How did she lose? Bob Shrum on Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election

Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton speak at their presidential debate on Oct. 9, 2016 at Washington University in St. Louis (CNS photo).

In contrast to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s earlier politically engineered writings, carefully combed for coming campaigns, this is a real book, written by a real person, suffused with the raw wounds of her defeat. It is marked by the bluntness and occasional tartness of someone who seems to know that her future as a candidate is past. What Happened is also marred by an apparently irrepressible instinct to accept blame and then to pass it on.

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What Happenedby Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster. 512 p, $30.00

1501175564

 

I understand the frustration. As a close adviser to Al Gore during his presidential campaign in 2000, I saw him win the popular vote, have an Electoral College majority purloined by the Supreme Court and sit just a few feet away as George W. Bush was sworn in. As a former first lady invited to Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Hillary Clinton recalls thinking of Gore and saying to herself just before walking onto the platform: “Breathe out. Scream later.” In these pages, there is no scream, but there are engaging glimpses of how she coped with losing what many, even most, assumed was the unloseable election. “It wasn’t all yoga and breathing,” she writes. “I also drank my share of chardonnay.”

This is a real book, written by a real person, suffused with the raw wounds of her defeat.

Clinton also offers flashes of candor about “the times when [she] was deeply unsure” over the years if her marriage “could or should survive.” It did, she explains, because she always asked, “Did I still love him?” She does not need to go into the details—and thankfully she does not; we all know them.

There is often a wry sense of humor, too—for example, in her vivid descriptions of what it is like on the campaign trail: “We took eating very seriously.” She also reprises a slightly off-color piece of 1950s doggerel a friend sent her after the election:

The will of the people

Has clearly been shown.

Let's all get together;

Let bitterness pass.

I'll hug your elephant;

And you kiss my ass.

The candor has its limits. Clinton notes that she was the first first lady to participate in a gay pride parade but never reflects on the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy he devised (both of them subsequently dismantled by President Obama). Similarly, she assails Republicans for provisions in the 1994 crime bills such as “long sentences” that ravaged a generation of young African-Americans, but she passes over her own memorable invocation at the time of the incendiary term “superpredators.”

Clinton concedes “mistakes” that were “mine and mine alone.” Well, not quite. It was a mistake to give paid speeches to groups like the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, she writes, but everybody else gave them after they left office. It was a mistake to use private email while serving as secretary of state, but everybody did. Bill Clinton “regret[s]” the “firestorm” triggered when he climbed uninvited onto Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane in Phoenix at the height of the F.B.I.’s email investigation, but nothing happened beyond “exchanging pleasantries.”

Resentment is a recurring trope and is at times fully justified. She recounts her distress when NBC’s Matt Lauer, hosting a national security forum, questioned her almost exclusively about the email controversy, then let Trump glide by with questions that barely challenged his juvenile grasp of global threats and realities. Lauer was not alone: In 2016, the evening news on the major networks lavished 100 minutes of coverage on Clinton’s emails and devoted just 32 minutes to campaign-related public policy.

In 2016, the evening news lavished 100 minutes of coverage on Clinton’s emails and devoted just 32 minutes to campaign-related public policy.

Her case seems weaker, even hollow, when she assails Bernie Sanders. She allows that he hit the trail for her in the fall but implies that he had no right to run in the first place: “He didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, but to disrupt the Democratic Party.” But the primaries are a contest, not a coronation. For nearly half a century, every successful non-incumbent nominee in either party has faced a vigorous and often protracted battle. The initially unheralded Sanders, an underdog who put up an unexpectedly tough fight, did enter the campaign to promote a progressive cause; but as his preparations for 2020 make clear, his aim was and is to do so not only on the stump but as president.

Another Clinton complaint is that Sanders’s pie-in-the-sky promises had “no prayer of passing Congress.” Yet her repeated attack on him was on gun control—Sanders has a few “bad votes” but a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association—and her proposals on guns were, to put it mildly, unlikely ever to reach the floor of the House or of the Senate.

