I’ve been thinking more about this argument liberals are having. How much should we blame Hillary Clinton for losing the election? Did running Clinton as a candidate have anything to do with Trump’s win? Would someone else have been better?
It’s strange how even these internal debates end up splitting along partisan lines. People who think Clinton lost the election also seem to think she was a terrible candidate overall–corrupt and incompetent and entitled and undeserving. And people who support Clinton often talk as if it’s traitorous and misogynistic to point out any of her flaws, as if this kind of honest critiquing was what ended up tainting a totally spotless politician.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Clinton would have made a good president–better than the men who were running, anyway–but had major liabilities as a campaigner.
Does it matter? Isn’t it all just crying over spilled milk?
It matters if progressives have a message to offer. Because they ran Clinton as their candidate, the election became–at least on the left–a referendum on her personal record. That didn’t leave much room for visions, promises, or hopeful rhetoric, especially since Clinton herself isn’t great at that kind of talk.
Liberals had three answers to this problem:
- “Yes, but she’ll be our first woman president! Isn’t that, in itself, inspiring enough?” In other words, let’s do the Obama thing again, but this time with sex instead of race. This is a hopeful message; the trouble is that the candidate herself wasn’t in a good position to deliver it. Clinton couldn’t get up in the debates and spend the whole time saying, “A vote for me will be a vote for women’s equality!” Obama had other things to talk about: he was young, he was new, he’d voted against the Iraq War, and most important, he was personally committed to a vision of a unified America. What could Clinton say along those lines?
- “Maybe Clinton’s not especially inspiring, but if you really dig into the policy details, you’ll find that her proposed budget, along with her recommended tweaks to the ACA, are projected to produce an increase in household income over the next four years of …” Um, no. The more rousing version of this appeal was, “Clinton’s a hardheaded pragmatist, just the kind of workmanlike leader we need.” This is actually the theme that won me over. But I’m not surprised it didn’t work on, say, young people.
- “Sure, Clinton has problems. But Trump!” Good argument. The trouble is, it’s not inspiring. It’s depressing. It’s the kind of message that whips up core supporters but dampens overall enthusiasm. Which lowers turnout. Which is what happened.
On the right, the election was a referendum on Trump’s character. He compensated for that handicap with big promises. “We’re going to protect jobs. We’re going to build bridges, factories, airports. We’re going to stop terrorism. We’re going to end corruption. We’re going to bring change. We’re going to make America great again.” It was all a bunch of baloney, of course. And Trump’s character is so atrocious it almost didn’t matter.
But he had a hopeful story to tell. Clinton couldn’t pull that off. She had to rely on hopeful stories other people were telling. That’s not good enough.