Sixty-Five Million Cracks
The glow of victory can make virtually any campaign look brilliant. The harsh fluorescent light of defeat can make any losing campaign look as dumb as a bag of bricks. Yet while it’s true that such verdicts are often overdetermined, campaign competence and effectiveness are not static. Some are run well, others are run poorly, and as astonishingly as it may sound there is a correlation between how well and poorly a campaign is run and whether they won or lost. Contrary to popular belief there are, in fact, persuadables, and swing voters, who were influenced by actions and events besides (though obviously including) the Comey Letter. The 2016 was not, as Sam Wang and the Huffington Post declared, a remarkably stable election.
There were three things I kept trying to remember as I worked through Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The unnamed sources appear to mostly come from staff rather than Clinton’s inner circle, for example, and that’s significant. The book is not great about spelling out when things were said and it makes a difference if it were things they said after the fact or that they were talking about during the campaign. And the third is the the glows and harsh lighting mentioned above. Even granting all of that, the book itself was informative in changing the spotlight to what I had perceived the balance problems and liabilities of the campaign to be, and what they may actually have been the balance of problems and liabilities.
One of the thoughts that kept crossing my mind as I was getting through the book was how much Hillary Clinton might have benefited from having been a governor. Usually when people say this they mean that being governor makes you more electable, or that it’s generally better experience. But this is not a general sentiment about governorships versus senate seats, but something specific to Hillary Clinton. Her boosters like to argue that she was the most qualified candidate in history. While that’s not exactly true, volume of experience was certainly never cause for alarm when it came to her. Having previously been a booster of cabinet work as an underrated qualification for the presidency, I find myself wondering whether that’s true.
It turns out that there were real gaps in her leadership ability that time as an executive – especially of a large state like New York or Illinois – might have helped get out of her system or at least learn from. Some of the problems I associate with her are more “Clinton” problems rather than specific to Hillary, but either Bill Clinton got away with it due to other strengths that Hillary Clinton lacked, or the Clintons actually got more Clintonian over time. Either way, campaigns are hard places to change habits, and being Secretary of State didn’t do it. Maybe being a governor wouldn’t have, either, but I ended up grasping for whatever I could find.
Since the release of the book, a lot of attention has been drawn to specific decisions made by the candidate and campaign. Most notably Bill Clinton imploring the campaign to spend time in the hinterlands that would ultimately decide the election, and campaign manage Robbie Mook saying that the data contradicted him. The fact that a key interview was given to a news outlet on the basis of what was basically a verbal typo. The decision to avoid Michigan precisely because it was close. Hindsight is always 20/20 and many of the authors’ criticisms of the campaign assumed that all of the problems were forseeable. This isn’t about small but consequential errors that benefit from hindsight, though. It’s not about criticizing a coach for calling a running play only to find the backfield entirely empty after the ball was snapped. This is as much as anything about dye that had been cast prior to the team really even getting into the field. When you lose one of the biggest upsets in modern presidential history, mistakes were made.
And in the case of the Clinton campaign, the mistakes we might have seen were symptomatic of deeper problems. Or one specific problem: Hillary Rodham Clinton. I went into it expecting that the campaign itself would look bad. It’s there in all of the promotional literature as well as the early reviews. Besides, everybody knows she never went to Wisconsin. What I didn’t expect as much was to go into it having such a dour view of Clinton herself. It’s not hard to see why, whether the constituency is New York or the whole nation, she has underperformed in virtually every election she’s been in (2006 is contestable). I had attributed a lot of this to Clinton’s persona, that she isn’t particularly likable and there are at least perceptions of ethical concerns. The problems the book reveals go beyond that, though, into a leadership deficit that almost certainly would have followed her into the Oval Office.
That candidate Hillary Clinton had liabilities is not news. What really jumps out, however, are her liabilities as an administrator. She apparently believes that she has twice now been failed by her own campaigns. It becomes pretty obvious early in the book, however, that she created the very environment that failed her. The most important part of the book was not a decision about Michigan or a TV interview, but very early on when you found out that she read through the campaign emails from her 2008 election and came to the determination that she was not failed in that election due to typical campaign blunders, but because of a lack of loyalty. Before her next campaign gets started, she has everybody on a list with values of 1 to 7 assigned according to how loyal she believed they had been.
