Hillary Clinton’s Self-Defeating Triangulation

It wasn't just petty infighting that tanked Hillary Clinton's campaign. It was the lack of any coherent program for the country.

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Years ago, when Jon Stewart held his “Rally to Restore Sanity” — based on the “post-partisan” premise that what ails America is the inability of “both sides” to put aside their differences and come together in compromise — Bill Maher (of all people) made a good point. “If you’re going to have a rally where hundreds of thousands of people show up, you might as well go ahead and make it about something,” he said.

Reading over Shattered, the dread-inducing, behind-the scenes account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous presidential campaign written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, you realize that the same wisdom applies just as well to a presidential campaign. If you’re going to have a campaign that will mobilize millions of voters, you might as well go ahead and make it about something.

In an election as strange as 2016’s, there are any number of factors one could point to as to why Clinton lost the election, all of which Clinton herself and her backers will be happy to tell you about. There’s James Comey and the FBI, Russia, sexism, Bernie Sanders, the Left, Jill Stein, her own campaign team, as well as numerous others.

Shattered puts forward an alternative set of explanations for Clinton’s shock loss. They include, but aren’t limited to: the ever-present infighting and jockeying for power within a dysfunctional campaign; an overreliance on data over on-the-ground realities; a failure to sense the changed political winds in the United States; the neglect of traditionally core Democratic voting areas; and an endless series of unforced errors by the campaign, Clinton herself, and her husband.

But even among the lengthy list of failings outlined the book, one stands out as particularly flabbergasting: Clinton’s, and by extension her campaign’s, failure to formulate an actual vision for her campaign and presidency.

This may not seem a particularly groundbreaking conclusion for those who have spent time picking over post-mortems of the Clinton campaign. Despite Clinton’s reputation as a detail-driven wonk, a Wesleyan University study found that Clinton’s campaign ads were less policy-focused than any candidate in the past four races (including Trump) and that 90 percent of them focused on attacking Trump as an individual.

Clinton herself would frequently shift her positions over the course of her campaign (in one debate, she came out for the $15 minimum wage despite her previous opposition to it, then almost immediately modulated her position after the debate), leading many to suspect she was more interested in simply winning the presidency than enacting any kind of coherent agenda.

What Shattered shows is that the failure of the liberal imagination behind Clinton was not merely a perception that dogged her during and since, but something that pervaded her entire campaign.

Most successful campaigns present some kind of overarching purpose or aspirational narrative to voters to win their votes and broadly set the agenda for their presidency. Obama promised to heal the various wounds that divided America, as well as a tacit return to progressive values. Bush’s second, more successful campaign presented him as the only possible guardian of an America increasingly besieged by foreign threats. Reagan pledged to return America to its mythical past as the world’s shining beacon of hope and conservatism. Even Trump’s nightmarish vision of a crime-ridden, decaying country that had lost control over itself was, loosely, a vision.

Shattered is strewn with references to Clinton’s inability to establish the same for herself. Before her campaign had even gotten off the ground, Clinton struggled to set the principles that would guide her. Allen and Parnes compare her campaign to John Kerry’s uninspiring 2004 run — a collection of smart, skilled people not “united by any common purpose larger than pushing a less-than-thrilling candidate into the White House.”

As the campaign struggled to come up with an opening address for Clinton, she held a conference call with her “intimates.” “Her marching orders were to find a slogan and a message,” the authors write. Clinton’s lack of discussion about her own vision for the country “stunned some of the participants.”

Not long after, we learn that “Hillary’s aides longed for her to find her own David Axelrod, someone who could really help her articulate a vision and stay on message.” Following her loss in New Hampshire, Clinton fumed over the campaign’s poor messaging and “lack of inspiration,” and was frustrated that her current campaign team “was no better than its 2008 predecessor at helping her find an articulable vision for the country.”

Her speechwriter, Dan Schwerin, recognized that while Clinton recited various policies both on the stump and on her website, the campaign was “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.” This wasn’t surprising: As Allen and Parnes explain, “policy is vision” for Clinton, who preferred talking shop at a conference table with her policy chief than to “define herself by a small set of guiding principles and shape her policy ideas to fit them.”

Clinton believed “it was up to the people she paid to find the right message for her,” not, as conventional wisdom might dictate, the responsibility of the candidate herself. Unfortunately, none of her staff would have been willing to point this fact out to her — as Shattered repeatedly argues, Clinton’s campaign staff were too concerned about the prospect of getting on her wrong side and missing out on plum post-election jobs to ever criticize her.

Compare Clinton’s inability to explain to herself and her team why she was running to the campaign launched by Sanders. As the book lays out, in April 2014, Sanders, dreading a centrist Clinton run and seeing that Elizabeth Warren was going to sit 2016 out, told radio talk show host Bill Press he wanted to run to ensure “progressive issues are front and center in the 2016 campaign,” because “Hillary’s never going to raise them on her own.” He later told a small group of followers that he aimed to “seize enough attention and support to set the agenda for the Democratic primary.”

