One of the numerous false claims made by supporters of Hillary Clinton before her defeat was the contention that she was uniquely well-prepared and qualified to become President following a lifetime spent gaining political experience. This was always an ahistorical assertion.
The underrated George H Bush, father of Dubya, had been a war hero, businessman, director of the CIA and Vice-President of the United States before he succeeded Ronald Reagan. Although Eisenhower had not held political office, he had been Supreme Allied Commander in the liberation of Western Europe in the Second World War, which is a damn sight better preparation for the Oval Office than being the First Lady who botched health care reform and then went on to be an undistinguished Secretary of State. Ronald Reagan had been governor of California. The polymath Teddy Roosevelt had been Vice-President. LBJ was hardly unprepared. There are others. Hillary Clinton had plenty of experience, of course, but she cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to be the person who was especially or uniquely ready for the Presidency.
Yet that bogus claim – uttered with increasing desperation as the race tightened and Trump turned over the Democrats – became a comfort blanket for anti-Trumpists the worse things got. It could not in the end cover up the reality that Hillary was a spectacularly ill-suited and disastrous candidate, who lost.
Ignore the “she won popular vote” argument, incidentally. It is interesting in an anorak obsessive sense that she won more votes across America, and indicative that the Clinton campaign ran the worst campaign of the modern era. If Clinton had done her job properly and had a message and strategy for the mid-west (rudely and unfairly dubbed the “rust-belt”) then she would have won the states required. Yet no Clinton supporter in their right or wrong mind would have conceded if the outcome had been reversed and Trump had won the popular vote and Clinton the electoral collage. These are the rules. Complain before the election, not after, if the electoral college is such a terrible way of conducting matters.
But Clinton did not lose just because she botched the campaign and had no message beyond “Trump bad”. Those voters in the places she needed to win did not like her, and with reason, stretching back decades. Observers who wanted her to win, only to stop Trump, had to close off part of their brains to the ultimately unavoidable reality that she was terrible at politics and disliked with good cause.
In the new collection of old essays by the much mourned Christopher Hitchens, one of the greatest public intellectuals produced by Britain in the last half century or so, there is a piece so prescient and right about Hillary from 2008 that it should have been this year’s guiding text. It should have been printed out and photo-copied, and nailed to the front doors of the houses of Democrat voters in the primaries, and tweeted out on the hour until every voter was exposed to the demolition job of the century. In The Case Against Clinton, he dissects her troubles with the truth (taking in decades of stupid lies) and skewers the Clinton machine as a self-seeking and ruthless destroyer of opponents, a monstrous creation that had to keep winning or die. If Hitchens goes slightly too far at points, his cold fury at her unsuitability only emphasises the enormity of the problems, presentational and practical, that so many voters would end up having with her in 2016.
Voter dislike on its own cannot explain what happened, however. Tasteless Trump was a turn-off for tens of millions of American too. Yet his team had the crucial insight that the election could be decided in those mid-west states in addition to Florida, and to achieve this they brilliantly exploited economic and cultural unease and anger. Clinton barely went near those voters and had no message for them. Why?
Put to one side that Clinton has stuck to an outdated dogma for decades, advocating top down redistribution and bigger government and regulation, a position she was wary of articulating too clearly in case key voters grasped the expensive tax-raising implications. That explains only so much of what happened to her and to America.
What is emerging in addition is the following picture, seeping out from the rubble and ruins of a doomed Democrat campaign.
Say what you like about Bill Clinton and his behaviour, but he saw it coming. He has one of the foremost political instincts of the last three or four decades. It has already been reported in various places that he knew that Hillary had no message and that the election could be lost with those hard-pressed voters that her team, hooked on pollsters and their big data projections of a potential “blow out” victory, had ignored. Furthermore, he tried to influence his wife to change course and she would not agree. This is my run, not yours, and I must trust my team, was her response, it is said by people who saw it.
That is only half the story, though. Hillary ended up trapped between two Presidents. That is her husband with his entirely correct if ignored strategic advice, and Obama, obsessed with the Obama legacy. Hillary Clinton could not go to the mid-west, to those states that ended up being her downfall, and pitch that she felt the pain of economically troubled voters and would fix it. For that would have stood as a repudiation of the Obama record. His story is that things have improved tremendously in those places and that he has been an economic success leaving a great legacy. Needing his endorsement, to secure the support of his supporters, and wanting the backing on the campaign trail of Barack and Michelle Obama, she could not do what was required.
In the year of a fast-moving “change election”, there she stood in her trouser suit, stuck in the middle, grinning but saying almost nothing and with little left in the locker other than a collection of anti-Trump ads and a tape of him being a sexist bozo, which we can see with hindsight only added more colour to a picture already clear in the minds of voters.
A much better politician than Hillary Rodham Clinton would have found a way round this, aound the various conundrums and crazy contradictions of the historic, quite mad 2016 campaign. A better politician, in his ghastly intuitive populist way, did just that and won. He, Trump, could have been stopped by someone sensible, not beholden to Barack Obama. But Trump could never have been stopped by Hillary, the truly terrible candidate, it turns out.