clock menu more-arrow no yes

A new tell-all about the Clinton campaign is a searing indictment of the candidate herself

Hillary Clinton’s face projected at Javits Center in New York City, where she was supposed to shatter the glass ceiling. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It does not take more than a few pages for journalists Jon Allen and Amie Parnes to arrive at what amounts to their thesis in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed 2016 Campaign, a new tell-all book built off years of reporting on the trail.

“[Clinton’s] campaign was an unholy mess, fraught with tangled lines of authority, petty jealousies, distorted priorities, and no sense of greater purpose. No one was in charge, and no one had figured out how to make the campaign about something bigger than Hillary,” Allen and Parnes write in the book’s introduction. “[But] no explanation of defeat can begin with anything other than the core problem of Hillary’s campaign — Hillary herself.”

Writing in a lively and fast-paced narrative, Allen and Parnes use their unparalleled access (more than 100 on-background interviews with top Clinton surrogates) to richly document what it felt like to be aboard the Clinton Hindenburg, as well as to argue that Trump’s victory was not inevitable, or the result of interventions from the FBI or Russia, but the result of campaign incoherence that went all the way to the top.

This thesis rests on two arguments that are fundamentally in tension. One is that the allegedly best and the brightest of Clinton’s campaign fell short because they failed at marketing an otherwise winning candidate — that unforced strategic blunders, factional infighting, and boneheaded investments torpedoed a Democratic nominee who, in the hands of some better staff, would have swept to the White House. Not incidentally, this has been the part of the book that’s gotten by far the most attention in the coverage surrounding its release last week — with Clinton aides defending themselves to Politico and Allen standing by his story on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

It’s also the least meaningful part of the book. The second main argument Shattered makes is that Clinton herself was a flawed candidate whom no campaign team could have saved. This argument hinges on the idea not that Clinton was failed by her staffers, but that she failed them by never articulating a political vision they could use to capture the public’s imagination. It is in uncovering proof of this second thesis where the book is both most persuasive and most arresting — and where its lessons for the Democratic Party are the most salient.

The stories of team Clinton’s incompetence can be traced back to the candidate

Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Key Swing States Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Clinton campaign made several strategic decisions that have drawn heaps of scorn from the press. In the pages of Shattered, it becomes clear that their fundamental origin rested in Clinton herself.

Take their approach to winning Michigan. On the ground, Democratic politicians in Michigan like Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) were furiously relaying the message that union voters were turning on Clinton, that she needed to put field organizers on the ground as fast as possible, and that she hadn’t come out strongly enough against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But back in Brooklyn, Clinton’s team was cautiously confident that Michigan would be hers.

And then it all fell apart — Bernie Sanders pulled off the upset in March 2016, a victory that resuscitated and extended his flailing campaign for months.

These details would replay themselves in almost exactly the same way less than nine months later. As Donald Trump honed his message on the Rust Belt, Clinton herself barely visited the region, and her staff withheld resources from its field operations in the Midwest — a choice that was denounced as “political malpractice” in many of the postmortems that followed the election.

We learn from Shattered that this is not because Clinton’s team ignored the blown Michigan primary. Just the opposite. Instead, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, concluded from Sanders’s win there that the problem was not that Clinton had spent too little time in Michigan, but that she’d spent too much — that calling attention to the state would make clearer to voters that they should vote for her opponent.

Allen and Parnes write:

One of the lessons Mook and his allies took from Michigan was that Hillary was better off not getting into an all-out war with her opponent in states where non-college-educated whites could be the decisive demographic. In Michigan, they believed, Hillary’s hard campaigning had called attention to an election that many would-be voters weren’t paying attention to, and given Bernie a chance to show that his economic message was more in line with their views.

So Mook’s clique looked at the elevation of the Michigan primary — poking the sleeping bear of the white working class — as a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. “That was a takeaway that we tried to use in the general,” said one high-ranking campaign official.

