Examining the Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Lost

With the release of Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, a lot of people are once again weighing in on why she lost the election last November. That is an important discussion for Democrats to have.

Because I haven’t read her book yet, I’m going to avoid weighing in on whether or not Clinton got it all right. But I totally reject the notion that she should simply shut up. Those who go there are either harboring some deep-seeded antipathy for her, or are engaging in a double standard for the first female presidential nominee—or perhaps a mixture of both. I’ve been around a long time and have never heard that one applied to a male candidate.

The writers at FiveThirtyEight have, however, engaged in a very interesting discussion that I think is fruitful. It is based on this tweet from a reporter at the Washington Examiner:

After noting things like, “How dare Clinton do a reasonable postmortem on the 2016 election instead of nailing herself to a cross!” they acknowledge that it’s a pretty good list and that a lot of those things were important. So they set out to rate each one on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of how much impact it had on the outcome of the election, with 5 being the most impactful.

The discussion is really interesting, so you might want to go read it. The end result is that no one scored any of these items below a two—so they think that Clinton is right to name them. Rating lowest was #6 about Fox News, not because it didn’t have an impact, but because it was not any more impactful in this election than it has been for the last 20 years. These folks rated #7, the one addressing sexism, as having the most impact, with Russia, Comey, press coverage of Clinton’s emails, and Trump’s media coverage all coming in a close second.

Here are a few quotes from the discussion that stood out to me.

natesilver: Clinton has been viewed favorably at several points in her career. But usually they were points at which she didn’t threaten a man’s job or wasn’t otherwise being too ambitious…

perry:..my suspicion is that a lot of the bad coverage came from a desire to find a way to balance the sharp coverage of Trump with coverage that was negative about Clinton. The both-sides model of political journalism left you with 15 Trump scandals and 1 Clinton scandal, so you have to pump up the Clinton scandal/controversy/whatever to make up for that big gap since all of these outlets are obsessed with attacks from the right…

natesilver: I’m not sure the media’s constant focus on Trump was necessarily a bad thing for Clinton from day to day, although it did make it hard for her to drive a message. Slightly paradoxically, however, the fact that the media spent so much time focusing on Trump made it hard for anyone to focus on any one aspect of Trump’s behavior…

micah: If you spent any time at Trump rallies, or watching Fox News, or reading the political web, or talking to voters at all, gender suffused EVERYTHING. You could see it in what people wrote on their signs, in the reasons they gave for disliking her, in the coverage of her speeches. It was implicit and explicit. Subconscious and conscious. I mean … good god.

One of the things this group didn’t address is that none of those things happened in a vacuum. We have to keep the cumulative effect in mind. “Clinton fatigue”—which they scored relatively low compared to the other items—refers to decades of disinformation that has been spread about the former first lady, which set the stage for the way the media handled stories about her emails and the Clinton Foundation, which was amplified by Comey’s letter.

That is also not an exhaustive list. During an interview with Clinton about her book, Ezra Klein asked a fascinating question that gets to a distinction he made recently between transformationalists and incrementalists. That comes at about 2:55 in this video.

Here is Ezra’s question:

You say at the end of the book, “Maybe I should have proposed that and left the details to be worked out later.” It seems to me that this is one of the pieces of the campaign that you have been left evaluating. You say that you now have more of an appreciation for the power of big galvanizing ideas. Do you think that one of the lessons of watching Bernie Sanders…of watching Donald Trump is that perhaps the correct role for policy in the campaign is to inspire and the place for technocratically sound more pragmatic policy is in the legislative process?

The ensuing discussion is fascinating. So I’ll let you watch. What I think is interesting is that Ezra poses this as an either/or question. It is certainly true that, especially in our current media environment, candidates have to focus on inspiration. But if they haven’t done the legwork to at least hammer out whether or not their policy proposals are feasible and would actually work, you get Donald Trump. Or you get Republican slogans like, “repeal and replace.”

Beyond that, I am reminded of something Barack Obama wrote way back in 2005 when he was still the junior senator from Illinois.

The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives’ job. After all, it’s easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it’s harder to craft a foreign policy that’s tough and smart. It’s easy to dismantle government safety nets; it’s harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It’s easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it’s harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that’s our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.

It is tempting to want to replicate the Republican tendency to dumb down their message because it seems to work for them when it comes to winning elections. But as Obama said, that is an effective strategy for a party that wants to “chip away at the very idea of government” because, in the end, it inspires nothing but cynicism and selfishness.

It is rare to find a politician who can both inspire with big ideas as well as back it up with the wonky details that are actually required to produce change. As a contributing factor to why Clinton lost, her inability to do the former certainly has to be considered. But the latter would have made her a far more effective president. Part of the job of Democrats is to convince voters that effectiveness matters.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.