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Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get It

"What Happened" is proof that she doesn't understand the lessons of the 2016 election.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the first hundred pages of What Happened, Hillary Clinton writes that she decided to run for office during a vacation with the designer Oscar de la Renta and that when she lost she received an invitation from George W. Bush to get burgers. These bookends are an early sign that there is something amiss in this much-anticipated tell-all of the 2016 campaign, which attempts—and fails—to offer a diagnosis of how Clinton lost an election to the most unqualified and most loathed presidential candidate in modern history. These anecdotes suggest a fatal lack of awareness, an inability to see that she and her party may have grown out of touch. To the contrary, she says. She was the victim of forces beyond her control. Journalists, Russia, Bernie Sanders: These are a few of her least favorite things.

This book is precisely what her critics predicted it would be. What Happened suffers from stilted prose and insipid inspirational quotes, but that is par for the course for a political memoir. The real problem with What Happened is that it is not the book it needed to be. It spends more time on descriptions of Clinton’s various post-election coping strategies, which include chardonnay and “alternative nostril breathing,” than it does on her campaign decisions in the Midwest. It is written for her fans, in other words, and not for those who want real answers about her campaign, and who worry that the Democratic Party is learning the wrong lessons from the 2016 debacle.

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $30.00

When Clinton does discuss what went wrong, it’s mostly to point fingers. Some accusations are valid: Sexism did factor into her negative public image and into her loss. She contributes astute observations about the specific difficulties that America’s presidential system poses for female candidates. She correctly notes that well-funded right-wing actors have spent years weakening American democracy, and that a racist backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency dogged her campaign and strengthened Donald Trump. The press did mishandle coverage of her email scandal, and James Comey’s irresponsible actions helped slow her momentum at a crucial time.

But even taken together, these factors should not have been enough to cost her the presidency. Subscribing to this theory means believing that Hillary Clinton was the victim of a perfect storm of unrelated events, that there is nothing to be learned from the election of a strongman who was part of an ethno-nationalist, revanchist tide that swept across the democracies of the Western world. Clinton cannot admit that she—and her party—bear some responsibility for failing to stem this tide. Did you know she won the popular vote? She reminds us, multiple times. In What Happened, good fought evil, and evil won. It is a fairy tale. The great tragedy is that Clinton seems to think it is true.

Trump is Clinton’s principal villain, which is correct and sensible. But she also casts Bernie Sanders in a major supporting role. From the book, you’d never know that Sanders diligently campaigned for Clinton or that he has since fulfilled promises to work with the Democratic Party as it struggles to rebuild itself. When she does mention Sanders, it is to attack him; she reserves about one paragraph, midway through the book, for his positive qualities. The Sanders of What Happened is a caricature who insists on “free ponies” for all and who forces her to occupy “the unenviable role of schoolmarm” by running to her left.

“What did matter, and had a lasting impact, was that Bernie’s presence in the race meant that I had less space and credibility to run the kind of progressive campaign that had helped me win Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2008,” she asserts. This is revealing revisionism. On most issues, Clinton ran to the right of Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign and presented herself as a champion of more conservative, white working class voters. She boasted of having the support of “white Americans,” and her campaign engaged in several instances of race-baiting. She ditched that strategy when trying—and ultimately failing—to reassemble the Obama coalition in 2016. In terms of appealing to progressive voters, it would appear that Clinton got in her own way as much as Sanders did.

She goes on. “Bernie Sanders attacked me for raising money from people who worked in finance,” she later complains. She also accuses Sanders of violating a pledge to avoid personal attacks: “Bernie routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist who couldn’t be trusted.” If attacks on the political establishment’s ties to Wall Street are out of bounds, then Clinton may need to change her definition of “progressive.” This was an election conducted in the midst of a populist swell, with the country still feeling the effects of a catastrophic recession that had been caused by the insane greed of financiers. Would it be unreasonable to ask that Clinton actually reckon with Sanders’s accusations?

But Hillary Clinton must have her scapegoat. Bernie Sanders did this, Bernie Sanders did that. Above all, Bernie Sanders had the audacity to be mad about American inequality. “Bernie was outraged about everything. He thundered on at every event about the sins of the ‘millionaires and billionaires,’” she writes. “I was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people.” Perhaps she was thinking of her friend Oscar de la Renta.

She treats her party’s broader left wing similarly. Clinton dedicates an entire section of the book to “Idealism and Realism.” In it, she tries to set herself up as the wise, canny politician to Sanders’s street-preaching fool, a contrast she uses to indict progressives who have clashed with her. When Black Lives Matter activists interrupt a campaign event with criticisms of her husband’s infamous 1994 crime bill, she meets with them—and concludes they just don’t understand what they’re talking about. They “didn’t want to talk about developing a policy agenda,” she complains. “One was singularly focused on getting me to accept personal responsibility for having supported policies, especially the crime bill that my husband signed in 1994, which he claimed created a culture of mass incarceration.”