With hindsight, the decision looks like an inexplicable and unforced error. Aides told Allen and Parnes that they sent Clinton to Michigan only once (and not at all to Wisconsin) because they believed “to make the election a bigger deal was not good for our prospects.” When I shared this anecdote from the book on Twitter, a chorus of critics attacked Mook, with the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar calling it a “mind-blowing” blunder.

But was it really? Allen and Parnes write that Clinton frequently acknowledged to her aides that she didn’t have the pulse of the electorate or understand the political currents. When she did campaign in Michigan, Clinton resisted condemning global free trade deals, and then drew criticism in the local press for her tepid answers. As easy as it is to mock Mook, he appeared to be in a real dilemma: Why go all out trying to talk to voters and persuade them if you yourself don’t believe your message can win them over?

“[Clinton] had complained to her communications team that her economic messaging sucked, and they’d told her to keep repeating it,” Allen and Parnes write. “But the problem wasn’t the way she was selling her economic plan; it was that the voters didn’t like her stance on the issue [free trade] that mattered most to them.”

Shattered offers less-than-convincing arguments about campaign drama

Hillary Clinton Campaigns In North Carolina Ahead Of Election Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Shattered takes readers deep into the infighting and plot twists experienced by Clinton’s team as the years-long race evolved, all of which builds to the thesis that factional infighting and poor campaign management created insuperable obstacles that let Trump win.

It all makes for entertaining prose and juicy details for Washington to chew over — though it’s much less clear that any of that is useful for understanding the outcome of the November election.

For instance, the authors devote page after page to the internal debate over how Clinton could have or should have handled her email scandal differently once it began consuming the media’s attention.

“[Clinton] had been incapable of gauging its gravity and reluctant to avail herself of the only option for fixing it,” they write of her resistance and eventual apology for using a private email server while secretary of state. “Too little, too late, she’d now tried to address it.”

While the internal squabbles over Clinton’s apology makes for fun reading, it’s harder to say how much it mattered in a practical sense. Trump, of course, never apologized for his serial outrages (too many to list here). There’s no real explanation as to why Clinton’s eventual apology didn’t hurt, rather than help, her campaign by allowing voters to think she really had messed up.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s hard to imagine that the much more important factor surrounding the email scandal — FBI Director James Comey’s last-minute letter claiming the existence of new evidence in the case — hinged one way or another on Clinton’s level of contrition months beforehand.

Similarly, much of the authors’ telling of the 2016 Democratic primary turns on dramatic renderings of stories whose impact on vote counts is, at best, hard to prove. For instance, the book suggests that the New York primary came down to the candidates’ back and forth over an interview Sanders gave the New York Daily News about bank regulation.

“An athlete hasn’t proved his mettle until he has survived New York sports fans. It’s the same in politics … and Sanders choked,” they write. That allowed Clinton, they say, to “seize the opening immediately,” by appearing on Morning Joe and questioning Sanders’s understanding of financial regulation. I have no polling evidence to prove this is wrong, but it seems likely Clinton’s 16-point victory in New York had more to do with her popularity with people of color or her longstanding ties to the state than her Morning Joe comments.

Nowhere is the attention to campaign ephemera more aggravating than in the book’s endless of discussions of the rival “power factions” within the campaign. The authors write breathlessly about how, despite Clinton’s desperation to avoid the public infighting that marred her 2008 presidential bid, there was ceaseless warfare between the “old guard” of Clintonites, the “data-driven” millennial set of numbers crunchers, and the bevy of other Clintonworld hangers-on and political hands. “The practical implications of the dysfunction at the top of the campaign were felt throughout the ranks,” they write, without citing any real evidence for the sweeping claim. A few different chapters go into tensions between Mook and John Podesta, the campaign’s vice chair and a member of the “old guard.”

