The Clintons’ Dominance of Democratic Politics Is Over—And They Will Not Be Remembered Fondly

Self-inflicted wounds, an out-of-touch candidate and a party more concerned about Wall Street than the working class sealed the Clinton campaign’s defeat.

Kathleen Geier

Hillary and Bill Clinton on display at Madame Tussad's wax museum in New York (InSapphoWeTrust via flickr)

In the after­math of a polit­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe as dev­as­tat­ing of the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, you’ve got two choic­es. You can blame the elites or blame the peo­ple. I’m gonna go with the elites.

Many lib­er­al jour­nal­ists, how­ev­er have tak­en the oppo­site view. To para­phrase Bertolt Brecht, in the after­math of Hillary Clinton’s stun­ning loss, they have demand­ed that we dis­solve the peo­ple and elect anoth­er. The Clin­ton­istas have attempt­ed to pin the blame for this fias­co on the vot­er groups they detest the most: the white work­ing class, the mil­len­ni­als, and the Left. Clin­ton sup­port­er Jill Fil­ipovic opined that Hillary was too good for us: Sor­ry Amer­i­ca, you did­n’t deserve her,” she tweet­ed. Many oth­er Clin­tonites in the media con­curred. To Vir­ginia Hef­fer­nan, Hillary Clin­ton was not just a can­di­date. Instead, she is an idea, a world-his­tor­i­cal hero­ine, light itself” who did every­thing right in this cam­paign… She can­not be fault­ed, crit­i­cized, or ana­lyzed for even one more second.”

What we saw was gross political malpractice on the part of Democratic Party elites generally and Team Clinton specifically.

But out­side the pro-Clin­ton media bub­ble, ordi­nary Amer­i­cans had a far less rosy view of Dear Leader Hillary.

Clin­ton came with­in strik­ing dis­tance of win­ning this thing; that much is clear. Nor­mal­ly, when, like Hillary, you begin your cam­paign with approval rat­ings that are already under water, and you’re also run­ning when your own par­ty has held the White House for two con­sec­u­tive terms, I’d say it would be an uphill climb to vic­to­ry. On the oth­er hand, Hillary was run­ning against Don­ald Trump, a man who, at the time of the elec­tion, was despised by even more peo­ple than she was. Against a nor­mal Repub­li­can like McCain or Rom­ney, Hillary prob­a­bly would have lost deci­sive­ly. But against Trump, she was the odds-on favorite. The polls were tight but they almost always showed Hillary in the lead. And it end­ed up being a close, and there­fore winnable, elec­tion. The mar­gins were close enough that a com­pe­tent­ly run cam­paign could and should have put Clin­ton over the top.

What we saw instead was gross polit­i­cal mal­prac­tice on the part of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elites gen­er­al­ly and Team Clin­ton specif­i­cal­ly. Yes, fac­tors out­side of the cam­paign’s con­trol, rang­ing from the Comey let­ter to racism, sex­ism, and more, sure­ly con­tributed to her defeat. But it’s also become clear that a series of fatal mis­cal­cu­la­tions and spec­tac­u­lar strate­gic blun­ders by the par­ty and the Clin­ton cam­paign is what ulti­mate­ly sealed their can­di­date’s fate.

Here are some of them:

1. This one isn’t so much why-Hillary-lost but why-the-Democ­rats-lost: the Clin­tons did the most thor­ough job of clear­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry field of any can­di­date in mod­ern his­to­ry. They threw their weight around and made cer­tain that they had endorse­ments and sup­port from just about every major donor, par­ty offi­cial, par­ty orga­ni­za­tion, and inter­est group orga­ni­za­tion (such as labor, repro­duc­tive rights groups, envi­ron­men­tal groups, etc.).

The Clin­tons have a his­to­ry of pun­ish­ing per­ceived dis­loy­al­ty, so it’s easy to see why these groups knuck­led under. Every poten­tial can­di­date stayed out except Bernie, who shocked every­one when what was sup­posed to be a protest can­di­da­cy turned into a major threat. But if the pri­ma­ry process had been open and com­pet­i­tive, we almost cer­tain­ly would have end­ed up with a stronger and more pop­u­lar can­di­date. I don’t know who that would have been – maybe Eliz­a­beth War­ren, maybe Joe Biden, maybe Sher­rod Brown, maybe Kirsten Gilli­brand, maybe some­one else. In any case, the par­ty, and the coun­try, would have been far bet­ter off. Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elites share the blame here, because they nev­er chal­lenged the Clin­tons’ attempts to ensure a coronation.

2. Clin­ton also shot her­self in the foot by her own arro­gant behav­ior. Set­ting up the pri­vate email serv­er at the State Depart­ment, mak­ing those buck­rak­ing Wall Street speech­es, refus­ing to cut her ties to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion (and thus avoid the appear­ance of a con­flict of inter­est) – all of those were Clin­ton’s freely made choic­es, and as such they were com­plete­ly avoidable.

