A photo of Hillary Clinton

State of Disunion

Everyone’s Been Thinking About Hillary All Wrong

There's a distortion field around her 2016 campaign that focuses on negativity. But the truth is she rallied the majority of the country to reject Donald Trump. Bernie? Biden? Take a page from her playbook.

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Since 2016, it has been established as a “political fact” that Hillary Clinton is a failure. This idea is so pervasive that reporters and commentators take it for granted, and every Democrat running in 2020 has made it the basis of their campaigns. Throughout the most recent debate, the last two candidates vying for the nomination spoke about how to beat Donald Trump, as though an effort to do so had never been attempted. But as Senator Bernie Sanders falls behind, Black voters consolidate the party behind former vice-president Joe Biden, and the general election looms before us, we should consider a new political reality: Hillary Clinton’s past might be the key to Democratic victory in the future.

The distortion field around Hillary Clinton is such that her actions are almost entirely viewed as mistakes rather than accomplishments. From one angle, yes, Hillary failed to win over Bernie voters; from another, however, she successfully consolidated nearly 60 percent of Democrats despite her opponent staying in until the convention. Perhaps she truly was a uniquely terrible candidate, or possibly she was a candidate beset by uniquely terrible externalities. And when we speak about the results of 2016, Hillary Clinton is always the woman who lost 70,000 votes and never the woman who won 65 million.

Rather than acknowledge that Hillary Clinton possesses any kind of political skill, our media ecosystem minimizes, marginalizes, and outright ignores her talents and accomplishments. The perpetual negativity around her record and achievements doesn’t just deny Hillary Clinton her due; it deprives all of us—and especially the Democratic Party—of the opportunity to learn. For as much as she has a reputation as the worst politician of all time, Hillary has achieved a tremendous amount of success.

As someone who retained and expanded her voting base after eight years and a contentious primary, Hillary might have had some useful advice for a Sanders campaign that is watching its vote share drop precipitously after four. For a Biden campaign that only steadied in the 11th hour, it might have been worth asking what work Hillary did to successfully unite the party early in the process rather than waiting for a last-minute miracle. Any of the Democrats aspiring to face Trump in the general election could have inquired how to maintain enthusiasm with a firehose of negative campaigning deluging the mass media—because Hillary Clinton is particularly adept at navigating it.

Instead, the Democratic Party has been so focused on avoiding Hillary Clinton’s “mistakes” that it has failed to build on her successes. By framing “electability” as the ability to convert Trump voters rather than the ability to activate Hillary Clinton voters, the party effectively marginalized every candidate in the race who wasn’t a straight white man. Validating the narrative that she barely won the primary in 2016 didn’t defuse tensions between constituencies, but further empowered conspiracy theories and Russian propaganda that the DNC is manipulating the process in 2020. Most alarmingly, by assuming that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely flawed candidate, the party and the polity behind it have gravely misjudged the nature and strength of the forces arrayed against the presumptive nominee.

Hillary wasn’t lacking a personal story, a broad coalition, campaign stops or likability (whatever that is); she was undermined by domestic opponents without mercy or restraint, bolstered by systematic exploitation of our media ecosystem by foreign propagandists, all in defense of an opponent with impenetrable support from his base and an almost supernatural ability to deflect scandal. And just like Hillary, her successor as the Democratic nominee can be bogged down by voter complacency, undercut by overhyped, fake scandals, and trapped in media cycles driven by false equivalence and golden mean fallacies. By erasing Hillary from the discussion, we have actually sabotaged the very objective driving Democratic voters everywhere: beating Donald Trump.

Without the distortion field, without the relentless negativity, the story of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 is how the majority of Americans rejected Donald Trump. It is a story about a neglected Midwest, in that voters in Michigan and Wisconsin were subjected to extensive voter-suppression efforts. It is a story of missed opportunities, in that we failed to either explicitly acknowledge or condemn Russian interference as it was happening, or protect voters in the moment. It is a story of failure, in that the people of the United States were either too incompetent or ignorant to adequately assess the stakes of the election and choose accordingly. What it is not is a story about one woman being the source of all problems.

It has been incredibly comfortable for our polity to make a fact out of Hillary Clinton’s failure. It ties up one of the most traumatic and jarring political decisions in American history into a neat little package: Winnable election meets loser candidate; the end. It is a far neater narrative to embrace than grappling with the cold reality that one-tenth of one percent of voters refused to believe a top-notch political talent with the support of millions of people and a billion-dollar campaign would be a better president than Donald Trump. Because to accept that truth as political fact is to realize that the path to victory isn’t in asking how Hillary lost, but why Donald Trump won.

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