Exactly one week after the 2016 presidential election, Molly Ball of The Atlantic ventured an early roundup of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Based on reflections of her Democratic sources, Ball listed shortcomings from a failure to galvanize white working class voters, to a flawed campaign that prioritized analytics over field reports, to the supposed arrogance of a candidate “marching to an inevitable coronation.”
Ball’s piece was an early example of a new media genre: the Clinton defeat narrative. It’s a genre marked by a tangle of competing hypotheses and high levels of emotion and vitriol, all made more poignant by the fact that Clinton’s loss ushered Trump into the White House. Ball says she only intended to address what Clinton herself could have done differently, and not to offer a comprehensive postmortem. Nonetheless, she says, “I did get a lot of feedback saying, ‘It wasn’t her fault, how dare you blame her.’”
Clinton will make her own contribution to the election-defeat oeuvre next week, with the release of her book What Happened — posed as a statement, not a question.
Early excerpts, including a takedown of Bernie Sanders, whom she believes blocked her path to the presidency, have sent the Clinton media complex into overdrive with a fresh wave of commentary, praise, and backbiting.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) July 27, 2017
Given how much ink has stained on the Clinton loss, it’s striking that, nearly 10 months later, there’s still no consensus on what caused it.
That frustrates Amy Chozick, Clinton correspondent for The New York Times, who is working on her own book about Clinton’s campaign. “I’m writing this book now and reflecting on all the reasons that she lost, and I think it’s really nuanced, and it’s complicated, and it’s not as simple as saying ‘it’s Comey, it was the Russians,’” she says in an interview with CJR. “I think it was all kinds of things.”
There’s never an easy, single-factor explanation for any presidential candidate’s defeat. But the conversation about Clinton’s loss, in particular, has been marked by an inflexibility of opinion among partisans, including sections of the press, who long ago made up their minds whether they loved or loathed her.
As Branko Marcetic, a frequent contributor and editor at the left-wing magazine Jacobin puts it, “Her loss is kind of an ideological battle. It was at the time and I think it still is.”
THAT’S NOT TO SAY there hasn’t been great reporting on the 2016 election. Public understanding of Clinton’s loss has, at least in theory, been significantly advanced by detailed new information on everything from Comey’s decision right before the election to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, to Wikileaks’ data dump of her campaign chair John Podesta’s emails. Reporting on how Russia meddled to tip the scales in Trump’s favor has contributed to the narrative, too, even if it doesn’t always mention Clinton by name.
In April, veteran political journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes published Shattered, which shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list with its insight into an electoral operation that struggled from the outset to define its message, and that was wedded to flawed data.
New reporting on Clinton’s loss has, especially in recent months, also drawn out the role played by sexism. In May, Rebecca Traister snagged the first extensive post-election interview with Clinton for New York magazine, and used it to reflect on the powerful gender dynamics that shaped the election.
“I was interested in getting at some of the elements I felt hadn’t been addressed either very deeply or widely in other publications,” Traister says.
The idea that misogyny was an important factor in Clinton’s loss is likely to come to the fore again as a key theme in her book. The earliest excerpt to be released focused on Trump’s physically intimidating behavior at the second presidential debate, during which he loomed behind Clinton as she addressed the nation.
The excerpt inspired a sympathetic and widely read New York Times opinion piece by Jill Filipovic, a feminist writer and lawyer. “The argument that gender played a role has been addressed with a real lack of nuance, especially from the folks who think it didn’t play as significant a role as some other factors,” Filipovic says in an interview with CJR.
Traister and Filipovic both argue that Trump would not have been the Republican nominee if Clinton hadn’t been his presumptive opponent. “It wasn’t that Trump stood for anything anybody cared about, it was that he was the biggest middle finger to not only liberals, but to feminists, and to Hillary Clinton in particular,” says Filipovic.
NEW REPORTING AND ANALYSIS on Clinton’s loss has struggled at times, however, to cut through the noise of preconceived opinions. Within about three days of her big Clinton interview coming out, Traister says, “Everybody went back to what they always thought about Hillary Clinton, which is ultimately what a lot of post-election analysis has been, a return to your priors … Whatever you think your major explanation was, you can return to that, and nobody’s gonna come along and say ‘actually, you’re wrong’ because everything’s a little bit right.”
