than the rest of the crowded field of Republican candidates, it comes off as a half-hearted effort to save face; the former secretary of state and the rest of the Beltway laughed their heads off at Trump’s candidacy and treated Clinton as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee before she ever entered the race. 2016 was always hers to lose, and only Hillary Clinton, with her particular bundle of personal baggage, unforced campaign errors, and monumental hubris, could have lost to Trump.
Clinton’s campaign tanked, in part, because of all the reasons you already know—white supremacy, misogyny, the timing of James Comey’s letter, Kremlin-directed online trolling to help Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpected popularity, the persistent coverage of her damn emails—but also because of her particular Clinton-ness, a quality so nebulous and amorphous that political writers have spent decades trying in earnest to capture it, and one which remains just out of Clinton’s grasp for the entirety of the book.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Clinton said again and again on the campaign trail. Unfortunately for her, this goes both ways. Through decades of being a Washington insider, Clinton has shown herself to be a foreign policy hawk, a capitalist of the highest order, and an opportunist who’s been tarred with the “slime” of many scandals even she recognizes can never be fully washed away. Above all, Clinton has relentlessly embraced the notion that politics must bend to the world as it is—no matter how sordid—rather than imagine the world as it could or should be. It is this quality that she defends perhaps most zealously in What Happened, despite the fact that her unapologetic embrace of that ethos helped create the world that gave us Donald Trump. In 2016, Clinton showed people who she was. Voters in the crucial states that decided the race believed her, and rejected her. In What Happened, she shows us again. Nearly a year later, the image hasn’t changed.
By now, you probably have a pretty good idea about what’s in What Happened, even if you haven’t read it yourself. Your opinion almost certainly tracks with whatever opinion of Clinton you already had. It’s a book that won’t change any hearts or minds; in that way, it’s a lot like Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
If you’re #StillWithHer, What Happened offers you plenty of what you came for. No small amount of space is allotted to the decades-long (but still incomplete) project of humanizing Hillary Clinton. The book offers up personal nuggets about the Clintons’ lives like a pop cultural Mad Lib. She loves to eat hot sauce with her breakfast, snack on Goldfish crackers, and bought into the self-care craze by binge-watching Downton Abbey after handing the keys to the White House over to a guy whose only claim to fame was firing people.
Those looking for mea culpas will get them, but only up to a point, and always closely followed by qualifications. “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made,” she writes. “I take responsibility for all of them...I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.” She then pivots to consider the “strong headwinds” her scrappy little $623 million campaign-that-couldn’t was up against.
Readers’ views of the score-settling parts of the book will also depend on what side of the Clinton fence they reside on. She can’t resist taking shots at young women energized about protesting Trump’s inauguration at the Women’s March who were underwhelmed by her campaign. (While watching coverage of the march from her couch in Chappaqua, NY, and tweeting out “good vibes,” Clinton wonders “where those feelings of solidarity, outrage, and passion had been during the election.”) She doesn’t stop to consider that maybe her politics were always the problem.
In a deeply frustrating portion, Clinton uses the real and disturbing fact that sexism played a crucial role in her defeat as both a shield and a cudgel. For instance, when she attempts to justify her paid speeches on Wall Street, she chalks the whole matter up to hand-wringing around “optics” and implies sexism played a role—not that it disgusted people fed up with the corruption it symbolized.
Most of all, Clinton can’t understand why young voters were won over by Sen. Bernie Sanders. And it is here where the essential cynicism underlying her worldview—and which ultimately played a key role in her doom—comes most sharply into focus. For Clinton, politics are fundamentally about pragmatism, where strategic concessions and horse-trading with Republicans necessarily means sacrificing ideals for the ultimate good of Getting (Some) Things Done. To her, change within the system is needed and worthy, but the system itself can never change.
(Tellingly, in a recent interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, when Klein pushes her on her ties to high finance and says that Barack Obama, who took record donations from Wall Street, was actually quite weak on bankers, Clinton immediately declares, “It’s always been thus.” The wealthy have always showered money on politicians. What is she supposed to do about it?)