These stories of internal campaign drama sometimes add up to less than the sum of their parts. After extensive prep from her staff, Clinton excelled at her Benghazi committee hearing. During all of the debates, as the book acknowledges, Clinton crushed Trump. The Democratic National Convention came off well enough to give Clinton a big polling lead coming out of it. And the fact that the campaign almost entirely avoided the public feuding from 2008 this time around seems at least somewhat deserving of recognition as an accomplishment.

“There were few moments between her kickoff rally and the closing of the first polls on Election Day when she wasn’t the favorite. So it wasn’t until the results came in that all of our reporting finally made sense — that the foreboding signs along the way had been pointing in the right direction,” Allen and Parnes write in the introduction.

It’s understandable that the authors would come to see new events as validating all of their reporting. But it’s also hard to imagine they wouldn’t have reached the exact opposite conclusion — that their research made clear that Clinton would win — had a few thousand votes in the Rust Belt swung the other way.

Should Democrats blame Hillary Clinton or Clintonism?

Food Bank For New York City Can-Do Awards Dinner 2017 - Inside Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Food Bank for New York City

But even if not every bit of campaign gossip improves our understanding of Clinton’s loss, the book provides crucial value when capturing the central problem for her team — an endless struggle to figure out its exact vision for the country.

Shattered makes clear that Clinton had no problem deciding what she was against. The authors write that she was convinced Sanders had made a fatal mistake by rejecting the label of “capitalist” in favor of “democratic socialist.” She thought much the same of Trump’s rampant misogyny and racism, they report.

Much more difficult for the campaign was figuring out what she should stand for. Of course, there were the endless policy proposals: paid family leave, a debt-free college plan, a higher minimum wage. But stitching those threads into a coherent storyline was still proving elusive, and her staff knew it from the beginning.

As Sanders gained ground in the primary, Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, sent Clinton’s team a series of questions the campaign had to resolve: “What is it that she wants to do as President? How would America be different? What should people be excited about?”

Dan Schwerin, the director of speechwriting, wrote back in agreement.

“Our problem is missing the forest for the trees. We’ve never found a good way (or at least a way she embraces) that sums up her vision for how America would be different,” Schwerin said in an email.

Of course, dozens of experts and commentators have argued that the racism fueling Trump’s campaign was far more crucial than any lack of “vision” on Clinton’s part.

But Allen and Parnes write that the answer to this problem dogged Clinton the entire campaign:

It was a vision Hillary herself couldn’t articulate for them. But the one aspect of her campaign that she was most confident about was that none of the tribes, separately or in collaboration, had any idea how to construct a winning message for her.

In her view, it was up to the people she paid to find the right message for her — a construction deeply at odds with the way Sanders and Trump built their campaigns around their own gut feelings about where to lead the country. ...

Hillary was at her wit’s end when it came to her messaging — dismayed by the campaign’s lack of inspiration. Here she was, a year into her campaign and about to get trampled by a socialist, and “Breaking Barriers” was the best her staff could come up with. She wasn’t panicked, but she was coming to grips with the idea that, even with years to think about it, the campaign team she’d built was no better than its 2008 predecessor at helping her find an articulable vision for the country.

That failure, Shattered explains, was evident from very first speech that Clinton delivered to kick off her presidential campaign.

More than 10 of the country’s best political minds and consultants were directly involved in writing it. The team brought in Jon Favreau, well-known as the writer behind President Obama’s oratory, to help give it some rhetorical heft. He later pulled out of the process a week before the speech’s deadline, citing the incoherence of its purpose, according to Allen and Parnes.

In an early planning conference call, Clinton shocked her staffers by delegating to them both the slogan and the overarching message of the address. No clear answer filled the void. When she marched out to Four Freedoms Park on June 13, 2015, to outline what she believed would go down in history as a vital historical document, even her top aides acknowledged the product was the result of “too many cooks in the kitchen,” according to Shattered.

“America can’t succeed unless you succeed,” Clinton declared to the smaller-than-expected crowd. “That is why I am running for president of the United States.”