While the book is clearly therapeutic for its author, Hillary Clinton’s account of the 2016 US election is far from an attempt to pass on blame, argues Matthew Doyle
The title of Hillary Clinton’s new book on the 2016 presidential election – What Happened – is not followed by a question mark.
But there are plenty of moments in the book where the first woman nominee of a major party running in an election she was expected to win acknowledges she does not really know what happened – or at least simply cannot get her head around what did.
As she says, ‘how could sixty-two million people vote for someone bragging about repeated sexual assault?’
Is she angry? Absolutely. ‘I couldn’t get the job done and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life,’ she writes.
This is not a book clearing the decks for another run, or passing the buck by blaming everyone other than herself and her campaign for the result, as some of the pre-publicity would have you believe. Indeed, CNN has even produced a handy list of mistakes the former candidate admits to in the book.
The mistakes are known – from the organisational on email and campaign data, to rhetorical on coal and the deplorables – and she goes through each in turn agreeing or rebutting with honesty and grace.
Clinton is unshakable in her view on one thing – evidenced by data, as you would expect – that if it had not been for FBI director James Comey’s last minute intervention she would be sitting in the Oval Office today.
‘I ran for president because I thought I’d be good at the job,’ she says bluntly at one point.That was certainly the view of Barack Obama who saw his former secretary of state as the best option for securing his legacy.
‘Change is the most powerful word in American politics.’ Were Americans being asked to vote for an Obama third term or something new? While soberly debating the challenge of continuity versus change, we see a flash of her frustration simultaneously at Trump and the electorate: ‘In 1992 and 2008, change meant electing dynamic young leaders who promised hope and renewal. In 2016, it meant handing a lit match to a pyromaniac.’
We know progressives globally have failed to come up with a post-crash economic narrative, exacerbated for Clinton by Trump’s populist attacks on her husband’s approach to globalisation and free trade.
Of course, this populism had allies on the left. And Clinton does not hold back in saying the ‘Bernie Bros’ were guilty of their own sexism towards her.
There is no doubt Bernie Sanders stayed in the race longer than he needed to and damaged Clinton in the process.The Vermont senator had no path to victory from as early as March and her delegate and popular vote victories oter him were far greater than Obama’s in 2008. Plus, unlike Clinton before, Sanders did not immediately endorse his opponent.
Although this was annoying in terms of delaying the pivot to general election campaigning, it cannot be ignored that the longer Sanders stayed in the race, driven by his enthused supporters who could see he was going to lose, it set the groundwork for Trump’s ‘crooked Hillary’ campaign.
In a line that will echo for Labour supporters here, Sanders – who has always run for the senate as independent – ‘didn’t get in the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic party.’
Again, Clinton sets out the challenge that responsible candidates have in elections, recounting the famous ‘free pony’ story that went around on Facebook, which starts with Sanders saying he wanted to give everyone a free pony, Clinton questioning the cost and whether such a plan would get through Congress, before the media all conclude that she hates ponies and is therefore unfit for office.
What this illustrates is her more serious worry abut how you campaign against Sanders’ spending commitments or Trump’s wall, when you know neither is going to happen, but the public does not care because they like the sound of it anyway.
This is a key takeaway for progressives: how to be the candidate of ‘yes’ rather than the schoolmarm who says ‘no, you can’t have that.’ It is what Liz Kendall called getting trapped as the ‘eat your greens candidate.’
Clinton is by far at her most passionate in the sections on women in politics, expressing outrage that even ‘good-hearted men who should know better dismiss the notion that sexism and outright misogyny’ still exist.
But while telling of her experience, Clinton exhorts her female readers not to be put off, as the only way this is going to get better is by hearing more women’s voices in politics.
She runs through the data they looked at in 2014 which found that only 69 per cent of Democrat women and 46 per cent of Democrat men (‘You can do better than that, Democratic men’, she chides) said they hoped to see a female president in their lifetime. For Republicans it was 20 per cent and 16 per cent.
As Clinton writes about women’s advancement, ‘some of us are exhilarated. Others feel a whole lot of rage.’
Ultimately, this is a book as therapy, designed to tell the candidate’s side of the story, but never claiming to have all the answers. Despite the anger – at herself as much as anyone else – the overall tone is more of confusion.
What happened? The 2016 US presidential election proves that two things can simultaneously be true: Clinton was treated appallingly, was the victim of sexism and misogyny, and the campaign also made mistakes with an over-reliance on data and a lack of an economic message to counter Trump’s populism.
Clinton will always be the first woman to be nominated by a major party and the first woman to win the presidential popular vote. It is still a legacy to be proud of.
In What Happened, Clinton says she has ‘tried to learn from my mistakes.’ The challenge now is for progressives to do the same.
Matthew Doyle is a political consultant and was adviser to Tony Blair as Quartet Representative while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. He tweets at @doylematthew