So just because something is a recrimination does not mean that it is not right. Clinton makes a powerful case, bolstered by serious social science research, that sexism was a potentially decisive driver of her defeat. (Any number of factors are sure to be decisive when a switch of only 38,000 votes in three states would have made her a clear winner in the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.) She was subjected to a brutal personal campaign from an opponent who himself is indisputably misogynistic and whose rhetoric traffics in a relentless appeal to prejudice of all stripes, on a scale unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

Clinton makes a powerful case, bolstered by serious social science research, that sexism was a potentially decisive driver of her defeat.

Clinton is also right that her campaign was hobbled by voter suppression and lacerated by “fake news” and the WikiLeaks affair—and then hurt, perhaps fatally, by F.B.I. Director James Comey’s last-minute intervention in the form of public statements that shifted the spotlight back to her emails and deepened doubts about her honesty. But the central self-analytical flaw of this book is that Clinton fails to recognize what matters in politics is not only what happens to you but what you make happen. What she did have control over in a wafer-thin election was her message and the means to deliver it.

To put it plainly, in areas of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that previously went for Barack Obama, she lost the message war on the economy. Yes, Trump’s claims to be on the side of working people were specious. But they were also effective. His explanations for the economic distress of those who have not shared in the post-2008 recovery were trade and immigration—scapegoats, in my view, but nonetheless a resonant message about things he said he could change that would, in turn, change their lives. Thus, while Clinton characterizes Trump’s performance in their first debate as “dire,” the reality is that in the opening minutes, he relentlessly hammered away on trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs and her shifting positions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And in a different context, she herself cites data showing that voters under economic stress were more negative toward immigration.

Clinton fell short in communicating a persuasive economic message of her own. She criticizes Joe Biden for saying this and notes that he campaigned across the Midwest and “talked plenty about the economy.” But his commitment was not in doubt; hers was. He was not the candidate; she was.

The tragedy here is that Clinton had an economic program that should have appealed to precisely the places she had to win.

The tragedy here is that she had, as she notes, an economic program that should have appealed to precisely the places she had to win: “massive infrastructure...new incentives to attract and support manufacturing jobs in hard hit communities...debt-free college.” It was on her website, but who among the undecided or wavering voters bothered to read it? She insists that on the campaign trail, she talked more about the economy and jobs than anything else—and cites a word frequency chart to prove it.

As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality.... Falls the shadow.” The shadow for Clinton is that what counts is not what you say but what people hear. Still, the failure to convey an economic message was not just her fault. The U.C.L.A. political scientist Lynn Vavreck found that from Oct. 8 on, “only 6 percent” of news coverage mentioned Clinton “alongside jobs or the economy.” (Only 10 percent mentioned Trump in that context, but arguably his economic message had long since broken through.) Clinton did have another means to deliver her message, paid advertising, but Vavreck calculated that only 9 percent of her television spots were about jobs or the economy. Instead three-quarters of her ads focused on leadership “traits” or character, frequently in the form of assaults on Trump.

Clinton observes that the “Access Hollywood” tape where Trump bragged about groping women was “a catastrophe” for his campaign. In fact, it may have been a catastrophe for hers: It became a mesmerizing, bright shiny object, and her television ads, the primary vehicle to get an economic message across, endlessly recounted her opponent’s gross misconduct. Even her slogan, “Stronger Together,” seems more about him than her—or as she puts it, the slogan highlighted that he was “risky” and “divisive.”

Trump would have been vulnerable to an economic assault. As Obama did with Mitt Romney in 2012, Clinton’s ads could have spotlighted his controversial business dealings and mistreatment of ordinary workers; then they could have moved on to arraign his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy and to convey Clinton’s plans on jobs, manufacturing and infrastructure. The strategy might not have been a silver bullet, but it could and probably would have been enough to move those 38,000 votes.

The Clinton campaign did not know the trouble it was in at the end because it relied so heavily on data analytics.

Finally, speaking of silver bullets, the Clinton campaign did not know the trouble it was in at the end because it relied so heavily on data analytics and in the last three weeks did not conduct telephone polls in the battleground states. Data analytics came into its own politically in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns; it is value added, but it is not the be-all and end-all in gauging the state of a race. If the assumptions are off, if past history is not prologue, data analytics can offer comfort that you are winning a Michigan or Wisconsin when you are not—which is exactly what happened here. Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1992, calls the decision not to poll the battleground states in the closing weeks “malpractice and arrogance.”

