Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election but she made it to number one on the best seller lists with her recently published memoir, What Happened. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, editor David Remnick interviewed Clinton. He claims that when he met with her, eight months after the election, “she was through with political politesse” and “of grim determination to get a message across, one last time.” But during their talk, she remained as cagey and self-righteous as ever, and the message she delivered, and which Remnick did not push back against, was the same message that fills her five-hundred-twelve-page book: “It wasn’t my fault.”
The reasons she gives as to why it wasn’t her fault are many and have been widely reported at this point: the misalignment of her campaign, her inability to connect with Americans who “questioned my authenticity and trustworthiness.” And then there is racism, misogyny, Putin, Assange, Comey … the list goes on and on.
But what happens in What Happened is that Clinton gives us nothing but a self-serving, bitter, angry, anecdotal explanation of why she lost. A better book would have been one that articulated the vision for America she had hoped to implement had she won the election. But she couldn’t write that book. She couldn’t write it because she didn’t have a vision. And her lack of one was her downfall.
Hillary Clinton had 35-plus years of public service to prepare for her run for president, but when she stepped on the electoral stage the spotlight—like an X-ray—revealed her emptiness. It was immediately apparent that she had nothing to say, nothing inspiring to galvanize the hopes and dreams of the American people.
Where, one might ask, were the big ideas the Democratic National Committee and her campaign strategists should have supplied? Where were the breakthrough insights from the pollsters, the advanced political agendas from the think tanks and consultants? Well, they were running on empty because for more than two decades, the search for transformational political ideas and a vision that voters could rally behind was sacrificed on the altar of the lust for power by the Clintons. From the time they took up residence in the White House, in 1993, succession planning—how to get Hillary to helm the country after Bill’s final term—was the prime preoccupation of the First Family. Thus, in the years between the Clinton’s arrival in Washington and Hillary’s first run for President in 2008, the Clintons, as titular heads of the Democratic Party, made no intellectual contributions, and articulated no vision for advancing the welfare, wealth, and happiness of the American people. It was all about the Clintons. There was, it should be recalled, no landmark legislation enacted under Bill Clinton. Nothing of note. Except, of course, that he signed into law the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which repealed the part of the Glass–Steagall Act which had prohibited banks from offering a full range of investments and commercial banking, and, ultimately led to the financial crisis of 2008.
The democrats were shut out of the White House by George W. Bush in 2001. After spending time in the Senate, where her accomplishments were underwhelming, Hillary emerged to run for president in the primary of 2008. She lost to Barack Obama, who took her into the White House, in 2009, as Secretary of State, giving her a seat at the power table.
History will show Obama’s presidency to have been a failure. Yes, he gave us the Affordable Care Act. But over and over again during his time in office, he declined to use his power for the good of the American people. He didn’t point the finger at the big banks that brought about the financial crisis, he didn’t adequately address the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he ignominiously stepped back from the “red line” in the sand he had drawn over the use of chemical weapons when president Bashar al-Assad crossed it. Even though Obama had won the election on the idea of “change” not much changed during his administration. He didn’t improve the social and economic standing of most African Americans, or middle-class white Americans. He didn’t call out the rampant racism—even when it was directed against him—under the guise of “taking the high road.” While unemployment did go down, wages remained stagnant. The “gig” economy expanded. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
In 2015, it was finally time for Hillary for to run for president, the job for which she had long been groomed, and for which she was perceived to be a shoe in. The democrats were counting on a woman to win, just as they had counted on a black to win. Democratic Party leadership didn’t give a hoot about developing a vision for America, and wouldn’t acknowledge the ideological bankruptcy of the party. All they cared about was blowing the “dog whistle” which proclaimed: it’s time to elect the first woman president of the United States and if you’re not with us, then you don’t count, and we won’t spend the time, effort, or money courting your vote.
But the lack of ideological development within the Democratic Party’s meant that when Hillary won the primary in 2015, she had nothing to say. On her campaign website one was encouraged to “Learn more about Hillary’s vision for America.” If you visited it, you didn’t find a vision. There were six program categories (economy and jobs, education, environment, health, justice and equality, national security—all the usual suspects). It listed over 35 issues! The so-called vision proclaimed on the homepage was nothing more than a hodge-podge of regurgitated programs and policies that democrats have been chewing on and regurgitating for as long as there have been democrats. And the electorate was sick of it.
Clinton proudly points out that she won the popular vote, and won it by the largest margin of votes of any candidate who has gone on to lose the election through the vagaries of the electoral college. This has to be put into perspective. Yes, she received 65,844,610 votes (48.2%) and Trump received 62,979,636 votes (46%). But the difference in the popular vote was a mere 2.1%! Which means that more than sixty-two million Americans found Trump’s message, “Make America Great Again,” more appealing than hers. And no matter how you spin it that’s a large constituency.
Moreover, the fact that Hillary carried the popular vote but lost the election through the nefarious workings of the electoral college makes her failure all the more pathetic. Here’s why: she lost the electoral college in the swing states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012—back when people voted for “change.” The reversal of fortune in these states demonstrates that under Clinton leadership, the Democratic Party and its front-person, Hillary, failed to gauge the depth of unhappiness of the electorate. It wasn’t in touch with the politically alienated and neglected working-class population who were tired of identity politics and multiculturalism. These folks didn’t want to join in the kumbaya of electing the first female president. They didn’t want to be “with her.” They saw her as someone who was out for herself, out to ensure the continuance of the Clinton regime. And she couldn’t convince them otherwise because she had nothing to say that voters hadn’t heard before. So, the democrats lost: They lost Governorships. The Senate. The House. The Presidency.
Hillary and David Remnick remind us in the New Yorker interview that she’s “still here.” And that’s too bad. For the empire of influence that was “Clintonia” should disband and disappear. Neither Hillary, nor Bill have anything more to say to us. Hillary makes this abundantly clear in her vapid book. There is nothing to learn from the Clintons as we look to the future.
But how do we move forward? The Democratic Party needs new ideas. It needs writers and thinkers and philosophers to reimagine and describe a vision of how to help Americans realize the American Dream.
A year ago this month, Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), passed away. Hayden was the lead author of the most radical, political document written in this country since the Declaration of Independence, The Port Huron Statement, which was published in 1962. The Statement provided their generation with a vision that was not an inane list of issues or a sound bite: “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic…”
John F. Kennedy borrowed ideas from The Port Huron Statement for his New Frontier speech, and it provided much of the philosophical underpinning of Lyndon Johnston’s Great Society program. It was the genesis of many the stunning radical legislative advances in America: The Civil Rights Act (1964); the Voting Rights Act (1965); and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid (1965).
That was more than half a century ago. What’s happened since then? Where are the texts offering a critique of the status quo and a guiding vision for the future?
What will our future be? What will our vision be? We need to begin writing it today. And in writing it, we should not be afraid to push our imaginations to the limit and come up with radical, life-changing ideas. We should remember the final sentence of The Port Huron Statement: “If we appear to seek the unattainable… then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”