Yes, the email scan­dal was a load of bunk, but why in the world would she make the stu­pid deci­sion to set up a pri­vate serv­er in the first place, which gra­tu­itous­ly pro­vid­ed end­less rounds of ammu­ni­tion for her many polit­i­cal ene­mies? She knew she’d be run­ning for pres­i­dent again, and it’s not like the right hasn’t been hell­bent on destroy­ing her for, oh, the past quar­ter-cen­tu­ry or so. It’s worth point­ing out that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has had the dis­ci­pline and smarts to avoid that kind of self-destruc­tive behav­ior. He and his admin­is­tra­tion nev­er gave off the faintest whiff of scan­dal, which is why his ene­mies were nev­er able to bring him down, try as they might. Seri­ous­ly, what was Clinton’s excuse here?

Every one of those dan­ger­ous mis­judg­ments was a self-inflict­ed wound that nev­er stopped bleed­ing, and con­firmed the well-found­ed per­cep­tion that Clin­ton was enti­tled and out of touch. That Clin­ton nev­er seemed to learn from her past was an omi­nous sign that her pres­i­den­cy would have been chock­ful of sim­i­lar mis­ad­ven­tures. After decades of Clin­ton dra­ma, the pub­lic was weary, and no wonder.

3. Relat­ed­ly, when Hillary made these fool­ish deci­sions, why did­n’t the peo­ple around her stop her? And that points to anoth­er rea­son why she lost: the medi­oc­rity of her advis­ers and cam­paign staff. The Clin­tons, who seem to prize loy­al­ty over com­pe­tence, have a long and trou­bling his­to­ry of sur­round­ing them­selves with extra­or­di­nar­i­ly unsa­vory peo­ple – sleaze­balls and hacks like Mark Penn, Lan­ny Davis, and Dick Mor­ris, to name just a few. This time around, there weren’t any mem­bers of Team Clin­ton who seemed quite that clown­ish, so I assumed the per­son­nel deci­sions were wis­er. From the out­side, the cam­paign look pro­fes­sion­al and com­pe­tent. But as we’ve been dis­cov­er­ing, that per­cep­tion belied the reality.

4. There is also abun­dant evi­dence that Clinton’s cam­paign roy­al­ly screwed up its strat­e­gy and bad­ly mis­al­lo­cat­ed resources. Clin­ton won the pop­u­lar vote by over 2 mil­lion votes yet lost key Rust Belt states by razor-thin mar­gins. Clinton’s much-hyped, data-dri­ven get-out-the-vote oper­a­tion was a shock­ing fail­ure. Work­ing with out­dat­ed vot­er lists, it mis­tak­en­ly tar­get­ed large num­bers of Trump vot­ers. In Michi­gan, state and local offi­cials were run­ning at rough­ly one-tenth the paid can­vass­er capac­i­ty that Sen. John Ker­ry (D‑Mass.) had when he ran for pres­i­dent in 2004.” In states like Ohio, Team Clinton’s efforts neglect­ed tra­di­tion­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­stituen­cies like African-Amer­i­cans in favor of tar­get­ing far less favor­able demo­graph­ics like upscale Repub­li­can women. Clin­ton did not appear in Wis­con­sin, a state that she lost, after the pri­ma­ry in April, and nei­ther did Barack or Michelle Oba­ma. One Clin­ton offi­cial admit­ted that the cam­paign didn’t do more in some states where they knew were vul­ner­a­ble because they were too busy play­ing mind games with Trump: they believed they could keep Trump away — by act­ing over­ly con­fi­dent about their chances.” Heck­u­va job, Team Clinton!

5. The­da Skocpol has cit­ed anoth­er fac­tor in Clinton’s loss: the Democ­rats’ lack of orga­ni­za­tion­al infra­struc­ture in non-urban areas. The GOP has a strong orga­ni­za­tion­al base in these regions, includ­ing get-out-the-vote efforts run by the Chris­t­ian right, the NRA, the Koch orga­ni­za­tions, and the Repub­li­can Par­ty itself. But the Dems have let their own par­ty orga­ni­za­tions with­er on the vine, and the unions which were once the Democ­rats’ strong­hold in the crit­i­cal Rust Belt region have declined dra­mat­i­cal­ly. When it comes to get­ting vot­ers to the polls in rur­al areas, the Democ­rats are now at a tremen­dous struc­tur­al dis­ad­van­tage. To be sure, this a par­ty-wide, rather than a Clin­ton-only, fail­ure. But Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Barack Oba­ma bear strong respon­si­bil­i­ty here. Each them served for two terms but showed lit­tle inter­est in build­ing the party.