We now know that the fake news, the Russian interference and the Facebook and Twitter bots were even more pervasive and poisonous than Hillary Clinton realized when she finished this book. We are living with a reckless, divisive, unstable, race-baiting and warmongering president, the worst in our history, someone who debases the office and could threaten our democracy or trigger a nuclear holocaust.

What Happened convinces me that Clinton would have been an excellent president, and not just in comparison with Trump. It also lays bare her shortcomings as a politician and reveals, probably as much as she possibly can, her post-election traumas. And between the lines, there is a sense that victory could have cooled her defensive reflexes and brought us a President Clinton who was not only competent but more comfortable in her own skin.

Maybe not—and of course, we will never know. But given the menacing fiasco of President Trump, this well-crafted book is in the end as painful to read as it must have been to write. At a human level, What Happened is poignant, too. Years after he lost 49 states, Walter Mondale asked George McGovern, who had been buried in a comparable landslide, when it stopped hurting. “Never,” McGovern replied. So it is for Hillary Clinton, who stumbled against the unelectable opponent and yet came so close. Whatever her mistakes, she deserved better than she got—and so did the country.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chris Hohowski
4 weeks ago

Yes Hillary indeed would have made a great president including her bringing dignity to women to help them raise their young and actually reduce abortions. Then the rest of true pro-lifers could work on the rest. And to all the haters whose whining is coming: get yourself some help! We’re “stronger together” comes right from Jesus when He prayed for us ‘to be forever one’. God will take care of the rest.

Lawrence McDonald
4 weeks ago

Pretty one-sided and "uncharitable" language toward those who just might, believe it or not, disagree. Is this now what America is about? Unfortunate, charitably put.

Chris Hohowski
4 weeks ago

Disagree all one wants, I’m sure I don’t agree with everything that Ms. Clinton supports. And if you sir, simply disagree without hate I salute you. But the level of hatred directed to her is appalling for those whole claim to be Christian. Getting help for what’s really driving the hatred is indeed chartitable. It goes way beyond her. Especially as her opponent shows (and many true conservatives agree) he’s revealing all her supposed faults himself exponentially.

Kim Paczewski
3 weeks 2 days ago

We have plenty of reasons to hate her. Mostly because she's a political animal of the worst degree. She stood for murdering innocents in the womb. And she's really accomplished nothing, ever to help anyone but herself. From White Water to Russian Uranium. She lied to the American people and deserves to be put in jail. Here's hoping justice will be served. As for the countless females she slandered and destroyed to grasp power and her moment, which was not to come. I praise God!

Chris Hohowski
3 weeks 1 day ago

It’s laughable that you don’t recognize much of what you cite is mad up stories mainly by Russia ( see David Frum conservative) or what Trump has revealed he has done exponentially worse. In any case you can’t be a follower of Jesus without loving everyone including Hillary.
Only Trump bragged about his abortions see you tube. And for your sake get some help. Go with God not evil.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 weeks ago

Mr Shrum
This election should never have even been close, nonetheless tip on the edge of a series of : "If only she would have(S)" ; "If the Russians hadn't......"; "If only Comey had not....." ; etc etc

Mr Trump's many ,blatant , frequent ,outrageous , mouthy, self adulatory , etc etc statements were on full display. He was opposed by every past President , by every element of The Establishment on both sides of the aisle, by every editorial Page, etc etc. . None of this was opaque, hidden, unknown etc. You yourself note that Hillary Clinton relentlessly pounded on all these points.

I submit that the election says far more about Mrs Clinton, her qualifications, and the results of the Obama Presidency than about Mr Trump. In the full context of Mr Trumps stunning flaws, your explanation for her loss falls well short of what appears to be the bottom line: she was even more flawed than the extraordinarily flawed winner. The truth seems to be: Only Mrs Clinton could have lost to Mr. Trump.

