The Hillary Problem

The complement to the votes for Trump were the votes against Hillary, and certainly among people we know the latter far outnumbered the former. It’s hard to understand the vitriol she inspired, but it was clearly fomented by Fox News and other right-wing commentators and legislators. The three strikes against her were 1) her use of a private email account; 2) the Clinton Foundation; and 3) Benghazi. None of these, in my view, had any substance, but together – along with her unwillingness to release the texts of her speeches to Goldman, Sachs and perhaps her refusal to hold press conferences – contributed to polls that found her “less trustworthy” than her opponent, who was a documented liar, fraud and con artist.

In 2008 I supported Obama over Hillary partly because of the hatred she generated from Republicans and a large part of the country. I feared that her election would bring four or eight more years of partisan warfare. As it turned out, it was naive to hope that an Obama presidency would somehow produce a less divided country. Eight years later, however, there was no reason to expect any better from a Clinton win. I was for her this time, however, partly because she had paid so many dues, including a term as Obama’s Secretary of State, partly out of a desire to see a woman President, and largely because there was no other choice in sight, on either the Democratic or Republican side (or among third-party candidates). In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to all the polls that showed Bernie Sanders doing significantly better than Hillary in one-on-one matchups against Trump (or any Republican). But Hillary, to me, seemed a safer and superior choice for President, and I had no doubt that she, or any Democrat, would safely defeat Trump.

What underlay the virulent dislike of Hillary? The right-wing media and Republicans in Congress did everything they could to blame Benghazi on her, holding unending, one-sided investigations; but they came up with nothing. That didn’t stop voters from citing it against her (any more than 98% of scientists convinced them that climate change was real). The Clinton Foundation was another canard: no one bothered to find out or discuss what it was that the Foundation did; all they cared about was that the Clintons used their name and influence to obtain contributions (and of course they didn’t weigh this against the totally bogus Trump Foundation). The private emails were a sloppy, and it turns out fatal, mistake; but again there was nothing in them, when reviewed and revealed, that was in any way disqualifying or even terribly embarrassing. Again, the FBI investigated and found no crime. And the crime they were investigating was not giving secrets to the enemy, it was using a non-government email server to send arguably classified information to her own advisers. Her primary opponent, Sanders, said, in effect, “So what?,” but Birnam Republicans, whipped to a frenzy by FBI Director Comey, said this should have ended her campaign.

The Hillary hatred was clearly a carryover from her husband’s administration. Perhaps that is fair, since she rose to prominence as his spouse, even though she wasn’t the one winning elections over the Republicans. The tarnishing she got from the Lewinsky scandal was more a result of the “right-wing conspiracy’s” vendetta than a cause of it. No matter how she responded she would have been vilified. Maybe there is some misogyny, a residual gut reaction against a woman in power, although if so, it is not solely men to blame: a majority of white women voted against her. She is smart, even wonkish, and this worked against her, as well, I am sure – just as it worked against Al Gore when he ran against George Bush. The American voter is not looking for someone smarter than him, and maybe especially when it is a woman.

What could Hillary have done differently? Nothing would have influenced the Hillary haters, who for whatever reason, were set in their prejudice. Benghazi, Foundation and emails were just excuses. If they hadn’t existed, the right-wing would have found something else. Still, if the polls have any credibility, there must have been a large number of undecideds, or voters who were at least open to the possibility of voting for her. There was nothing Trump did at the end, or at any point, that would have made someone think, all of a sudden, that he could be a good President. The deciding votes must have come from people who didn’t trust, or couldn’t stand, Hillary and voted Republican, as they always had, despite the candidate. How someone could consider Trump more “trustworthy” when he wouldn’t release his tax returns, when no public figure of note was supporting him, boggles the mind. Still, I do think Hillary should have released transcripts of her Goldman, Sachs speeches – which, of course, she shouldn’t have given in the first place and which eventually leaked anyway. Instead of stiffing the press, I think she should have given press conferences every two weeks, at least. Anything, and everything, to let the public know her would have made her slightly harder for the Republicans to demonize. I don’t think Tim Kaine was an inspired, or inspiring, Vice-Presidential selection; but it’s hard to know who would have been better, and it’s doubtful that Vice Presidents make a difference.

In retrospect, Hillary’s big problem among potential swing voters, not the haters, was her failure to make her candidacy about a compelling issue or cause. The impression lingered that she was running because she “deserved” to be President after all she had been through and should be elected because of her experience. It’s not that she didn’t have policies and good position papers; it’s that they seemed pro forma. Where was the passion about the environment, about the need to save the planet? It was hardly discussed – never mentioned in the debates – and it would have posed a stark contrast to Trump. Instead, we saw Hillary identifying as the champion of every minority group – Latinos, African-Americans, gays – which fed into Trump’s calling card. Hillary was the candidate of The Others, who are Taking Away Our Country, which stoked his prejudiced base and even, illogically, the large Evangelical bloc. What if she had aimed her campaign at the white middle-class, on the fairly safe assumption that the minorities had nowhere else to go and would vote for her even without being pandered to. What if she had concentrated on Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states considered safe until they weren’t? And my gosh, she barely eked out Minnesota, which shouldn’t have been in play at all?

In retrospect, the mistakes are easy to find. Going all the way back, wasn’t it a mistake for her to run at all; or shouldn’t she have reconsidered – pulled an LBJ – once she started losing primaries to Sanders; and if it were early enough for Biden to enter the race how much the better? Shouldn’t she have recognized the forces stacked against her. Even were she to become President, what could she accomplish and how little fun it would be, with at least the House and almost half the country against her. The Benghazi hearings should have shown her what she was up against. Wouldn’t it be better for the country, her country, to let a Democrat unburdened with all her baggage take the helm and try to save our Republic? But that’s with a hindsight, not a prevailing wisdom. She had paid her dues. She had dedicated supporters. She was going to break the glass ceiling. She was even going to pull enough Senators to victory to have that body’s support. Who would deny themselves the chance to be President when it seemed such a sure thing? Probably not anybody, but certainly not a Clinton.


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