It would be very nice never to think about the 2016 election again. It was miserable, and it is over. What is done will never be undone, and there is no sense “re-litigating” yesterday’s arguments. We should, to use a popular formulation, look forward not backward. Instead of dwelling on which persons may have made what catastrophic mistakes, opponents of Trump should be spending their time thinking about what to do next and how to do it.
Yet reexamining the forces that led to Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton is essential for understanding how to prevent a similar result from occurring again. What this does mean is that the most useful examinations of the 2016 race are those conducted with an eye toward drawing lessons. Divvying up responsibility is not a worthwhile exercise for its own sake, and only needs to be done insofar as figuring out causes is a way of preventing future effects.
It’s important to be careful, then, in looking back on Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency. We can ask whose fault Clinton’s loss was, and assign percentages of blameworthiness to James Comey’s letter, Bernie Sanders’ criticisms, Vladimir Putin’s machinations, Bill Clinton’s libido, and Hillary’s own ineptitude. But that’s only useful to the extent that it’s useful, and a better question than “Whose fault was this debacle?” might be “What should we gather from this if 2020 is to be different?” Those two questions overlap (if you know whose fault it is, you can try to make sure they stay in the woods and out of public life). But the point is that for anyone who has progressive political values, the exercise of examining 2016 should be constructive rather than academic.
This need to avoid gratuitously flogging dead horses for one’s own satisfaction is important to keep in mind while reading Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ new book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown, $28.00). Allen and Parnes had access to numerous Clinton insiders, and their book is full of sumptuous campaign gossip. But while Clinton-haters will be tempted to relish the book’s tales of hubris and incompetence, there’s no point conducting a needless exercise in schadenfreude. For progressives, the issue is whether the story told in Shattered can yield any useful lessons. And it can.
Shattered depicts a calamity of a campaign. While on the surface, Hillary Clinton’s team were far more unified and capable than their counterparts in 2008 had been, behind the scenes there was utter discord. The senior staff engaged in constant backstabbing and intrigue, jockeying for access to the candidate and selectively keeping information from one another. Clinton herself never made it exactly clear who had responsibility for what, meaning that staff were in a constant competition to take control. Worse, Clinton was so sealed off from her own campaign that many senior team members had only met her briefly, and interacted with her only when she held conference calls to berate them for their failures. Allen and Parnes call the situation “an unholy mess, fraught with tangled lines of authority, petty jealousies, distorted priorities, and no sense of general purpose,” in which “no one was in charge.”
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook comes across very badly indeed, and appears to have been the wrong man for the job. First, he had a Machiavellian streak (the authors call him a “professional political assassin” bent on “neutralizing” competitors), which he seems to have directed less towards defeating Donald Trump than towards squelching his power rivals within the campaign team by selectively depriving them of knowledge.
Second, and worse, he appears to have been an idiot. Mook was a numbers nerd obsessed with data analytics, but had such blind confidence in his statistical calculations that he followed along when they told him to send Hillary to spend the last stretch of the campaign in Arizona rather than Wisconsin. Every single decision he made was based on the elaborate analyses of campaign stats guru Elan Kriegel (a man whose name should live in infamy), from which Mook concluded that it was a “waste of time and energy” to try to persuade undecided voters or to go to rural areas. Mook ignored pleas from state-level organizers for adequate organizing and advertising budgets, and rebuffed everyone who dared to question the algorithm’s superior wisdom. They were fools who didn’t understand the superiority of cold hard math to fuzzy intuition, and Mook felt they failed to adequately appreciate the superior rationality of his strategy. Thus every time Bill Clinton warned that the campaign was dangerously losing support among the white working class, and “underestimating the significance of Brexit,” Mook responded that “the data run counter to your anecdotes.” After the election, asked to explain what the hell had happened, Mook blamed the data. (I can’t help but be reminded of Michael Scott obediently following his GPS as it directs him to drive into a lake, because “the machine knows.”)