Sam Schneider
4 weeks ago

Why did she lose? Let's put aside for a moment the fact she was a disgusting candidate who hated the half of America who dared disagree with her. Let's focus on the fact bob shrum said there was no way hillary could lose and would destroy President Trump last November- and bob shrum's prognostication powers on elections, as his record shows, is about equal to harvey weinstein's record on women's rights..

Wilfreda Castellanos Rodriguez
3 weeks 3 days ago

Hillary didnt defend Ms. Juanita Broaderick when she needed rescuing from her sexual predatory husband ala Harvey Weinstein. Americans see Hillary for what she is.
No wonder women are such victims because of enablers like Hillary and Hollywood elitists

Carlos Orozco
3 weeks 3 days ago

Will that evil, corrupt, lying war and abortion witch never go away?

Chris Hohowski
3 weeks 2 days ago

He’s in the White House so not for a while.

Carlos Orozco
3 weeks 2 days ago

I don't imagine President Trump being into witchcraft. Can not say the same about Hillary: remember her inner circle of spirit-cookers (Podesta brothers) and sexual predators (Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner and Harvey Weinstein).

America should thank God every single day for dodging the worst of the two bad options of 2016.

Chris Hohowski
3 weeks 1 day ago

Nothing could be more evil than a man ready to nuke the world because he can’t grow up. He bragged about his abortions, they were his sperm. Learn to love not hate friend. That’s what it’s all about.

Carlos Orozco
3 weeks 1 day ago

I am no fan of Trump, but I cannot recall him bragging about abortions. In any case, he has surprisingly stood his ground as a converted pro-life person. Hillary, on the other hand, has no problem with partial-birth abortions.

With respect to war, let's remember that Hillary helped armed, through the State Department, many of the "moderate" terrorist groups that desolated Christians in Syria and Iraq. Also, her zombified followers are against any constructive relationship with Russia because of a EXTREMELY DANGEROUS narrative created in order to justify her incompetant loss to Donald Trump last November.

Kevin Murphy
3 weeks 3 days ago

America Magazine still can't get over the fact that their favourite Democratic "abort up till the day of birth" candidate lost. Such a sham.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 weeks 3 days ago

Ray Dalio, Chairman & Chief Investment Officer at Bridgewater Associates, L.P., notes, “…conditions of non-college-educated whites (especially males) have deteriorated significantly over the past 30 years or so. This is the group that swung most strongly to help elect President Trump.”

Search “Our Biggest Economic, Social, and Political Issue The Two Economies” for a link to Ray Dalio's observations on U.S. health, education, divorce, etc. Pretty sobering info.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 weeks 2 days ago

Chuck
More nonsense statistics totally lacking in causation and wholly misleading.
Non college educated whites have been the bulwark of the Democratic Party since the Depression ...
..the first question you should be asking is : "How did the Democratic Party lose those people?" After all if their condition has worsened as per Mr Dalio, it should be noted that a Democrat was President for the past 8 years. As you use time correlated facts, there must be a causal relationship!
Shrum states " ...(Hillary) stumbled against an UNELECTABLE candidate" .....only Hillary could have lost to the "unelectable Trump". There were not enough uneducated white males to have accomplished this result. Indeed Hillary also lost in the white woman vote category!! And the usually reliable typical " Democratic identity political segments" failed to turn out as they did for Obama .

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 3 days ago

Stuart, you are certainly free to suggest Mr. Dalio’s findings are nonsense. I found Dalio’s article to be one of the best I’ve read in quite some time.

“There were not enough uneducated white males…”

Perhaps it is incorrect to assume their vote counts only once. For example, in 1900, based on population, Mississippi had eight members in the House of Representatives. With more than half the Mississippi population African American, Mississippi white representatives in effect had one vote for themselves and one vote for African Americans who could not vote.