Sanders’ politics are about organizing, and about challenging people’s despair about what’s possible and the way things are done. Reading What Happened, it is clear that Clinton holds a basic contempt for this framework. She portrays Sanders as a charlatan, promising people the world, free college, and a “pony” without the hard numbers to back it up. Sanders, she writes, forced her into the “unenviable role of spoilsport schoolmarm.” It’s no wonder which worldview galvanized primary voters, as even Clinton seems to ruefully admit. While she acknowledges that she might have fared better had she tried to be as overtly inspirational as Sanders, it’s obvious that she would have found such a stance too cloyingly idealistic to capably sell. She cannot conceive of a political world divorced from tested-and-true ideas about what’s possible.
What Happened also marks the latest entry in the Clinton family’s myth-making canon, giving her a chance to finesse, at some length, the most controversial parts of her husband’s presidency. In the book’s retelling of history, Hillary Clinton is no longer the 1994 crime-bill-pushing First Lady who warned about the coming threat of “super-predator” black teens. She’s the should-have-been president who, she implies, helped found the Mothers of the Movement simply by introducing a group of black moms who lost their children to gun violence. She also extols the little-known and supposedly good parts of that crime bill, suggesting that the big ticket items widely credited with ramping up mass incarceration and decimating communities of color—like the “three strikes” provision that mandated life sentences after two or more felony convictions, drug crimes included—were included as a compromise with Republicans. Clinton rightly points out that former Vice President Joe Biden, along with Sanders, voted for the infamous crime bill, relying on the same logic she uses to elide criticism of her vote as a senator to authorize the Iraq War: It was the popular thing to do at the time, tons of people were doing it, and I was just one of them, so why single me out?
Gone too is any mention of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law banning federal recognition of same sex marriage that her husband signed into law. (Her role as the first First Lady in history to march in a Pride parade back in 2000 is, however, brought up.) During the 2016 race, Clinton claimed that DOMA was a kind of firewall concession to social conservatives who would’ve pushed for a constitutional anti-marriage amendment. It was revisionist history which was almost immediately debunked, but the fact that Clinton chose to frame it that way shows her fealty to the politics of the lesser evil.
Clinton spent much more of the election than she would have liked atoning for these and other ills of Bill’s presidency, which highlighted the inherent tension of her role in that administration: she was either a normal First Lady, in which case it’s sexist and wrong to make her apologize for her husband’s right-wing policies, or she played an active role in pushing President Clinton’s most toxic priorities through Congress, making all that ugliness fair game to re-litigate. And, just like during the race, the book finds Clinton far from apologetic about her husband’s role in gutting welfare and creating a crisis of mass incarceration. Instead, she hails Bill for building “the new Democratic Party” which she credits with winning the popular vote in six of the next seven elections between 1992 and 2016. Never mind that Democrats have steadily been losing ground at the state level for years, or that the collusion with the status quo the Clintons happily embraced helped get us to the tragic state we’re now in.
What remains just out of Clinton’s reach across the books nearly 500 pages is that, just maybe, it was her and her husband’s politics that have been the problem all along. Had Clinton prevailed in November, she likely would’ve been a “free enterprise” loving, red-scare-pushing president in the same vein as her husband, having only been forced uncomfortably to the left during the primary on issues like the minimum wage and healthcare because of pressure from Sanders and his supporters. She offered the masses no coherent vision for the country, while continuing to condescend to them for voting out of “anger” rather than lining up to take their medicine. The Clintons have always known what’s best for you. In recent interviews, she has reaffirmed her core belief that politics works best when you meet somewhere between center-left and center-right, without stopping to consider that that approach could be the reason her book report-style economic plan fell on “deaf ears” in Appalachia.
One quote in What Happened neatly sums up Clinton’s political worldview and its disastrous limits.
“I do think it’s fair to say there was a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear in 2016,” she writes near the end of the book. “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.”
That says it all. After a career built on steadfastly upholding the status quo, Clinton didn’t share the anger of the people she sought to govern, because, to her, the state of the U.S. is not something to be angry about. Even as she criss-crossed the country talking with veterans and moms and immigrants, their problems were never her problems. As her fellow Americans continue to lose their jobs and homes and fall into medical debt and struggle with opioid addictions, the system Clinton has for years fought to keep intact is humming along just fine. The fact that racism, militarism, inequality, and religious fundamentalism pervade this country, or that poor people are being consumed by the gears of our economy and left exhausted in its dust, is not something to get “angry” about. In Clinton’s words, “It’s always been thus.”
When you read that quote, you realize that the answer to the question What Happened asks is quite simple. What happened? The rest of us wised up.
This story has been updated to add more precise language about mandatory sentencing requirements in the 1994 crime bill.
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