Numerous tactical decisions were simply inscrutable. A planned rally in Green Bay, which would have paired Clinton with Barack Obama, was canceled after the Orlando nightclub shooting and never rescheduled. Mook “declined to use pollsters to track voter preferences in the final three weeks of the campaign” even though some advisors warned him that it was an “unwise decision because it robbed him of another data point against which to check the analytics.” Bernie Sanders recorded a TV spot promoting Clinton, but the campaign declined to air it, which some insiders thought was a “real head-scratcher” giving the difficulty Clinton was having in swaying former Bernie voters. A campaign staffer confirms that “our failure to reach out to white voters, like literally from the New Hampshire primary on… never changed.” Mook was so confident they would win, however, that he had already been considering how to get himself appointed to head the DNC afterwards. The arrogance was infectious: phone-banking volunteers, who realized there was little enthusiasm for Clinton among the electorate, were puzzled that “campaign staffers were so confident” and “acting like they had this in the bag.”
But it would be a mistake to pin too much blame on Robby Mook as an individual. Allen and Parnes say that Clinton herself was an adherent of the “facts over feelings” dogma, and was so “driven by math… that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see that she was doing nothing to inspire the poor, rural, and working-class white voters.” Clinton favored evidence-based decision-making, but often to the point of absurdity. Everything she said or did was focus grouped, calculated, and reworked by committee in order to be mathematically optimal. A vast speechwriting bureaucracy watered down every public utterance to the point of total vapidity (they even “deliberated over the content of tweets for hours on end,” an especially galling revelation when one considers the quality of the resulting tweets). Yet Clinton was somehow puzzled as to why the public found her robotic and inauthentic! Her team even proudly told the New York Times of their brand-new plan to make Hillary appear more warm and likable, then they were somehow surprised to discover that the idea of an “authenticity strategy” was considered hilariously oxymoronic.
In writing about Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as Vice President, I wrote that he was so bland that he seemed to have been selected by algorithm. This turns out to be almost exactly what happened; Clinton didn’t know or care much about Kaine, but he was simply the end result of a formulaic process of elimination. Nobody had any notion that he would energize voters; he was merely logically inevitable, having met the maximum number of designated criteria. (Note that if Clinton had picked Bernie Sanders she would have won the election, but this was never even seriously considered.)
Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters have been resentful over the attention paid to the infamous “email scandal,” suggesting that Clinton was unfairly damaged in the press over something trivial. But by Shattered’s account, Clinton’s own poor management of the situation helped drag the story out. Even Barack Obama was exasperated with Clinton. He “couldn’t understand what possessed Hillary to set up the private email server” in the first place, and then thought “her handling of the scandal—obfuscate, deny, and evade—amounted to political malpractice.” Clinton did make factually untrue statements to the public about whether she sent or received classified documents on the private email server and her campaign tried to mislead the press into treating the FBI’s investigation as less serious than it actually was. (The Clinton campaign falsely insisted that the investigation was a mere “security review” rather than a criminal investigation, and even got the New York Times to partially go along.) She spent months refusing to apologize as donors and allies “furiously” pressured her to engage in some public contrition to defuse the issue, and Clinton ally Neera Tanden wrote in an email that “her inability to just do a national interview and communicate genuine feelings of remorse and regret is now, I fear, becoming a character problem.” Sometimes Hillary Clinton’s public relations instincts were almost unbelievably poor: when a reporter asked her if she had wiped her email server, Clinton replied “What, like with a cloth or something?” This did not exactly scream forthrightness and seriousness.
Clinton did know that she was clueless about the psychology of the American voter, at one point admitting “I don’t understand what’s happening with the country. I can’t get my arms around it” and knew she “couldn’t grasp the sentiment of the electorate.” But throughout the process, she disregarded the advice of those who cautioned her about getting on the wrong side of the prevailing populist tides. She had “ignored warnings from friends not to give the paid speeches” to Goldman Sachs that would ultimately create months of bad press when she pointlessly refused to release the (relatively benign) transcripts. She insisted that one speech should retain a “sappy” reference to the $2400-a-ticket Broadway musical Hamilton, despite several suggestions from speechwriters that it “connected with her liberal donors and cosmopolitan millennial aides but perhaps not the rest of the country.” (Note that she did this even after Current Affairs had carefully explained how the idea of a nationwide mania for Hamilton is a myth that exists only among political and cultural elites.) And she spent August hanging out in the Hamptons with wealthy donors and celebrities, attending a swanky fundraiser with Calvin Klein, Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi, and Paul McCartney, and joining them for a celebrity sing-along of “Hey Jude.” (The New York Times ran a story explaining to voters why Hillary had disappeared from the campaign trail entitled “Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultra-Rich…”) To the parts of the country seething with resentment of coastal elites, this was probably the worst possible way for Clinton to pass the summer months.