Today, Florida alone has hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters and over thirty percent of Florida’s African-American men have been disenfranchised. Nationwide, the number of disenfranchised voters has exploded since the late 1970s, running nearly six times higher.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 2 days ago

Chuck
Good grief ...you are once again changing the basis of your own argument. First it was the Uneducated White Male Vote:.....when that does not stand up to scrutiny you now claim it was Voter Supression that cost Hillary the election. Your litany of causes for her confounding is going to rival Hillary's own infinite blame list.
There is absolutely no cause you can find that will explain her loss as a40 year politician, supported by all of the Elites of both parties, all four past Presidents, the then current President, practically every organ of mass media, etc etc .....a loss to a mouthy , abrasive, narsacissisitic ,poorly funded, neophyte politician whose candidacy teetered on the brink of catastrophe from its inception.
Time to face up to it ......only Mrs Clinton could have lost to Trump!.....Mrs Clinton IS the reason she lost to Trump.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 2 days ago

Stuart, sixty percent of America has been left behind economically as noted above in Ray Dalio’s article and yesterday by Goldman Sachs. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution reported, “that counties that voted for Trump account for only 36 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, and described the electoral divide as “high-output America” versus “low-output America.”

Sixty percent of America represents a huge voting block with non-college-educated whites a major factor by default. Disenfranchised black males account for a third of all disenfranchised Americans. Right-To-Work states have 85% of America’s disenfranchised voters and Trump won twenty-six of the twenty-eight R-T-W states.

Your comment that only Hillary could have lost puzzles me. Perhaps you recall that Hillary’s loss followed losses by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Florida, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, businesswoman Carly Fiorina of Virginia, former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, outgoing Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, former Governor George Pataki of New York, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Governor Rick Perry of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 2 days ago

Chuck
Once again you miss the point.....it is quite clear that absent the Hillary baggage any Democrat would have beaten a deeply flawed Trump. It was Hillary who lost those key traditional Democrat voters...vulnerable because of the Obama economic policy ....You might note that the Blue Wall collapsed!
Trump won the Republican Primaries against some 16 contenders precisely because there were so many contenders. ....they constantly splintered the primary votes. During the Republican primaries the total of votes for non Trump candidates handily exceeded the Trump vote total.
In addition you are again reciting "right to work state" nonsense statistics which have absolutely no "causal connection" with anything.......... . Let me give you an example of your reasoning: The three states with the highest "homeless rates per 100,000" are Union Shop States of Hawaii, New York and California; whereas the the three states with the lowest rate of Homeless per 100,000 are the Right to Work States of Mississippi, Indiana and Kansas!!! Your logic as demonstrated in you comment above would find a causal relationship in this statistic whereas it is actually meaningless.

Again you keep avoiding the basic questions: How did Mrs Clinton lose traditional Democratic voters? How did Mrs Clinton, a a40 year veteran politician, lose to an obviously incredibly flawed neophyte Trump?

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 2 days ago

"During the Republican primaries the total of votes for non Trump candidates handily exceeded the Trump vote total."

Stuart, what's your point? The total of votes for Hillary handily exceeded the Trump vote total.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 2 days ago

The point is obvious: Trump could not have won the nomination if there had been a single contender against him in the primaries rather than16 who divided up "the never Trump vote". Our Democratic and Republican primaries gave us the two worst conceivable choices: the Republicans by way of multiple candidates ; The Democrats by way of DNC perfidy!
Still you evade the question ....how did the "Unelectable Mr Trump" (see Shrum et al) beat the 40 year Vetran ? It certainly appears that more people must have voted "against Mrs Clinton" in Key electoral districts .....they certainly could not have voted "For" Mr Trump whom the savants had long declared "unelectable". Given this predicate of "unelectability ", there is simply no credible explanation for Mrs Clinton's loss than that she was perceived to be more flawed ("unelectable"?) than Mr Trump. That is some indictment of the both of them!.

Kim Paczewski
3 weeks 2 days ago

She lost because we Americans are sick of greedy, calculating politicians like Mrs. Clinton. We see through their lies. I hope you can as well some day. She would eat an aborted fetus if she thought it would give her a political advantage. Just look at how she and President Obama lied about the Benghazi terrorist attack. Would you be willing to accept such a fate for your son or daughter? I'm so grateful to God she lost. Get over yourselves and move on from Mrs. Clinton. A political hag of the past who needs to stay there.

Kim Paczewski
3 weeks 2 days ago

She's Harvey Winestein's pimp.

Wilfreda Castellanos Rodriguez
3 weeks 1 day ago

There is a lot of truth in your comment.

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