New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan published a column Friday, “Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry for Hillary Clinton?,” that’s still getting blowback—but not for its titular question. Late in his meandering piece, Sullivan took a detour to attack liberal analyses of the United Airlines controversy.
“Do you know the real reason Dr. Dao was so brutally tackled and thrown off that United flight? It was all about white supremacy. I mean, what isn’t these days?” he wrote, citing articles in The New Republic (which Sullivan edited in the early 1990s) and New York. “That no federal cops were involved and there is no actual evidence at all of police harassment of Asian-Americans is irrelevant—it’s all racism, all the time, everywhere in everything.”
The New Republic’s Clio Chang has already responded to Sullivan’s critique of her piece. I’m here instead to criticize the section of his column that has been relatively ignored: his “anti-Clinton screed,” as he proudly described it to his email list.
Sullivan, as advertised, savages the 2016 Democratic nominee. “Any candidate who can win the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and still manage to lose the Electoral College by 304 to 227,” he writes, “is so profoundly incompetent, so miserably useless as a politician, she should be drummed out of the party under a welter of derision.” For good measure, Sullivan takes a dig at “her deluded fans.” This is both an inaccurate and—as I’ll explain shortly—hypocritical assessment that neither fairly characterizes Clinton supporters’ reaction to her loss, nor acknowledges the confluence of factors that gave us President Donald Trump.
Moreover, Sullivan’s prose is so gratuitous, so nearly unhinged, that it’s impossible not to wonder what he’s really enraged about. His pre-election writings about Clinton suggest an answer.
“I’ve done what I could in this space to avoid the subject of Hillary Clinton. I don’t want to be the perennial turd in the punchbowl,” Sullivan begins his column, then explains how he was compelled to write about Clinton after “a fawning, rapturous reception” for her at the recent Women in the World conference. Apropos of rumors that her daughter Chelsea is considering a political career, he laments “the hold this family still has on the Democratic Party—and on liberals in general.” He even mocks Michelle Goldberg, a liberal Slate columnist, for having the temerity to wonder how Clinton is doing after her crushing loss to Trump. He continues:
And everywhere you see not an excoriation of one of the worst campaigns in recent history, leading to the Trump nightmare, but an attempt to blame anyone or anything but Clinton herself for the epic fail. It wasn’t Clinton’s fault, we’re told. It never is. It was the voters’—those ungrateful, deplorable know-nothings! Their sexism defeated her (despite a majority of white women voting for Trump). A wave of misogyny defeated her (ditto). James Comey is to blame. Bernie Sanders’s campaign—because it highlighted her enmeshment with Wall Street, her brain-dead interventionism and her rapacious money-grubbing since she left the State Department—was the problem. Millennial feminists were guilty as well, for not seeing what an amazing crusader for their cause this candidate was. And this, of course, is how Clinton sees it as well: She wasn’t responsible for her own campaign—her staffers were.
Sullivan may be right that Clinton didn’t accept enough blame for losing. He’s certainly not alone in that opinion. Clinton’s culpability is the focus of a new book by reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, an excerpt of which Sullivan quoted in his column: “The blame belonged to her campaign team, she believed, for failing to hone her message, energize important constituencies, and take care of business in getting voters to the polls.” CNN’s Jake Tapper also recently said, “She doesn’t seem to have done enough introspection.... Putin didn’t tell you don’t go to Wisconsin, James Comey didn’t tell you [to] call one-quarter of the country ‘deplorable.’”
But in making his case that Clinton was a historically inept candidate, Sullivan focuses on her many advantages—claiming that everything was “stacked in her favor”—without wrestling with her deep disadvantages. Yes, she “had the backing of the entire Democratic establishment, including the president (his biggest mistake in eight years by far), and was even married to the last, popular Democratic president.” Her name recognition and fundraising prowess nearly cleared the Democratic field. And yet, Sullivan argues, she almost lost the primary to “an elderly, stopped-clock socialist.” Then, despite favorable demographics and a growing economy, she lost the general election to “a malevolent buffoon with no political experience.” “Whenever she gave a speech,” he adds, “you could hear the air sucking out of the room minutes after she started.”
There’s no doubt Clinton was stiff on the stump and must take responsibility for strategic errors such as campaigning in Arizona the week before the election (rather than focusing on unexpected battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin). But even some of Clinton’s staunchest supporters aren’t blind to these failings: The day after Clinton’s loss, Goldberg called her “uncharismatic,” and a few days later New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister acknowledged that “Clinton was surely a flawed candidate”—the “bearer of way too much awkward baggage,” and “not a magnetic or inspiring speaker.” But, Traister added, “the argument that if Clinton had taken a firmer stand on trade, or spent more time in Green Bay, it would have mitigated the fact that 48 percent of voters chose a self-confessed sexual predator who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, attempts to apply reason where there is only visceral incongruity.” That Trump “was a catastrophically awful” candidate—so obviously worse than Clinton—“is enough to make one wonder if she ever really had a chance.”
During last year’s campaign, I watched Katie Couric’s 1992 interview of Clinton on The Today Show. Bill was running for president, and Clinton—already a high-powered lawyer who’d taken an active role in government as first lady of Arkansas—was fielding questions about taking too much political responsibility in the White House. NBC played man-on-the-street footage of voters fretting that she was “the power behind the throne,” a “very aggressive” and “overly ambitious” woman. It’s a reminder of the persistent sexism that Clinton has battled—and, at least until last November, overcome—for her entire public life. As Obama said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, “No matter how daunting the odds, no matter how much people try to knock her down, she never, ever quits.”
Clinton is a pioneering woman and a political survivor. Is it really so hard to understand why her loyal, empathetic fans would wonder how she’s doing after losing to the most famous misogynist in America?
If you had never read anything by Andrew Sullivan, you would assume from Friday’s column that he had always hated Hillary Clinton, or at least that he never thought much of her as a politician. But that’s not the case.
“Some readers think I’ve been too negative, even cynical, tonight,” he wrote in his live-blog of the Democratic convention. “Believe me, I am utterly uncynical about this election. I’m worried sick. We need to put behind us any lingering beefs, any grudges, any memories from the past—and you know how I feel about the Clintons’ past—in order to save liberal democracy. The only thing between [Trump] and us is her. So—against all my previous emphatic denials—I’m with her now.”
But Sullivan’s support was utilitarian: He was “with her” only as long as she could win. “I find myself wondering at odd times of the day and night: Why is Trump in the White House?” he wrote on Friday. “And then I remember. Hillary Clinton put him there.” Sullivan is angry that Trump is president—and he’s blinded by that rage. He doesn’t blame the Republican Party for nominating this “malevolent buffoon,” or the 63 million Americans who voted for him in November. He blames one woman alone.