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The tragedy of Hillary Clinton

Joe Biden, for all his virtues, highlights the challenges Hillary Clinton faced in a way few other politicians could.

Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the virtual convention on August 19, 2020.
DNCC via Getty Images

In another world — a world where the presidential candidate who wins the most votes wins the White House — Hillary Clinton is preparing once again to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president Thursday night. Historical counterfactuals are always dangerous, but I feel confident in this one: In that world, America had competent presidential leadership for the course of the coronavirus outbreak, its own Angela Merkel.

Clinton has her faults, but her strengths would have been on display here: a deep understanding of the federal government, a belief that it is the president’s job to solve national problems, an unparalleled enthusiasm for convening experts and synthesizing their knowledge into policy, an unusual enthusiasm for the details of interagency collaboration, a relentless focus on operational details.

President Clinton would be able to tell you where every vaccine in development stood, how fast tests were coming back in all 384 metropolitan areas, what PPE stocks looked like in every midsize city in the country. We would not be free of the coronavirus, but unlike under this administration, we would have a plan, and competent people running it, and we would’ve had it in place for months and months by now.

But that is not the world we live in. In this world, the unqualified reality TV star who won 3 million fewer votes captured the White House and botched the pandemic. And Clinton, wearing suffragist white, was relegated to a few scant minutes on the penultimate hour of the penultimate night of the convention.

In America, nothing washes sins clean like success, and nothing ensures ignominy like failure. In 2016, Clinton lost, and so her strengths have been forgotten, her weaknesses magnified. And yet her presence gave Wednesday’s convention a tragic air. The programming celebrated female leadership, with videos honoring past trailblazers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi following Clinton, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren making the policy case for the Democratic ticket. As Kamala Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination, she honored the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. “These women inspired us to pick up the torch and fight on,” Harris said.

But all those women joined together in service of the common goal of electing the 46th straight man to the presidency, after the country elected a buffoon over a hypercompetent woman in 2016 — a loss that convinced many Democrats that a white man would be the strongest candidate in 2020. And Joe Biden, for all his virtues, highlights the specific tragedy of Hillary Clinton in a way few other politicians could.

Like Clinton, Biden is a veteran politician, with a long record dotted with bad votes and taped gaffes. Clinton was often criticized for offering too many policies and too little boldness or thematic vision. Biden is also running on a laundry list of policies, but he’s far more detached from the substance of his agenda, and tends to speak in gauzy generalities. Clinton was criticized as too cautious a figure, too much a creature of the establishment, to win in a country that prefers inspiring outsiders. But Biden has been in politics longer, and tacked more carefully toward the Democratic Party’s shifting center over the course of his career.

Moreover, Biden lacks some of Clinton’s virtues: her policy sharpness, her attention to detail, her polymathic hunger for information, her obvious delight in the details of governance. The difference between them was on display in April when she endorsed him. There’s nothing wrong with Biden’s performance, but Clinton is by far the more knowledgeable and precise in her discussion of Covid-19.

In that way, Biden neutralizes some of the more high-minded critiques of Clinton. What he has that she didn’t is fuzzier: a reputation for likability, for relatability. Clinton was beloved by her staff, by those who met her or worked with her, but the person they described was rarely the person the public saw. Biden’s warmth shines through on the trail. There’s no “you’re likable enough” burns in his background.

Indeed, the whole convention is a paean to Biden’s likability, to the ease with which he connects, to the willingness people have to look past gaffes and bad votes to Biden’s fundamental decency. Republicans attested to his likability. Democrats related stories of how he cared about them, and cares about you. Jacquelyn Brittany, a 31-year-old security guard for the New York Times who met Biden a year ago and then nominated him on Tuesday night, explained her support to the Washington Post: “I just like Joe. I’ve always liked him.”

Clinton never managed that easy rapport with the public. She was endlessly caught in what feminist scholars call “the double bind.” As linguist Deborah Tannen wrote, “the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be.” Reams of research reflect the difficulty women have stepping into leadership positions historically reserved for men, and Clinton faced those contradictions for decades on decades. When she chose her words carefully, it was considered calculating; when she emphasized her competence, she was dismissed as cold; when she tried to show her passion, she was told to stop shouting.

As Clinton used to tell her staff: “Nothing draws fire like a woman moving forward.” And sure enough, as Warren’s campaign caught fire in 2020, the critiques of her took on an eerie echo of the attacks levied at Clinton.

Biden is, of course, running in a different moment than Clinton. The fears about Trump came true. He’s been a disaster, and Americans mourn the deaths and collect the unemployment checks to prove it. If Clinton had sat out 2016 and run in 2020, perhaps she’d be trouncing Trump as we speak.

But Trump’s flaws were always clear. In her speech tonight, Clinton couldn’t hide her frustration that her warnings went unheeded. “For four years, people have said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was,’ ‘I wish I could go back and do it over,’ ‘I should have voted.’ This can’t be another woulda-coulda-shoulda election.”

More Americans voted for Clinton than voted for Trump, but it wasn’t enough. And as Biden’s rise — and historic lead — suggests, what held others back wasn’t just a dislike of veteran politicians, or a desire for a democratic socialist, or a yearning for an outsider. Clinton is not perfect, but neither was the man she lost to in 2016, nor the man she made the case for Wednesday night. America was taught to see her flaws, but not her strengths. That’s not been a problem for the men she’s run against.

“I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary,” Biden said in January. “I think it was unfair. An awful lot of it. Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.”

He was right.

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