When he launched his campaign, his speech underlined the importance of creating an economy that worked for all Americans, not just a handful of billionaires — the very message he would stubbornly hammer throughout the campaign that excited so many people.

By contrast, Clinton “didn’t really have a rationale” for running, we’re told.

This fact, coupled with Clinton’s caution and inability to understand the electorate, hamstrung her entire campaign. Unable to come up with a vision for her presidency, every aspect of the campaign became a painful exercise in design by committee.

Clinton and her team’s struggles to write an effective speech to kick off her campaign are documented, with eleven different writers ultimately pitching in, not counting Clinton herself and the galaxy of various advisers and confidantes that surrounded her. And here are Allen and Parnes on Clinton’s ultimate campaign slogan, “Stronger Together”:

[it] was a consensus point among a series of independent working groups inside and outside the campaign. It was poll-tested and grounded in Trump’s negatives … rather than being a true shorthand for Hillary’s approach to improving the country.

One is reminded of the time Bill Clinton polled the public for where he should take a vacation.

While over the past few decades, workers have been increasingly shafted, poverty has exploded, and Americans continue to be bankrupted or killed by what can only generously be described as a health care “system,” Clinton couldn’t understand why people were so angry. Six months in, “she still didn’t grasp the underlying sentiments of the electorate.” “What is the appeal of a Sanders?” she wondered. Nearly a year in, she confessed to an aide: “I don’t understand what’s happening with the country. I can’t get my arms around it.”

The book shows how this lack of political perception, combined with Clinton’s reflexive centrism, created a perfect storm of self-defeating triangulation. Pressed to come out strong against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during a March economic speech in Detroit, she instead touted a “clawback” proposal to yank away corporate tax breaks for companies that offshored jobs, and buried the TPP in a single mention later in the speech. Advised by Tony Blair that “the Left would lose if it ran a ‘base’ election,” she fretted about moving leftward. She only reluctantly added Elizabeth Warren to her vice presidential shortlist, but, uncomfortable with Warren’s criticisms of Obama and looking for “someone who saw the world in a similar way,” she chose Tim Kaine, whose dullness was his chief benefit.

This was on full display with the battle over the Democratic platform, which many ridiculed as meaningless symbolism, but something Clinton and the Democrats clearly cared deeply about. According to Allen and Parnes, “it was the part of the campaign that mattered most to Hillary,” and she told her aides to “maintain the principles that we successfully won the nomination on and not give ground.”

Given that Clinton’s appointees ended up fighting the inclusion of planks calling for single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation, a moratorium on fracking, and a plank opposing the TPP, one has to wonder what exactly those principles are.

It all reached its logical conclusion with the campaign’s desperate, eleventh-hour resort to explicitly modelling its message on 1950s Republican Red Scare tactics, tying Trump to Russian president Vladimir Putin. “If the public saw Trump putting Russian interests above American sovereignty, Hillary’s aides thought, the story had the potential to break his back,” write Allen and Parnes. “After all, in the Red Scare days, Republicans had portrayed liberals Democrats as un-American in unflinching terms.” We can thus trace the current Cold War–like Russo-hysteria that has engulfed liberals and Democrats since the election directly to the Clinton campaign.

Allen and Parnes suggest their own theory for Clinton’s loss. We are repeatedly told that Clinton lost because over the course of the primaries, she had “become the candidate of minority voters on social justice” and that “the more she became a candidate of minority voters, the less affinity whites had for her.” This is a repetition of the old New Democrat argument that one can only focus on economic issues at the expense of social issues like racism — not both.

But this is completely wrong. Clinton’s strong appeal among African Americans was limited to those who were over thirty, while Sanders’s supposedly white-centric platform was popular among young people of all races, as well as with older white voters in the Rust Belt. Moreover, casting Clinton as the candidate on racial issues obscures the fact that her support among blacks was damaged by the Clintons’ own questionable history on race. And it ignores the minority voters — like this Milwaukee neighborhood — who were so uninspired by both general election candidates they decided not to vote.

Appeals to racial justice don’t have to throw white voters off. A robust social-democratic platform — a universalist “economic populism,” in the terms that have frequently been used lately — can be the anchor for a broad left platform that appeals to white workers and voters of color and is unshakably committed to fighting racism.

It might be tempting to come away from Shattered viewing the Clinton campaign as a one-off aberration, a horrifyingly and uniquely misjudged series of errors that couldn’t happen again. To be sure, there’s much about Clinton’s campaign that could support this conclusion, from everything surrounding the private email server to her campaign’s disregard for traditionally blue strongholds like Wisconsin and Michigan.

But the deeper problems that plagued Clinton’s run are not necessarily ones unique to Clinton. Her lack of vision, her refusal to shift her centrist policies to the left, her campaign-for-a-campaign’s-sake, the centering of her campaign around an individual rather than a set of principles — these are all factors that could easily be repeated by the next establishment candidate.

Voters don’t have to settle for uninspiring neoliberal centrists like Hillary Clinton. Let’s not do it again.