I’m going to do something unpopular now. I’m going to defend Hillary Clinton.
The Democrats’ 2016 nominee has reemerged recently, sitting for a lengthy profile with New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister and giving a series of interviews, including one at Recode’s Code Media conference. (Disclosure: Recode, like Vox, is owned by Vox Media.) It’s not been a smooth return to the public eye. The political press wants self-flagellation, but Clinton is placing the blame for her Electoral College loss elsewhere: on James Comey, on the media, on sexism, on fake news, on the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. "I take responsibility for every decision I made, but that's not why I lost," she said.
This has not gone over well. “Hillary Clinton's list of who's to blame for her 2016 election loss gets longer with every passing day,” wrote CNN’s Chris Cillizza. For once, Donald Trump and the pundit class are in lockstep:
Crooked Hillary Clinton now blames everybody but herself, refuses to say she was a terrible candidate. Hits Facebook & even Dems & DNC.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2017
This discussion conflates two very different questions. One is: Why did Clinton lose? And there, factors like Comey, Russia, and the media’s email obsession have real explanatory power. But the harder question — the one this blame game is designed to obscure — is why was the election close enough for Clinton to lose?
Clinton made mistakes. But they’re not why she lost.
Clinton does herself no favors when she suggests that criticism of the paid speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs was motivated by sexism. There was sexism in the 2016 election, as I discuss below. But in 2013, amid an economy wracked by the aftermath of the financial crisis, and after Clinton served in a government that bailed out the financial sector, you didn’t need to be a political genius to recognize that taking $675,000 from the vampire squid might look bad.
Nor is Clinton’s complaint that the Democratic Party lacked campaign infrastructure convincing. You know who lacked campaign infrastructure? Donald J. Trump. His field operation was a joke. The RNC’s efforts were a shaky backstop. The 2016 election didn’t prove the Democrats needed a better ground game. It proved a better ground game wasn’t enough.
Clinton made mistakes. All candidates do. But the question in elections is ... compared to what? Take the criticisms made of Clinton and turn them around. Trump surely did not run a smoother campaign than Clinton. His team featured more infighting, leaking, and churn. He made more obvious mistakes in a week than she made in a year. His finances were far shadier than Clinton’s, his foundation far less ethical, his behavior far more erratic. He walked into the debates unprepared, ran a bizarre and ineffective convention, and appears to have been saved from defeat — albeit narrow defeat — by the twin interventions of Russia and James Comey.
And Clinton was, in ways people have rewritten since her Electoral College loss, an effective candidate in nontraditional ways. After she captured the Democratic nomination, I wrote a piece about the political skills that made her the first woman to achieve that feat. I occasionally see the article thrown back at me as a laughable analysis disproven by her eventual loss, but I think it’s absolutely correct:
She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 208 members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; only eight have endorsed [Bernie] Sanders.
[...] In order to do something as hard as becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, [Clinton] had to do something extraordinarily difficult: She had to build a coalition, supported by a web of relationships, that dwarfed in both breadth and depth anything a non-incumbent had created before. It was a plan that played to her strengths, as opposed to her (entirely male) challengers' strengths. And she did it.
Hillary Clinton is a generationally talented politician — albeit across a different set of dimensions than men tend to be talented politicians.
Similarly, Clinton really did crush Trump in the debates. As I wrote then, most presidential debates have little effect on the polls. Clinton’s performances were unusual in that they transformed the race. On the eve of the first debate, Trump and Clinton were basically tied. By the close of the third, Clinton had opened up a massive lead — a lead that, if retained, would certainly have won her the election.
It also must be said: Many of Clinton’s strengths were hidden by our gendered expectations of leaders — what she was good at would have been important for her presidency, but it is not what 44 male presidents in a row have taught us to expect, or even to see. Anyone who thinks sexism isn’t a force in American politics should have a good answer to the question of why, in a country that’s more than half women, there has never been a female president and, aside from Clinton, no woman has ever come close to winning a major party’s nomination.
If Trump won because of Clinton’s mistakes, then we don’t need to ask hard questions
I understand why people want to castigate Clinton, and why they want to see Clinton castigate herself. Her loss devastated many, and her mistakes offer an easy answer to an election that poses awful questions. If Trump won merely because Clinton was such a crummy candidate, then we don’t have to ask how someone like Trump could win, and whether it could happen again, perhaps with someone even worse.
But there is an oddity in the way both Trump and Cillizza frame the election as an equation with only one input: Hillary Clinton’s performance. What about Trump’s appeal? And what about the voters’ preferences, which are surely not so easily swayed by marginal changes in campaign strategy? (Also, why is Trump taking time out of his day to argue that the politician he lost the popular vote to was “a terrible candidate”? Does he not recognize what that implies?)
By the end of the campaign, the public had enough information to make basic judgments about who Clinton and Trump were. Trump’s flaws weren’t hidden by Clinton’s mistakes — if she was good at anything, it was goading Trump into error and overreaction. Voters knew what he was when they voted for him. They had seen him lash out at a Gold Star family and at Alicia Machado. They knew he suggested, repeatedly, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. They had heard him say Mexico was sending us rapists and criminals and call for a ban on Muslim travel. They had watched him babble incoherently about policy, say he could shoot someone in broad daylight without losing support, and brag, on tape, “when you're a star, they let you do it.”
And it’s worth remembering that before Clinton ran against Trump, 16 other Republicans ran against him — a group that observers thought to be the most talented field the GOP had seen in decades. And every one of them was routed. At some point, the record of talented politicians lying at Trump’s feet requires more explanation than “they all screwed up.”
Imagine a slightly alternate universe. Let’s take Nate Silver’s estimate that the Comey letter cost Clinton about 3 percentage points in the election. Imagine it never happened. Now Clinton wins the Electoral College, and lands a bigger popular vote victory than Barack Obama did against Mitt Romney.
In that world, are we talking about what an awful race President Clinton ran? We aren’t. But that is a world in which Trump — with all he revealed during the campaign about his lack of discipline, his casual cruelty, his disinterest in policy, his penchant for conspiracy theories — still won about 44 percent of the vote.
That is a world, in other words, that should still trouble us. On Monday, I’ll have a piece that tries to explain it. Stay tuned.