By far the largest problem with Clinton’s campaign, however, and the one that recurs consistently throughout Allen and Parnes’ narrative, is the team’s total inability to craft a compelling message for the campaign. “There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in” the race to begin with, and she was consistently “unable to prove to many voters that she was running for the presidency because she had a vision for the country rather than visions of power.” Despite Clinton’s vow to learn from the mistakes of her loss against Obama, “no one had figured out how to make the campaign about something bigger than Hillary.” A speechwriter assigned to draft an address laying out the reasons for Hillary’s candidacy found the task nearly impossible; Clinton simply couldn’t provide a good reason why she was running. She literally did feel as if it was simply “her turn,” and campaign staffers even floated the possibility of using “it’s her turn” as a public justification for her candidacy. Just as many people suspected, Clinton didn’t run because she had a real idea of how she wanted to change the country (after all, “America Is Already Great”), but simply felt as if she was the most qualified and deserving person for the job. Pressured to come up with a slogan to capture the essence of Clinton’s run, the team finally settled on “Breaking Barriers,” which the campaign staff all hated and the public instantly forgot.
The one area in which Clinton appears to have truly shined is in debate preparation. Allen and Parnes reveal that she obsessively prepared for her televised encounters with Donald Trump, conducting multiple intensive drills and meticulously memorizing policy details. Staff recalled that “she needed to theorize everything to the ground.” Her advisor Philippe Reines went to extraordinary lengths to perfect his Trump impersonation, even considering dyeing himself orange. Clinton’s practice rounds paid off. She was widely seen as having mashed Trump into dust, her carefully-polished and intelligent answers presented a dignified contrast to Trump’s sniffing and blustering. (It’s amusing to think of how much effort Trump probably put into his own preparation, having given us possibly the most revealing example in U.S. history of what “just going ahead and winging it” in a nationally-televised presidential debate would look like.)
But even Clinton’s excessive attention to the debates reveals one of the campaign’s core weaknesses. Clinton comes across as subscribing to what Luke Savage classifies as the “West Wing view” of political power, namely that success in politics is produced by having the best argument in favor of your position. On this view, if you win the debates, you are supposed to become president. Thus Kennedy beat Nixon by beating him in a debate, and Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush the same way. It’s a perspective that seems to have infected both the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign, each of which appears to have been blindsided by the fact that their right-wing opponents could not be defeated by polite discourse and appeals to reason. As Savage points out, this was the mistake made by Ezra Klein, who wrote that Clinton’s three debate performances “left the Trump campaign in ruins,” conflating “the debate” with “the campaign” and contributing to the media consensus that because Hillary had proven Trump to be wrong and unqualified, she was therefore somehow likely to win. In reality, the debates are theater and do not matter. (Or if they do, it is not because of the quality of their arguments but the quality of their persuasive power.) A similar critique can be made of late-night political comedy; it may be satisfying when John Oliver “eviscerates” Donald Trump, but it can also leave us with the false sense that Trump has somehow been “taken down” in some actual meaningful sense, even though it’s perfectly possible for someone’s power to grow even as they are rhetorically humiliated night after night.
This is the sort of lesson from Shattered that goes well beyond Clinton. And in analyzing the book’s account, it’s important to distinguish between those failings that are unique to Clinton and her 2016 political team and those that represent wider tendencies in the Democratic Party. The Clinton-specific traits are less relevant, since she is gone from the political world (unless, God forbid, she actually does run for Mayor of New York or Chelsea Clinton takes a break from occupying a string of vague sinecures to pursue a congressional seat). But some things are deep-rooted and will come back again and again until Democrats wake up and fix them.
