What Happened by Hillary Clinton (Simon & Schuster, $39.99, 494 pages)
What Happened is Hillary Clinton’s account of the election debacle of 2016. The former first lady who was seeking to become the first female president was a shoe-in to return to the White House according to polls that suggested Republican Donald Trump was unelectable. Perhaps it was the Democrat who was unelectable – she has lost twice now (the first time in the primaries to Barack Obama in 2008).
Clinton’s book is a litany of excuses for her defeat, almost all of them someone else’s fault. While admitting she shouldn’t have used a personal email for official business as Secretary of State, she has famously blamed FBI director James Comey’s investigation into her violating federal law for her defeat. She also blames the media, Russian hackers, her primary challenger Bernie Sanders, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, the Electoral College, the ignorance of voters, campaign finance laws, sexism, racism, and Barack Obama. This last one is curious. She writes: “I do wonder sometimes about what would have happened if President Obama had made a televised address to the nation in the fall of 2016 warning that our democracy was under attack. Maybe more Americans would have woken up to the threat in time.” It’s an indirect, perhaps even unconscious admission that she couldn’t sell that message to Americans herself.
When Clinton uses the words “I take responsibility” it is always followed by a “but” that mitigates her responsibility. She didn’t prepare enough for the debates but Trump was a creep that threw her off her game. She didn’t talk about herself enough, but America is sexist and doesn’t want to hear from women. This last point certainly illustrates a divide in the way liberals and conservatives will read this book. Clinton writes that her husband could tell his personal story of growing up poor and Obama could talk about being a black man in America, but the sexist culture that is America won’t let women talk about their experience as women. Liberals will nod in agreement to these points, while conservatives are likely to laugh. But it is amusing not only because the argument is specious, but because she never stopped talking about being a woman in America during the campaign.
I’m not a fan of a single narrative explaining elections, but an important factor in her loss was the narrowcasting of her message to women. She ran an explicitly feminist campaign focusing on abortion, contraception, and girl power. It probably isn’t a good idea to write off one half of the electorate, but Clinton can barely admit that she also lost the white women’s vote. She wonders whether some (conservative) women are self-hating.
It would be an exaggeration to say Clinton talked incessantly about abortion on the campaign trail, but only slightly. Yet she is almost silent about the topic in What Happened as it gets a total of three pages. She writes, “I believe there’s room in our party for a wide range of personal views on abortion.” Fine, but that doesn’t jive with what she writes next: “But when personal views on abortion become public actions — votes on legislation or judges or funding that erode women’s rights — that’s a different matter.” What is the use of having a personal view on an issue if one cannot act on it? She’s decent at platitudes, but not very good at thinking critically about issues.
Throughout the book, Clinton comes off as entitled and out-of-touch. These are two fatal flaws for the vote-seeking politician. She has very evidently viewed the White House as a place she has every right to return to, so perhaps she did not put in the hard campaign work to make that a reality. Being out of touch is a bigger problem. She often comes across as condescending. She famously referred to a large portion of Trump’s voters as “deplorables” (which she concedes was a mistake before explaining precisely why she finds them so odious).
What Clinton does not understand and what will doom Democrats until they do comprehend is that the left-wing culture war stuff is probably as unpopular with many voters as the media portrays right-wing culture war priorities. Clinton writes that “few organizations are as intimately connected to the day-to-day lives of Americans” as Planned Parenthood. Really? How about churches and schools, service clubs and charities? Even with the prevalence of abortion in America, her statement doesn’t ring true: most women who access Planned Parenthood services do so once or twice in their lifetime, and often its done clandestinely. A person who thinks Planned Parenthood is one of the most important organizations in the lives of Americans probably doesn’t understand Americans or deserve to be their president. As the joke had it when Clinton’s campaign memoir came out, “What happened? Hillary happened.” And the American voter didn’t like her, viewing her with the same contempt she apparently views them.