Politics isn’t fair. There are clear winners, clear losers, and also a lot of ambiguities in between; but very little of that has to do with merit. You don’t win in politics by deserving to win. You should; but you don’t. You don’t even win in democratic politics by having the support of more people — and in a democracy, having the support of more people is the theoretical definition of deserving to win. If politics were about deserving to win, we would today be electing the successor to current president Hillary Clinton, or better yet, considering whether her husband, running for president after his stints in the cabinet and the Senate, should get credit for the booming economy under former president Hillary Clinton, who was elected in 1992 after her successful service as the governor of Illinois. So what if Bill Clinton gave paid speeches to Goldman Sachs? He’s a gifted speaker; I’m sure he was worth every dollar.
It might be a big ask to feel sorry for someone who is likely to become the most powerful person in the world. But given the acknowledged symbolism that this someone will be the first woman to hold the office, it could still be justifiable to consider not just the triumph of the moment, but the difficulties that could have prevented her, any her, from getting there, and why these difficulties were, even in politics, unfair. It is now a truism that women in politics (or nearly any field) must work harder to succeed, and that they are held to different standards that greatly inhibit their success; many a pathway to success that is wide open to a man is foreclosed to a woman. There are many kinds of candidates who succeed that we simply won’t allow women to be. In no political example is that clearer than in the unfairness towards Hillary Clinton, in the ways in which we have constantly eschewed our stated principles to find a reason to keep her out of power. I honestly don’t know if Hillary Clinton, but for her gender, would have been elected governor in the ’80s and president in the ’90s, or would have taken the nomination and then the presidency in 2008. I cannot prove that, compared to her husband and the current president, her temperament and her abilities make her a better choice to serve in office, even while they make her less enthralling as a candidate. What is clear is that, should she become our first woman president, it won’t be a footnote. Her being a woman will be central to the story, of why it happened when it did, and why it did not happen sooner. And our national tendency to adore a shiny object will be exhibited next to our long insistence that women do not, and cannot, shine.
“Not another Clinton! Not another Bush!”
“Surely there must be other families who could do this job.”
“It’s time to move on from this ’90s nepotism.”
This sentiment is among the most sexist things ever thrown at Hillary Clinton, and that’s saying something.
George W. and Jeb Bush are the grandsons of a US Senator. They contributed absolutely nothing to their grandfather’s success, needless to say. And they were 20 and 13 when their father was elected to the US House. Even W. can’t have had much to do with that, either. They were 24 and 18 when he became UN ambassador, 29 and 22 when he became CIA director, 34 and 27 when he was elected vice president, and 42 and 35 when he was elected president. Now clearly at some point they were mature enough to help in their father’s successes; but at what point, and how much? W. has some political abilities — gladhanding, chiefly — but it is hard to imagine that he contributed significantly to any of his father’s career. H.W. was surrounded by people much, much more capable. And though after this year Jeb seems clearly less adroit as a politician than we might have thought he was, he still seems sharp enough, and could have been a valuable adviser or deputy during his father’s later career. But he would only have been one among very many. Conversely, the success of George W. and Jeb in their own political careers is almost completely dependent on their parentage. There is no earthly way an underachiever like W. becomes governor of Texas, let alone president, without being the son of a president. So the Bushes of W.’s generation benefitted from a family success that they played very little part in creating.
By contrast, Bill Clinton’s career was built by Bill and Hillary together, as equal partners from the very beginning. All politicians treat their marriages as political partnerships, constantly making reference to how “Becky and I are grateful …” or “Janet and I began this journey …”, giving speeches with their spouses by their sides — even and especially when the spouse is the victim of the politician’s bad behavior. With Bill Clinton, it was something different, with few if any precedents at the presidential level; perhaps Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps John Adams. There was no question this was a full partnership, that his success was her success as well, without question. Hillary was more suitably compared to Jim Baker and Edward House than to Jackie Kennedy and Bess Truman. Bill Clinton was president for eight years, governor of Arkansas for nine years, and attorney general of Arkansas for two years. Throughout, his chief adviser was Hillary Clinton. Prior to Bill’s tenure in Arkansas, she was a congressional staffer, for the Watergate committee no less, as well as an activist and operative for liberal causes, the president of her college government, and the elected commencement speaker of her college class. She took serious public responsibilities while Bill was in office in Little Rock and Washington, most notably the effort for health care reform. Given all of this, it is ludicrous to compare her to Jeb or George W. Bush. Hillary Rodham Clinton earned her place in the public eye. And after Bill completed his time in office, she ran for and won two terms in the US Senate, nearly won the 2008 presidential nomination, and then served four years as Secretary of State. If the people elect her president, it’s because she has made — not inherited — an extraordinary public life.