What follows is predictable to anyone who has worked in a dysfunctional, low-trust office environment. People close to her don’t come to her with problems, don’t voice their concerns, and don’t tell her when she’s wrong. People further out have to circumvent the campaign apparatus to do so. Mistakes and misconceptions made go uncorrected. In some cases because the people on the campaign themselves miss it, but in others because they follow incentives where loyalty is conflated with support for a given course of action. This tactic especially can’t be combined with a Team of Rivals concept, where factional advantage can be more easily gained through the appearance of loyalty than any other and secrecy is already a part of the culture. Hillary Clinton was not being told what she needed to hear. Team Mook was not being told things by Team Podesta, and vice-versa. Combine all that with a fluid-non-hierarchial command structure and bad decisions are simply inevitable.
The end result was not only mistakes being made, but what turned out to be some of the biggest ones (handling of the email scandal, persuadables vs base, state resource allocations) were left without any sort of correction mechanism. And even when a problem was recognized, at least vaguely, as a problem by the candidate herself, there wasn’t a chain of command or any real way to pivot and make a change. The fact that Clinton never set foot in Wisconsin mattered less than that such an error was possible. That there, as the campaign winded down, they knew they had lost Ohio and Iowa and that those states had a fair amount in common with Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota… and it was more inertia than deliberate choice that they kept her campaigning in Arizona. That they bet the entire farm on analytic models that didn’t pan out, and even after they lost were left feeling like there was nothing else they really could have done.
These issues appeared over and over again, in one form or another. It did not especially matter to me that Clinton did not disclose her Wall Street speeches, but her rationale – it doesn’t matter because haters are gonna hate no matter what they do – was cringeworthy, and contributed to the email would never closing and in a way later to the bad publicity surrounding the pneumonia. This was a case where the campaign itself (reportedly) did what it should have, trying to convince her not to have that attitude, but to no avail. Notably, by the end the higher-ups had stopped trying to convince Clinton of anything (other than to ignore the people in the field). Even one of the few things I considered to be strictly a combination of a candidate problem and bad luck – the “deplorables” comment – was itself partly a result of campaign disorganization. It was everywhere you turn.
I tend to be a sympathetic reader and viewer. You can give me a compelling story of anyone this side of Mussolini and I will find myself rooting for them at points despite myself, even in cases where the second I put the book down I am glad they failed or wish they had. It was no different from Hillary, who I didn’t wish to fail. Early on, especially as the groundwork was being laid for just how questionable an administrator – and thus, would be as president – she was likely to be, my mind bounced back and forth between believing that we really dodged a bullet by not electing her and remembering the bigger bullet we collectively stepped into. But despite all of the above, Clinton was also the victim of a concerted effort on the part of the Russians. She faced an opponent (albeit the one she wanted) who nobody D or R could quite get a handle on. And she faced some unusual bad luck.
I also found myself sympathetic to some of the flaws that she does have, many of which I resent being such a big deal. I found myself actually frustrated on her behalf during the primaries while Bernie Sanders was skating by on notions that can barely even be called ideas with no roadmap or substance. At the time, as the primaries were unfolding I was somewhat ambivalent between Clinton and Sanders, but I came away from the book squarely in her corner. The constant reactionary state of the campaign speaks to many of the leadership issues above, but they were at least attempting to solve real-world problems pragmatically. That shouldn’t be unusual, but in the 2016 election it somehow managed to be. And while I was reluctant to buy into the book’s narrative that All She Ever Wanted Was To Do Good, one did at least get the impression she had a firm good-bad orientation in her perspective when it came to public policy.
The good news for Democrats is that she’s not running again. With any luck, the spectacle of the 2016 election fell almost entirely on her weaknesses as a candidate and a leader. That leaves infinite room for the possibility that the next person will do much better without giving much or any ground on policy. For people like me, it even gives a little bit of hope that a Clintonian party can survive without falling to Warrenism. While I would strongly recommend against relying on that, one potential upshot is that while Clinton’s loss was bad for the country it may have been quite good for the party in a way it appears Clinton’s presidency was never, ever going to be.