6. Final­ly, per­haps most con­se­quen­tial of all was the cam­paign’s fail­ure to advance a strong eco­nom­ic mes­sage. Team Clinton’s cen­tral strat­e­gy was not to mobi­lize the base, but to appeal to crossover vot­ers. That irre­press­ible Clin­ton instinct to tri­an­gu­late reared its ugly head one more time, and the result has been a world-his­toric cat­a­stro­phe. Clinton’s ads and mes­sag­ing stressed the Trump’s déclassé boor­ish­ness rather than a pop­ulist eco­nom­ic mes­sage that would have res­onat­ed with work­ing class vot­ers of all races. But the votes of Repub­li­can col­lege-edu­cat­ed women they were chas­ing nev­er mate­ri­al­ized, while turnout and Clin­ton’s vote shares among African-Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, mil­len­ni­als, and work­ing class whites were sig­nif­i­cant­ly down from Oba­ma’s in 2012. In stroke of bit­ter poet­ic jus­tice, the fruits of Clin­tons’ own long-ago poli­cies came back to haunt them. NAF­TA and oth­er Clin­ton free” trade deals dev­as­tat­ed the Rust Belt and cre­at­ed the rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties and the despair that com­pelled many work­ing class vot­ers in those areas pull the lever for the despi­ca­ble Trump.

A post-elec­tion report by the poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg con­firms that Clin­ton’s deci­sion to shun a pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic appeal was a fatal error. Green­berg found that polls showed fair­ly resilient sup­port with white work­ing class women, until the Clin­ton cam­paign stopped talk­ing about eco­nom­ic change.” When the Green­berg team test­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic mes­sage attack­ing Trump for his char­ac­ter vs. a mes­sage demand­ing big eco­nom­ic changes” and attack­ing Trump for sup­port­ing for trick­le-down and pro­tect­ing cor­po­rate spe­cial inter­ests,” they found that the eco­nom­ic mes­sage per­formed dra­mat­i­cal­ly bet­ter,” par­tic­u­lar­ly among key vot­er groups like mil­len­ni­als, white unmar­ried women and white work­ing class women.

The elec­tion is over, and with it, so it is the Clinton’s quar­ter-cen­tu­ry long dom­i­na­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics. And so late­ly I’ve been think­ing about the Clin­tons’ his­tor­i­cal lega­cy. It’s not a pret­ty pic­ture. The neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic poli­cies of Bill Clin­ton, which Hillary strong­ly sup­port­ed – free trade, dereg­u­la­tion, the obses­sion with deficit reduc­tion – led to soar­ing lev­els of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, flat or declin­ing wages for most Amer­i­cans, and record low rates of labor par­tic­i­pa­tion. The Clin­ton crime bill ruined count­less lives, espe­cial­ly black lives. Wel­fare reform” immis­er­at­ed poor fam­i­lies and led to a dra­mat­ic upswing in rates of extreme pover­ty. Under the watch of Pres­i­dents Clin­ton and Oba­ma, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty at the state and local lev­el was allowed to slow­ly die away. Today, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty as an insti­tu­tion is prob­a­bly weak­er than it’s ever been at any time in its long his­to­ry. The Democ­rats now con­trol none of the three branch­es of gov­ern­ment and only 18 gov­er­nor­ships and 13 state leg­is­la­tures. In the weeks lead­ing up to the elec­tion, many polit­i­cal observers were con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict­ing an his­toric Trump defeat fol­lowed by a melt­down of the GOP. But – plot twist! – it’s the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty that has col­lapsed into a smok­ing heap of rubble.

Team Clin­ton repeat­ed­ly reas­sured us that Hillary was the most high­ly qual­i­fied and most hyper-com­pe­tent per­son evah! to run for pres­i­dent. They pos­sessed the unshake­able con­vic­tion that they, the best and the bright­est, could not pos­si­bly fail – so much so that on elec­tion day, her aides pre­ma­ture­ly uncorked the cel­e­bra­to­ry cham­pagne. So extreme was their reck­less­ness that they actu­al­ly want­ed to run against Trump. Out of the out­ra­geous hubris, com­pla­cen­cy, and incom­pe­tence of Hillary’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign came the Clin­tons’ hor­ri­fy­ing part­ing gift to Amer­i­ca: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. This is where the Clin­tons led us. Trump’s elec­tion, and the night­mare to which Amer­i­ca is awak­en­ing, is on them. And it is unforgivable.

I sus­pect that his­to­ry is not going to look kind­ly at Bill and Hillary Clin­ton. No, not very kind­ly at all.

Kath­leen Geier has writ­ten for The Nation, The Baf­fler and The New Repub­lic. She lives in Chicago.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH