The reaction in many quarters to Hillary Clinton’s reflective, candid assessment in her book, What Happened, of her devastating loss to Trump tells a lot about why she lost. She’s still being raked over the coals. She’s still called too guarded, not honest enough, too stiff, and even “robotic.” This fits in with the almost set-in-stone depiction of Clinton as cold, aloof, and totally unable to connect with real people.
This supposedly stands in stark contrast to Trump, who appeared to be the consummate people person who spoke the common man and woman’s language. Then there’s the standard cherrypick at the most petty and sensationalist quip in What Happened. That’s the one where she says during her October 2016 debate with Trump, that he was a “creepy” guy who made her extremely uncomfortable. This makes it appear that Clinton is a trembling, terrified whiner and loser.
In truth, Clinton doesn’t shrink from frank, straight-talk criticism of her and the campaign’s missteps, spiced with important insights into what could and should have been done different. These are the kind of precious insights that are anything but woulda-coulda apologetics from a sore loser. They offer much of value for Democratic candidates and incumbents in what will be a bruising mid-term election in 2018, with much at stake for the Democratic Party desperate to put a dent in the GOP’s number. This is their only hope to check Trump and the GOP’s drive to roll back the 20th century.
The real answer to what happened to Clinton in 2016 won’t be found in her book. You’d have to go back more than a decade, when the GOP took dead aim at then Senator Clinton as a potential presidential contender. Their plan was pretty simple. It entailed digging up every scintilla of old and new dirt it could dredge up against her to torpedo her candidacy even before officially took off. The dirt were videos that continually harped on the old trumped up Clinton scandals from Bill’s days in the White House, from Whitewater to the Lewinsky scandal, to her support for health care reform, which was the prelude to the much-harangued Affordable Care Act. They then doubled down by mocking Clinton’s finances, allegedly outrageous speaking fees, and painting the Clinton Foundation as almost a RICO-style racket.
Then, they proceeded with the never-ending soap opera, haranguing, hectoring, and pillorying her for her alleged cover-up of Benghazi. They went further, haranguing her for alleged recklessly irresponsible, even criminal, use of, and then cover-up of, her State Department emails.
The aim was to render her a dangerously divisive candidate at best and at worst, a callous, conniving cheat crook. Trump wasted no time in picking up on that narrative. He cannily tarred Clinton in tweets, interviews, and stops on the campaign trail as “Crooked Hillary.” It paid big dividends for Trump and the GOP. It sunk her one-time very favorable public approval ratings lower and lower as the campaign progressed. It gave Trump a veneer of respectability, even credibility, among many voters who had previously laughed him and his candidacy off. It energized and got more GOP voters to the polls in the key swing states.
Worst of all, it soured many Democrats on her candidacy and made Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign more appealing than ever to many Democrats, especially young Democratic voters. This all added up to the numbers that Clinton absolutely had to have in the crucial must win states doing a vanishing act on election day.
The one intangible that always loomed over her campaign was how much the doubt many voters had that her past, her views, and her political style would mark her as a relentless target for GOP attacks once in the White House and would hamstring her effectiveness in getting things done. The GOP openly and subtly rammed this point home, painting a horrendous picture of a Clinton White House that would be nothing but a virtual rerun of the rancor, infighting, and carping that was the singular feature of the GOP’s nonstop, unbroken assault on former President Obama. In short, as president, Clinton allegedly would not be able to get much done no matter her agenda with Congress, and the big loser would again be the country. The lines would be rigidly drawn. The brutal warfare between a Clinton White House and a GOP-dominated Congress would quickly spill over into the public and the media.
Meanwhile, Trump’s train station load of baggage almost paled in comparison to Clinton’s as the media kept the harsh and relentless glare on her alleged mountainous liabilities. By that point, to a wide swath of the public, she was simply a horribly flawed candidate, who was just as worthy as Trump to have the voters say pox on both their houses.
This is a sad, sorry, sordid history that Clinton had no control over. It ultimately cost her the White House. That’s what happened, and she need make no apologies for her beatdown.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book, The Trump Challenge to Black America (Middle Passage Press) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.