The defects that are Clinton-specific (or, at least, not fundamental to contemporary Democratic politics) are managerial incompetence and Nixonian levels of cronyism and paranoia. Clinton was obsessed with loyalty, “prizing [it] most among human traits” (above, e.g., virtue). She had downloaded and rooted through the emails of all her 2008 campaign staff to determine who had screwed her, and tried to sniff out “acts of betrayal.” She even assigned “loyalty scores” to various members of Congress, “from one for the most loyal to seven for those who had committed the most egregious acts of treachery.” She and Bill had worked to unseat those who made the list of traitors. Even among trusted staff, secrets were kept closely guarded. When Hillary Clinton became sick with pneumonia, important campaign officials were kept in the dark, causing them to send mixed messages to the press and look as if they were hiding something. After the 2008 campaign, Clinton had wondered what had created the campaign’s destructive atmosphere of suspicion and mutual hostility, and she decided to reset in 2016 with a whole new group of people. This time it happened again, yet she still found herself perplexed as to what or who the common denominator could be. (Another theme of Shattered is that the Clintons never, ever blame themselves for anything that goes wrong.)
On the incompetence front, as other reviewers have noted, much of Shattered reads like a discarded story outline from Veep. In one of the book’s more amusing moments, a Clinton staffer mishears a request to book a major TV interview with “Bianna.” The staffer hears “Brianna” instead, and books the interview with the tough-minded Brianna Keilar of CNN, rather than the desired Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, who is married to a Clinton advisor and thus expected to be a soft touch. The resulting encounter did not go well. Actually, while this anecdote has been widely commented on, it’s a little unfair to read too much into it. All politics is Veep-like to one extent or another, and misunderstandings and bunglings are the Washington way. The true case for incompetence comes from Clinton’s inability to manage a campaign team or plot an electoral strategy.
These particular aspects of the Clinton campaign can theoretically be corrected for in the future, without changing the party much. Barack Obama demonstrated that Wall Street-friendly Democratic centrism can be politically deft and free of Nixonism. It can even be somewhat inspiring, despite ultimately being vacuous. But some of the tendencies displayed in Shattered are inevitable, and bound to recur without serious structural reforms to the Democratic Party.
First, the Clinton campaign’s inability to forge a coherent vision for the country was no accident. Goodness knows they tried; dozens of smart people sat around in rooms for months trying to figure out why Hillary Clinton was running and what she wanted to do. But it was an unanswerable question, because the answer is that she didn’t really want to do anything and wasn’t really running for any good reason. She couldn’t give them a good answer, so obviously they couldn’t give her one. And that’s honestly not because Hillary Clinton is a uniquely egotistical and myopic person. Instead, she’s simply one of many adherents to a kind of “managerial” liberalism, which sees its aspirations for governance less in terms of some clear vision for how the world ought to be, and more as an enterprise in which small groups of smart, qualified, decent-but-pragmatic people should be appointed to preside over the status quo, perhaps tweaking here and there as they see fit. This philosophy means politics is not a contest to enact serious and principled moral commitments, but is little more than a resume-measuring contest. The Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything in particular, other than the fact that it isn’t vulgar, irrational, racist, and unqualified like Donald Trump.
Politics thereby becomes hollow, drained of its center, with a lot of expertise but without an underlying set of core values. The Clinton campaign puzzled over the fact that they had “laid out a million detailed policies” without the public being able to remember a single one of them. But that shouldn’t have been surprising; if you’re not motivated by a coherent set of principles, then your ideas won’t be coherent either. One reason Republicans are highly effective at messaging is that their worldview holds together and is intelligible. Freedom is good, markets are freedom, therefore markets are good and government is bad. Once you know what you stand for and why, it’s easy to deliver a clear message, and even Herman Cain, with his colossally stupid “9-9-9” tax plan, produced a more memorable policy proposal than anything to come from the squabbling of Clinton’s Authenticity Committees. (And it would be a mistake to think that Republicans are unfairly advantaged by the fact that dumb, oversimplified policies are the easily communicated ones. The Civil Rights movement paired demands for complex legislation with elementary appeals to morality, and Martin Luther King’s speeches are things of both great intellectual subtlety and astonishing clarity and cogency. Heck, the original Martin Luther also managed to get his theses across, even though there were 95 of them.)
