Against a political backdrop fraught with division, strife, and scandal, Hillary Clinton failed to overcome the odds and clinch the American presidency. This brilliantly detailed account by Allen and Parnes is required reading for those who wish to understand why.
When asked by a journalist in the 1960s what was the most common cause of governance going awry, Harold Macmillan is said to have replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” Certainly, for governments in Britain and America after this, ‘events’ would shape the direction of government and cause it to veer off course. In America, the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 resulted in a rapid change in American (and British) foreign policy, sparking the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. During Obama’s presidency, the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria forced a reluctant America to continue policing the world.
It was this background in front of which the 2016 US presidential election played out, with ‘events’ arguably being its steering force. If one wishes to consider the meteoric rise of Donald Trump an ‘event’, or a series of (unfortunate?) events, one can begin to comprehend why in spite of all conventional wisdom, Mr Trump was able to march to victory. Despite being a political outsider, he stormed like a bull seeing red through the Republican primaries, impaling the prospects of candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tim Kasich. Every time he tweeted (and continues to tweet), a media storm ensued, carrying the political air with Mr Trump. The media circus followed his every move, every new controversial comment forced the campaign to veer off into constantly new territory.
while Hillary was measuring the drapes in the Oval Office, her team was mismeasuring the electorate
For Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign, however, ‘events’ were largely out of her control. In Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, the political journalists from Sidewire and The Hill respectively, take the reader on a pained journey through Mrs Clinton’s campaign. They began interviewing Clinton aides even prior to her announcing her candidacy, with the intention that they would write an authoritative account of how the most qualified candidate in American history, as Obama put it, strode triumphantly to the presidency. During the course of their research, however, the authors soon learned of the disunity and mismanagement within the Clinton campaign, and of the lacking awareness by all in “Clintonworld” of the personal flaws of Clinton as a candidate and potential president. They knew that the book they planned to write would never go into print.
Indeed, as the results from the general election showed, Hillary Clinton did not stride triumphantly to the Oval Office. Up until the eve of the general election, the odds were still on Clinton to succeed; nobody in her campaign knew any different. They had assumed Obama’s 2012 electoral coalition of urban voters, ethnic minorities and a majority of women would hold up. They did not account for the Trump surge in states such as Florida and Utah, or mass desertions in states which the Democrats had carried since 1992, including Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Donald Trump won those three states with a swing of less than one per cent, after he campaigned relentlessly on an ‘America First’ platform which criticised the free trade which had, he said, ruined the manufacturing industry in the Midwestern ‘Rust Belt’ states. In comparison, Hillary Clinton never once visited Wisconsin during the general election campaign, and only visited parts of Michigan as a formality, assuming somewhat negligently that she would carry them. Allen and Parnes write, “while Hillary was measuring the drapes in the Oval Office, her team was mismeasuring the electorate.” At no time until late in the campaign did Mrs Clinton’s team pay enough attention to reality, that many working class white voters, even previous supporters of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were slipping out of her reach, into the arms of Donald Trump.
Release of DNC emails, also by WikiLeaks, further damaged Democratic unity towards the conference given the apparent anti-Sanders bias
Despite outwardly projecting itself as a bastion of unity and stability, Allen and Parnes display how Hillary’s campaign was frought with disagreement and division from the start. Within the campaign, Robby Mook, the manager, and John Podesta, the chairman, are said to have had countless disagreements over strategy and style, with staffers unsure whose instructions to follow. Further, Mook’s (and Clinton’s) obsession with using data to direct the campaign, rather than the more abstract ‘art of politics’ preferred by Podesta, meant that the campaign struggled to develop where it was truly needed: states like Michigan and Florida were deprived of campaign resources and staff, since, based on their data, Clinton was expected to win them without too much conflict.
