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Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Was As Bad As You Thought, Maybe Worse


Successful campaigns are all alike; every unsuccessful campaign is unsuccessful in its own way. Or so the authors of campaign books would have us believe. In Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes present a view of the 2016 Clinton campaign that tells us more about the personalities and problems that plagued it than any reporting to date.

The premise, as stated in the subtitle, is that the effort was destined to fail. In that, they are partly wrong and fall into the same trap of most campaign books by blaming the campaign rather than the candidate. If anything doomed Clinton’s chances, it was not campaign manager Robbie Mook’s misjudgments, real as they were, nor the infighting that plagues all campaigns. What doomed Clinton was Clinton herself.

Hearts or Minds

That is not to say that observers can ignore problems with the campaign or disagreements among its staff. There were plenty of them. And the most interesting part of any campaign book is seeing the curtain pulled back and the truth revealed about the soap opera of one of the more chaotic kinds of workplaces in America. For something that costs as much as campaigns do, their short duration makes everything temporary and ever-shifting. Stakes are high, time is short, and clashes of ideas or personalities that would simmer for years in a normal company come to a raging boil quickly in the high-intensity setting.

From the beginning, the Clinton machine was determined to avoid the mistakes that cost Hillary the nomination eight years earlier. Too determined, even. The campaign began so focused on fighting the last war that they slavishly copied the successful tactics of their last opponent, Barack Obama. Most especially, Clinton wanted a facsimile of Obama’s vaunted Big Data operation. That, combined with a superficial desire to break from the past, led her to hire Mook, a thirty-something up-and-comer who focused relentlessly on demographic data over polling, as well as cost control, the lack of which had bedeviled the 2008 effort.

But no political family as longstanding as the Clintons can ever truly clean house. The various retainers and hangers-on that crowded the Clinton court remained, either in the campaign or lurking nearby. Mook had worked for Hillary before, but when he was elevated above more senior courtiers, tension was inevitable.

His approach to campaigning was more science than art, too, alienating the old hands—including the candidate’s husband, Bill Clinton. Bill and campaign chairman John Podesta saw their job as one of persuasion, and they acted on gut-level judgments to get it done. Mook instead was empirical, looking for groups who would back the candidate and working to get them out to the polls in large enough numbers to win.

The difference in opinion influenced every decision, with Hillary almost always siding with Mook and trusting in his infallible data. The campaign staff was divided on the idea, and never unified behind either Mook’s math or Bill’s instincts. The authors describe the would-be First Gentleman’s take succinctly: “[n]either a traditional poll nor Mook’s preferred analytics—voter-behavior models based on surveys and demographic data—were as finely tuned as his own sense of political winds.” Rather than listen to the man who had won the presidency twice, Hillary backed the fresh-faced amateur. She had so internalized the 2008 race as to make the same choice voters did then, opting for the untested over the well-worn path.

Mistakes Were Made

The facts on the ground had changed drastically in eight years, but they would not discover that until it was too late. This, at least, cannot be completely condemned. The Obama campaign’s technological prowess was considerable, and no one could assume that technology’s utility would decline in the intervening years when it had gotten better in every other area of life. But things were shifting in 2016, and new forces were at work. Mook’s model predicted victory based on the old facts. When polls or intuition contradicted the model, they dismissed them.

In the meantime, the campaign committed plenty of unforced errors, the impact of which should have been foreseen. The seeds of defeat were shown years, even decades before. Hillary entered the campaign season with high approval ratings, but they were bound to drop once she stopped being the face of American diplomacy and resumed a partisan role. As a partisan, she brought a lot of baggage.

Even nostalgia for Bill’s administration could not wash away the accumulated distaste. In every administration, someone is portrayed as the evil genius behind the throne, the ruthless, joyless schemer. Karl Rove, Valerie Jarrett, and Steve Bannon all fill the role. In the 1990s, it was Hillary. When the DNC and the big donors backed her, they effectively ran Karl Rove for president. Such figures are meant to draw the poison from their principals, not to become popular figures in their own right. Rehabilitation of such a person’s public image is nearly impossible.

That aside, Hillary’s own post-2008 missteps led to problems that other candidates would have avoided. The most famous of these was the decision to use a private, insecure server to store her e-mail during her time as secretary of State. The reasoning behind it was clear enough: Hillary wanted to avoid FOIA requests and congressional inquiries. The impulse is understandable, if criminal, and given her family’s history of clashes with Republicans, one could see why she wanted to get ahead of any future investigation by concealing or destroying the potential evidence. But it created a legal liability where any other candidate would have known better, and it reinforced the public’s association of Clintons and dishonesty.