That characterization, she insists, is “oversimplified beyond recognition.” She adds, “Unfortunately, the only way to pass the law was to also include measures that congressional Republicans demanded.” She makes similar excuses for her husband’s welfare reform bill, which deepened extreme poverty in the United States and perpetuated the Republican notion of an undeserving poor. “Finding the right balance between principle and pragmatism can be hard,” she explains. “Bill and I both believed that change was needed to help more people get the tools and support to transition from welfare to work, including assistance with health care and child care. But Republicans in Congress were determined to rip up the social safety net.” Don’t worry, though. The Clintons “lay awake at night, talking it over.”

Again, this was an election that occurred in the aftermath of the Great Recession. It came at a time of heightened distrust of a range of government institutions, whose compromises have not done enough to alleviate extreme income inequality or lift up marginalized communities. This is the intellectual age of Thomas Piketty, when everyone is aware of the mechanics that drove decades of stagnation under various administrations, including Bill Clinton’s. And yet Hillary Clinton seems unable to grasp that voters may have grown tired of realist politicians and their cynical pose.

All of this is exacerbated by the book’s proud one percent vibe. Long before she gets to the crime bill, she informs us that her campaign once partied at a Hamptons fundraiser with Jimmy Buffet because “sometimes we just needed to have fun.” (Jon Bon Jovi and Paul McCartney reportedly “danced under the stars.”) She describes her “glam squad” in detail, well before before she tries to explain how she allowed Trump to destroy the Democratic firewall in the Midwest. She doesn’t mention the unpaid prison labor that kept her and Bill “well fed and taken care of” during their time in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, but she does tell us that Anna Wintour recommended her make-up artist.

What Happened’s most useful revelation has nothing to do with Russia or James Comey or Julian Assange. From the few interviews she has given since November, we already know that Clinton blames them for her loss. What we really learn from this book is that Clinton does not live in the America most of us inhabit. She wanted to be president of a country that does not exist. She is out of step with voters because she continues to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism, nearly a year after America proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that it is just as susceptible as any other country to tyranny, to tribalism, to the demons of our nature.

She is appalled that Trump would shrug at Vladimir Putin’s violent foreign interventions and say, “Well, America does a lot of killing too.” She says, “No previous presidential candidate would have ever dreamt of trashing our country like that or suggesting moral equivalency between American democracy or Russian autocracy.” This is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Clinton considers Henry Kissinger a trusted adviser, that her family is awfully close to George W. Bush, and that as secretary of state she was complicit in our own violent interventions.

She believes that America needs “love and kindness.” As evidence, she cites the way the families of the victims of Dylann Roof forgave him for shooting up a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. “One by one, grieving parents and siblings stood up and looked into his blank eyes, this young man who had taken so much from them, and they said: ‘I forgive you.’ In its way, their acts of mercy were more stunning than his act of cruelty.” But not all of Roof’s victims have chosen to forgive him. Clinton effectively silences them so she can advance pablum about something she calls America’s “spiritual void.” In the process of defending American exceptionalism, she disproves it.

You can argue that this is just what politicians do. They sell messages of hope, and make voters feel good about the country they live in. “Things are going to be hard for a long time,” she writes near the end of the book. “But we are going to be ok. All of us.”

Maybe that’s true, in Clinton’s fantasy nation. The rest of us confront more difficult realities. The one thing most people can agree on right now is that this country is broken—and that there is no guarantee things are going to get better. This is the foundation from which politicians must make their choices, not some belief in American greatness that will eventually smooth out all the awful compromises of the past, that will make forgivable those decisions to call black teens “superpredators,” to entrench broken-windows policing, to roll back welfare.

Sanders may have lost the primary, but it’s his agenda, not Clinton’s, that grabs headlines now. On September 12, the day of What Happened’s release, Senators Mazie Hirono, Richard Blumenthal, and Al Franken announced that they will co-sponsor Sanders’s Medicare for All bill. They were virtual latecomers: Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, Ed Markey, and Kirsten Gillibrand had already jumped on board. Even Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, expressed some grudging acceptance of the idea, calling it an “option that should be explored.” Representative John Conyers, meanwhile, has 117 co-sponsors for his own version of the bill. All this for a policy Clinton still opposes.

On this one important issue, the party is moving forward, and it can’t wait for Clinton to catch up. What Happened makes it clear that under a President Clinton, Democrats would have had to wait for a very long time for single-payer. She hails “the American system of free enterprise” and dedicates a lot of space to praising Teddy Roosevelt, “who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left, who wanted to go even further toward Socialism,” in addition to “conservatives to his right.” This perspective still has Democratic backers, especially among the party’s donor class. But it is further proof that if the Democratic Party is to move left, if is to emerge from the rubble of the 2016 campaign with invigorated purpose, it has to leave Clinton behind. If only she’d let it.