At no point in Shattered does anyone in the Clinton campaign display a sign of caring about anything beyond the narrow goal of getting elected. The decision of whether to promise criminal justice reform is not taken based on whether it’s morally reprehensible for a country to keep multiple millions of its own people in cages, but on a calculus of whether it would make African American millennials marginally more likely to turn up to the polls. Clinton did not emphasize issues of gender and race in the campaign because she cared about them the most (after all, in 2008, she had been equally happy to cast her appeal explicitly toward white people instead). Rather, Robby Mook’s algorithm had concluded that each dollar spent on encouraging black and Hispanic Democrats to vote was more probable to yield a return than a dollar spent trying to persuade an undecided working-class white voter.
This is what can happen when you stay in politics too long. You get in because you want to do some good. Then, for the sake of expediency, you make a moral compromise here and there. Yet if you don’t have a clear sense of what you’re ultimately firmly committed to, sooner or later you’ll just be doing whatever it takes in order to reach higher office. You begin by rationalizing that the ends justify the means. But if you’re not careful, things will soon become all means and no ends. Politics will become about itself rather than about whatever it is you started off trying to do. Of course, political ideas must be pragmatic and grounded. But Clintonian politics takes this to its amoral extreme, never taking a stand for reasons of conviction rather than because it polls well. This is what gives you things like Clinton’s infamously mealy-mouthed public statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which pleased neither side. Ezra Klein euphemistically refers to this as Hillary Clinton’s desire to listen to and incorporate all people’s perspectives, but it’s actually just a cowardly refusal to stand for anything. (Bill Clinton is actually much more unprincipled in this respect; see Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.)
There’s something else missing from the world depicted in Shattered: democracy. That is, for the Clinton campaign, people are voters. They are there to elect you, and they mostly exist as boxes on a spreadsheet. Outside the campaign cycle, they are nonentities. Inside the campaign cycle, you only talk to them if you have to. Mook wasn’t trying to engage people in a larger political project; he was trying to coax as many as possible into dragging themselves to the polls and filling in a bubble for Hillary. There was no sense of trying to get people to join in; on-the-ground organizing was only done to the degree absolutely necessary, with television advertising frequently preferred. But if the Democratic Party is actually going to take back power, it can’t simply consist of a small team of elite campaign operatives and an electorate whose only function is to vote every two to four years. Ordinary people have to be encouraged to participate in the political life of their communities, and the fact that they haven’t is one reason that Democratic representation in state governments has been plummeting.
Perhaps the things the Democrats need at the moment can be summed up as follows:
In other words: What do you care about? Are you the sort of person people should trust to do something about it? And do you have a plan for how to do it? Clinton’s answers to these three questions, respectively, were “Nothing,” “No,” and “Yes.” She had a plan, but it wasn’t really a plan for anything, because neither she nor anybody on her team actually had an underlying animating vision of what they are trying to help the world to become. Democrats would do well to think about the Vision-Authenticity-Strategy formulation, because unless they can convince the public that they possess these things, it’s hard to see how the Republican dominance of government can be reversed. (Further elaboration on how to introduce these elements into progressive politics can be found in the final chapter of Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity.)
Now, let me just deal briefly with what I’m sure will be the principal objection to the various above critiques and suggestions: Hillary Clinton’s loss was not the fault of Clinton herself or her campaign team or the Democratic Party. Instead, she was subject to external sabotage from James Comey and the Russians. Democrats should not be looking inward and examining themselves but outward at the unfair interventions that turned a popular vote victory into an Electoral College loss. This appears to have been Clinton’s own perspective on the reasons for her defeat; in conversations after the election, according to Allen and Parnes, she “kept pointing her finger at Comey and Russia.”
But ultimately, there’s a simple response to this objection: Very well. You’re completely correct. Also it doesn’t matter.