The were other mistakes, also caused by the candidate herself. Clinton and her husband made speeches to private groups of powerful people for exorbitant sums of money. That in itself is normal for ex-officeholders, but even when it became clear that she intended to run again, the conflicts of interest became apparent. Nevertheless, she persisted, giving closed-door speeches for six-figure checks, even after the members of her nascent campaign staff begged her to stop.

Hillary’s towering avarice created another issue where there would have been none, one that dovetailed nicely with the message of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, that the system was rigged by the establishment. The authors describe Hillary’s shockingly wrong take on the situation: “She’d ignored warnings from friends not to give the paid speeches, but she truly believed she couldn’t be corrupted and that she hadn’t done anyone favors for money.”

The self-inflicted wounds continued. Calling half of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorable” and “irredeemable” detracted from the presidential image Clinton was attempting to cultivate, while giving a rallying cry to the other side. Secrecy about her deteriorating health—even from her own staff—added to the impression of dishonesty and secrecy where a little openness would have defused the issue and even garnered some sympathy.

Beyond the scandals, the theme that emerges most prominently in the book is the lack of a theme in the campaign. From her first speech as she entered the race, Clinton sought to emulate Obama’s campaign-launching speech in 2007, but was unable to articulate any reason to vote for her. “Hillary didn’t have a vision to articulate,” the authors write, “and no one else could give one to her.” The campaign staff copied Obama’s style as best they could, but they could not fabricate his sense of purpose for a candidate who had none.

Nice Things

In her isolation, surrounded by sycophants, Clinton had no one to tell her she was wrong. A few people hinted at warning against some of these problems, but no one had the clout to make the cautions stick. In Clintonworld, loyalty was valued above all else. Anyone in her orbit who objected too strenuously risked crossing the line and paying the price. They fought among themselves, but none of it reached the throne, and none dared risk his place by insisting on a change.

In Clintonworld, loyalty was valued above all else. Anyone in her orbit who objected too strenuously risked crossing the line and paying the price.

The candidate and her staff saw all of this as someone else’s fault. The mantra they developed, “we’re not allowed to have nice things,” was at once self-pitying and absurd. They started out with the nicest of things, things that any candidate would have sold his first-born child for: rich donors, a co-opted DNC machine, a field free of serious rivals, a cash horde bigger than any ever seen, and a compliant news media who fell all over themselves to praise her and bash her Republican opponent. One by one, they cast these advantages away.

Even now, Clinton’s fans argue that FBI Director James Comey’s untimely disclosure of the investigation into her e-mails was what really doomed Clinton’s shot at the White House. But as the authors note, even before the infamous Comey letter, polls in Florida and North Carolina were contradicting what the early voting and Mook’s models told them would be the result. And even if Clinton had not set up her illegal server, all of the other issues would still have been present in voters’ minds, underlining the connection between the Clintons and dishonesty.

Lefties who think Clinton would have won without the Comey letter are writing the alternate history of a candidate who doesn’t exist. The lies, the secrecy, the greed, the sense of entitlement—these are all part of who she is, along with the wonkishness, intelligence, and progressive values her admirers praise. Trump, for all his flaws, could articulate why he should be president; Hillary never could. That, added to the mounting negatives, should have doomed her even if she had not been the subject of a criminal investigation. The victory they dream of could only have been won by a person that exists in their imaginations. The story of a scandal-free Clinton is nothing but fan fiction.

The Second Draft

Allen and Parnes convey all of this tale in an engaging and occasionally eye-opening book. Their years-long access to campaign staff on an anonymous basis provides insights that could not have been revealed while the thing was ongoing. Now, it can be told, and in the telling they give us the second draft of the history of the 2016 campaign.

Second drafts survive longer than the first, but they too are impermanent—who, anymore, speaks of Game Change? Even so, the themes developed here will influence the later drafts that will appear down the years until the story of Hillary Clinton passes into history.

Certain themes are overdone. That the losing campaign was disorderly and full of infighting has become a cliché; all campaigns are like this, but winning diminishes the chaos in hindsight. Losers have axes to grind, while winners see the tumult as water under the bridge.

The quick turnaround in publication of the book, too, came at the cost of closer editing that might have excised a few of the hackneyed phrases that stood out from the otherwise smooth writing. But overall, this first look inside the fall of the House of Clinton is a fair-minded effort by a pair of writers who clearly like Hillary but are not blind to her flaws.