And if the multifaceted nature of Clinton’s defeat hasn’t made finding the truth hard enough, some commentators also think the media is responsible for a zero-sum tone that has failed to cut through hardened Hillary biases.
Paul Waldman, a regular opinion writer for The Washington Post, says years of reporting on the Clintons created an environment in which reporters and commentators demand Hillary apologize for her shortcomings to a far greater extent than they have asked of previous presidential candidates. Waldman thinks mainstream coverage of Clinton’s loss has been insufficiently reflective on how the media covered her campaign, suggesting reporters have projected blame onto her to avoid taking responsibility for their own errors.
“Saying she did these things wrong doesn’t tell you anything about where her coverage was good or bad, and how it might have been better,” he says.
Ultimately, it perhaps isn’t realistic to expect reporters who were deeply involved in a divisive campaign — and who have remained deeply involved in parsing it amid the Trump administration’s chaotic first months — to have yet had the time or emotional bandwidth to reflect with total analytic clarity on why Clinton lost.
“There’s no possible way that we can have any kind of clean narrative about what happened,” says Traister. “Not that it’ll ever be clean, not that there’ll be one answer. But I just think the storyline is gonna look a lot clearer once all of those of us who were implicated in it are out of the picture.”
H.W. BRANDS, A HISTORIAN who has written on presidents from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan, says history doesn’t tend to have much room for presidential losers.
“If I write about the 2016 election ten years from now, I’ll spend a lot of time on Donald Trump and only a tiny bit on Hillary Clinton. If I get into detail, I’ll say that the email questions, the FBI’s timing, feminist fatigue, and the like simply highlighted her central weakness,” he tells CJR in an email.
But given the historic nature of Trump’s triumph, Clinton will likely receive more scrutiny than most other defeated candidates. Brands adds that the ongoing Russia probe could, if it ends in criminal convictions for Trump or his associates, cause the 2016 election to come under a brighter historical spotlight than usual.
And many commentators are sure that Clinton will continue to be relevant whatever the picture looks like when the dust of 2016 has settled.
“I would imagine we’re going to see her very differently in 10 years,” says Filipovic. “Eighty-five percent of the US population said they voted for JFK; you know that wasn’t true. I don’t think you’ll get a lot of people 15 or 20 years from now admitting they voted for Donald Trump.”
Either way, many observers think Clinton is writing What Happened with at least one eye on her long-term legacy. “She has been thinking about history and the narrative from the beginning, and I think she and her team are very savvy about that,” says Chozick.
Even before it officially hits stores, Clinton’s book has solicited heated reaction across the political spectrum. Politico reported this week that many in the Democratic Party are dreading that its release will reopen old wounds. And many on the right have assailed her, among other charges, for soliciting lavish sums for VIP access to her book tour.
“I can’t imagine that she thinks she’s gonna publish a book and instantly become America’s sweetheart.”
Reaction of this type has greeted each of Clinton’s returns to the public eye since she lost the election. In May, Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News headed a column on her book-writing plans with the message “Hey, Hillary Clinton, shut the f— up and go away already.”
And in some quarters, speculation has been swirling for months that her carefully calibrated interventions since November have been a prelude to a future run for office — be it for New York mayor, or president in 2020.
Those journalists who have spent time with her, however, don’t imagine that her book is an attempt to lay the groundwork for another crack at public office.
“I think there is zero chance of that,” says Chozick. “I think she really likes the idea of governing and passing policy, but I don’t think she likes the act of campaigning.”
And Traister, who interviewed Clinton as she was putting pen to paper on What Happened, says that unless her thinking has changed in the interim, the book will be more a candid reflection than an attempt to change anyone’s mind.
“I’d be very surprised if Hillary Clinton thought at this point that she was going to change the narrative around herself,” she says. “I can’t imagine that she thinks she’s gonna publish a book and instantly become America’s sweetheart.”