The publication Tuesday of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, has reopened the wounds of last year’s presidential election. As Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times, the book blames Hillary Clinton and her campaign for Donald Trump’s victory: “It’s the story of a wildly dysfunctional and ‘spirit-crushing’ campaign that embraced a flawed strategy (based on flawed data) and that failed, repeatedly, to correct course.”
Was it all Clinton’s fault? Pundits are debating the question yet again:
The Democrats desperately need an authoritative autopsy of 2016: a winnable election with disastrous results. There are all sorts of questions the party needs to ask itself about messaging and strategy: Should Democrats have a more populist message, to appeal to the white working class? Should they double down on identity politics and intersectionality? Should they rely less on data mavens and political consultants? Should they devote fewer resources to national organizing, and more to rebuilding the party from the ground up?
Instead, too many postmortems focus on the one question that isn’t helpful for future planning: Was Clinton a bad candidate? On social media, Bernie supporters are still trying to score points over Clinton’s inadequacies:
In a recent article for New York magazine, staunch Obama champion Andrew Sullivan crisply digested the case against Clinton:
She couldn’t even find a halfway-decent speechwriter for her convention speech. The week before the election, she was campaigning in Arizona, for Pete’s sake. And she took off chunks of the summer, fundraising (at one point, in the swing states of Fire Island and Provincetown). Whenever she gave a speech, you could hear the air sucking out of the room minutes after she started. In the middle of an election campaign, she dismissed half of the Republican voters as “deplorable.” She lost Wisconsin, which she didn’t visit once. I could go on.
Sullivan is not kidding when he said he could go on. “It’s Hillary Clinton’s fault. The worst candidate for president in recent history. Worse than Dukakis. She threw this away,” he said in a New Republic forum late last year. “She’s a terribly unpopular person. Horrible: no inspiration, no political skills, complete mediocrity. So that’s the mistake—allowing the Clintons to keep control of the party and then allowing this mediocrity to be his successor.”
There have been many books cataloguing Clinton’s personal flaws, and Sullivan clearly has enough material to add to this anti-Clinton library. But these books, while relevant when she was a candidate, have been rendered moot by history. The same is true of the countless post-election analyses that all point fingers at Clinton. In trying to figure out what went wrong in the 2016 election, detailing her alleged mistakes and negative qualities provides few answers as to how the Democratic Party should move forward. Clinton will not run for president again, so her flaws (real or imagined) are irrelevant to future elections.
This is not to say there’s nothing to be gleaned at all from Clinton’s loss. But it’s important to distinguish between problems that are particular to Clinton (such as her email scandal and lack of charisma) and problems that are generic to the Democratic Party (its increasing inability to win rural and white working class voters). Clinton’s particular problems are interesting as historical chronicle, but are much less instructive than the generic problems, which will recur no matter the candidate.
No candidate is perfect, not even Obama. (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion...”; “You’re likable enough.”) Given the result of last year’s election, it’s easy to forget that Clinton had genuine strengths (in fundraising and mobilizing party elites) that won her the nomination. Trump certainly had more than his share of flaws as a candidate. But his victory is open to different interpretations: it could be that structural forces (deep inequality and the difficulty of winning three presidential races in a row) outweighed the personal qualities of the candidates; or it could be that the Democrats’ messaging is even worse than they thought. Whatever the case, the peculiar circumstances of 2016, a race between two wildly unpopular candidates, is not likely to be replicated anytime soon.
It’s easy to understand why pundits keep returning to the question of Clinton’s flaws. She’s been a polarizing national figure for a quarter-century, so many journalists (and voters) have strong opinions about her. But we’re living in a post-Clinton world now—rumors about her daughter Chelsea notwithstanding—so there’s no use re-litigating tired arguments about whether, say, she’s a brave feminist pioneer or a soulless neoliberal sellout. Democrats can’t afford to keep fighting the same old wars, especially since the most immediate political battles have nothing to do with the White House. The party first must figure out how to win back local statehouses and legislatures, as well as Congress. And when it’s time to focus again on presidential politics, the first truth that Democrats must universally acknowledge is that Hillary Clinton no longer matters.