As well as the divisions in the campaign, there were also the non-stop ‘events’ which repeatedly threw the campaign off-piste. From a surprisingly strong and persistent Bernie Sanders in the primaries, who only reluctantly conceded defeat after he was staunchly defeated in California, to the ever-present email scandals featuring public interventions from FBI director James Comey twice in the campaign, Allen and Parnes paint a picture of a campaign that started strong but was weakened with every hurdle. Certainly, Hillary, as they call her, fared well in dealing with the individual hurdles – when called in front of the House Benghazi Committee, for example she handled the interrogation with the ease of a seasoned stateswoman – but the cumulative effect of the hurdles hampered the already disunited campaign.
There were debilitating factors that ran throughout Clinton’s campaign, including the ever-present FBI investigation into her use of a private server, and later the WikiLeaks release of hacked Podesta emails, which were harshly critical of other Democrats. Release of DNC emails, also by WikiLeaks, further damaged Democratic unity towards the conference given the apparent anti-Sanders bias in the party establishment. As a result, many diehard Sanders supporters would refuse to support the candidate with the enthusiasm that they had showed for Mr Sanders.
Even once she had obliterated Bernie Sanders in terms of pledged delegates in the primaries, he continued to criticise her integrity
All of these factors, when taken together, certainly weakened Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the general election. Indeed, Allen and Parnes claim that Mrs Clinton herself blamed the FBI, Russian hacking (which supposedly led to the release of the various batches of hacked emails) and white supremacists, who flocked to Donald Trump, for her election loss. One factor that Mrs Clinton overlooked entirely, which the book’s authors expose methodically as the campaign went on, was the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton herself.
Despite her qualifications and experience, despite her well-developed policy and defeat of Mr Trump in the three television debates, Mrs Clinton was lacking in any cogent vision for the nation. Whilst Mr Sanders criticised capitalism and the banking elites, and Mr Trump got his supporters chanting slogans such as “drain the swamp”, Mrs Clinton was portrayed accurately as representing the status quo. She was the pro-trade, pro-business inheritor of the Obama legacy, whilst Sanders and Trump respectively were emblematic of the growing discontent within the left and the right. She formulated nuanced policies that were difficult to condense into soundbites that would carry within the population at large. They started off with soundbites – “build the wall” or “break up the banks” – but had very little to say of substance. For the supporters of the populists, however, a lack of policy substance was secondary to the idealism of the candidates; Mrs Clinton was critically lacking in this.
Further, Mrs Clinton was widely regarded as dishonest, and her approval ratings slumped with every new revelation about her private server use, with very little recovery. Even once she had obliterated Bernie Sanders in terms of pledged delegates in the primaries, he continued to criticise her integrity, citing examples of closed speeches that she had given to banks such as Goldman Sachs, for which she was incredibly well-remunerated. As Allen and Parnes put it, “Hillary was stuck fighting a zombie candidate who could embarrass her and undermine her but not defeat her for the nomination.”
she never would shatter that highest glass ceiling, that of the American presidency
The increasing mistrust of Clinton as a candidate was carried into the general election, both by the FBI as mentioned earlier, but also by Donald Trump’s ingenuity in calling her “Crooked Hillary”, a nickname which spread nationwide, and his supporters chanting “lock her up!” for the email server scandal. Perhaps the bile directed towards Mrs Clinton was tinged with sexism, or perhaps she was mistrusted after having been in the public eye for so long – she was certainly known for being calculating and pragmatic rather than ideologically grounded in one set of ideas. Whatever the reason for the bile, it remained the case that throughout her time as candidate against Sanders and nominee against Trump, the American people, generally speaking, did not trust Clinton.
Despite trying – and failing – to get the Democratic nomination in 2008, Hillary Clinton believed that she was destined for the Presidency. For the Clintons, power was something expected, something that she and Bill had worked their lives to achieve. They had not anticipated that she would lose the election; nobody in her campaign had, particularly against Trump. What Allen and Parnes realised, through their interviews, was that even if Hillary Clinton was hampered to a degree by external ‘events’, it was the flaws in the candidate herself that would lead her campaign to a disappointing fizzle on election night; she never would shatter that highest glass ceiling, that of the American presidency.
‘Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign’ is now available from Crown Publishing. Purchase the book on Amazon here.
Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images