First, let’s be clear on what we mean by identifying something that “caused” the result. Because the election was extremely close, and well under 100,000 people would have had to change their minds for the result to be different, hundreds and hundreds of factors can be identified as “but for” causes of the result, i.e. but for the existence of Factor X, Clinton would have won. So, say we narrow our 500 “but for” causes down to 4: the Clinton campaign’s incompetence, the Russian leaking of embarrassing internal documents, obstinate voters who refused to come out for Clinton, and James Comey’s letter. If we assume for the moment that we think each of these had an equal effect, we can see how it’s the case that in the absence of any one of them, the result would have changed:
That means that the decision of which factor to pick out for blame is subjective. Since both Comey’s letter and Clinton’s incompetence are equal causes, in that without one of them the result would have tipped in the other direction, the person who blames Comey and the person who blames Clinton are equally correct. Again, the actual chart would have about 5 million causes rather than 4. But the point is that we have to decide which of these causes to focus our attention on.
Thus the statement “The Clinton campaign lost because it lacked vision, authenticity, and strategy” is consistent with the statement “If it wasn’t for James Comey’s letter, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.” But personally, I believe it’s far more important to focus on the causes that you can change in the future. You don’t know what the FBI director will do, and you can’t affect whether he does it or not. What you can do is affect what your side does. So the Democrats cannot determine whether James Comey will choose to give a damning statement implying their candidate is a criminal. But they can determine whether or not to run a candidate who is under FBI investigation in the first place.
Note that even if you think Comey was the major cause of Clinton’s loss, it still might be advisable to turn your attention elsewhere:
If you fix the other things, then even a highly impactful Comey letter won’t tip the election. And correspondingly, even if you prove that Clinton’s own actions were 99% responsible for her loss, a Clinton supporter would be technically correct in identifying Comey as causing the outcome:
In any scenario, it’s probably best to figure out what your party itself can do to address the situation. After all, if we’re really adding up causes, Donald Trump himself is probably the primary one, yet it would be a waste of time to sit around blaming Donald Trump, if it’s also true that you ran a horrible campaign that alienated people.
You can also think certain things acted as precipitating causes without necessarily being at fault. For example, you might think that WikiLeaks was a direct cause of the result, but not think them at fault because it’s their job to post the material they receive. The same goes for the New York Times covering the email story; it might have contributed to the outcome, but you might think this isn’t their fault because they’re journalists and that’s what they do. Likewise James Comey; you might believe he was doing his job as he saw fit. And Bernie Sanders: Clinton may have lost both because she gave speeches to Goldman Sachs and because Bernie Sanders repeatedly criticized her for it, but you might think that one of those things is more justified than the other. There’s a question of which things you can change to improve outcomes, and then there’s a question of which things you should change. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton realized that Democrats could win more elections if they adopted the Republican platform of slashing welfare and locking up young black men. This did change outcomes. But it was also heinous. And personally, I think you’re changing something about the party, you should change “Democrats enriching themselves from Wall Street speeches” rather than “people pointing out that Democrats are enriching themselves from Wall Street speeches.”
Shattered is both tragic and comic. It’s tragic because Donald Trump becomes president at the end. But it’s comic in that it depicts a bunch of egotistical and hyper-confident people arrogantly pursuing an obviously foolish strategy, dismissing every critic as irrational and un-pragmatic, only to completely fall on their faces. There was, Allen and Parnes tell us, “nothing like the aimlessness and dysfunction of Hillary Clinton’s second campaign for the presidency—except maybe those of her first bid for the White House.” And however horrible it may be to have Donald Trump as commander in chief (it is incredibly, deeply horrible and threatens all of human civilization), reading Shattered one cannot help but get a tiny amount of satisfaction from the fact that Mook and Clinton’s cynical and contemptuous attitude toward the American public didn’t actually produce the result that they were certain it would. One wishes they had won, but one is also a tiny bit glad that they lost.
Vision, authenticity, strategy. You need to have clear sense of what you want to do and why you want to do it. You need to show people that you mean it and believe in it. And you need to have an idea of how to get from here to there. The Clinton campaign had no vision, was inauthentic, and botched its strategy. But that’s not a problem unique to Hillary Clinton, and singling her out for too much criticism is unfair and, yes, sexist (especially because Bill is much worse). This is a party-wide failure, and it will require more than just banishing the Clintons from politics. If the Democrats are to have a future, they must offer something better, more honest, and more inspiring. With Republicans dominating the government, we cannot afford to end up shattered again.