It says good things about both Clintons that they married strong, smart, ambitious partners. They are attracted, not threatened, by excellence. The choice to prioritize Bill’s ambitions first may have been a nod to his better stump appeal, or a concession to the sexism of the times, or even the result of a coin flip. Whatever the truth, she gave something up when Bill ran for office, more than her last name. She became the family breadwinner in Little Rock, in a way that would be held against her later. She became a lightning rod for the right wing, generating a set of criticisms, mostly unfair and many outright conspiracy-theorist, that would be repeated even by her Democratic opponents. Even when the criticisms are not tied to explicit facts, the air of sleaze that has been created around her has held her back. These days, even liberals think there is something fundamentally corrupt about Hillary, whether they can say why they think so or not, and many of those who don’t think she is corrupt would nonetheless hang their heads and apologetically say that they couldn’t support her because the appearance of sleaze made her unelectable. A good friend of mine worked for Obama in 2008 on essentially these grounds — that it was time to turn the page on the Clintons, even if she wasn’t particularly blameworthy in the whole mess. What this attitude means is that a younger or newer or less-experienced person will always have an advantage over someone like Hillary Clinton.
And since there is no doubt that her sex was a driving factor in her demonization, it means that any man will always have an advantage over someone like Hillary Clinton. Hillary’s image as a working professional woman who had kept her birth name and believed there was more to life than baking cookies enraged cultural conservatives longing for the post-War suburbia of black-and-white television. Of course, her husband took some major hits at the time, too; he, not she, was the ostensible target of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary decried, and he was after all impeached. But he is now much more popular than she, as though the various scandals were all true where she was concerned, but not where he was concerned. That is a very odd perspective on the Clinton administration. That, or people really believe that the Select Committee on Benghazi was onto something, that its investigation really was about something other than that damned woman from the ’90s.
Even before serving as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was among the more qualified candidates for president that we’ve seen, particularly given her proximity to the office for eight years. She was clearly much, much more qualified than Barack Obama and John Edwards, two one-term senators with short résumés but far-reaching ambitions. Of course, every presidential candidate is ambitious and even egotistical, but Obama and Edwards must have thought they were inherently special to compete against the likes of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson, all of them with extensive experience. Edwards had at least served a full six-year term by 2008, in addition to running on the Democratic presidential ticket with John Kerry in 2004; but he had no other government experience, and wasn’t even much of a voter.
Obama started running for president formally after a mere two years in the Senate. Of course, Hillary was wrong to dismiss the rationale for Obama’s campaign as limited to a single speech. It was actually two speeches. Obama came to public attention by giving the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he had yet to serve a day in national office. It was a good speech, or well delivered in any case, that laid out an uplifting, uniting message. Strangely, it was also a speech that celebrated centrism and erased the differences between liberals and conservatives, which made him an odd tribune, four years later, for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
He owed his favor among liberals to two factors, and one of them was a single issue, expressed in his other big speech, which he gave in 2002 as a state senator in Illinois. This issue was his opposition to the Iraq War, around which he built his campaign against the Democratic field, and particularly Hillary. (It is interesting, if anecdotal, that the occasional Sanders/Nader types, like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, didn’t have a problem supporting Edwards that year, given that he had voted for the war.) Obviously there was and is a large constituency in the Democratic Party against the Iraq War, and that had previously made Howard Dean, for a time, the 2004 frontrunner. But opposition to the war was not enough to get Dean the nomination over war supporter John Kerry, and it probably wouldn’t have sufficed for Obama, either. He needed something else.
During the 2008 race, Hillary surrogate Geraldine Ferraro got in a public flap by asserting that Obama benefitted from his race; she was compelled to step down, and the Obama campaign extracted an apology from Clinton. But Ferraro was patently correct, and the Obama camp’s response was disingenuous. Is it difficult to be a black man in the US? Very much so; but Obama’s people knew well that Ferraro wasn’t talking about Obama’s adolescence, or the experience of black males in general. The US as a whole was one thing; the Democratic primary electorate in 2008 was something else. To begin with, the Democratic primary electorate was much more black than the US population, and black voters were a dominant force in many states in the South. A random first-term senator from the Midwest wouldn’t have won the crucial early state of South Carolina — beating Edwards, a native son and the 2004 winner — or rolled up massive majorities among Southern black voters in later contests. Hillary was then, as now, a popular figure in black communities; but those communities ended up supporting Obama, and his race obviously made the difference.
Race was also the second factor in securing Obama the vote of the liberal wing of the party. Few injustices exercise white liberals more than racism against blacks. Accordingly, few acts make white liberals feel better about themselves than opposing racism against blacks and contributing to its end. White liberals were quite open about their enthusiasm for electing a black president. And they should have been; it was a good thing. Everyone knew that it would be historic. Many believed, wrongly as it turned out, that it would also be cathartic. And some liberals even believed, bizarrely, that it would help atone for the Bush administration, that being represented internationally by a black man would make the Europeans and the Third World love us, or at least stop hating us so much for the Iraq War. Clearly Obama has been much more popular abroad than Bush, but almost any Democrat would have been, whether given the Nobel Peace Prize or not.
Obama’s successful coalition for the nomination thus consisted of black voters, regardless of ideology, and the left wing of the party, regardless of race. The former, at least, got what they were expecting. The latter, including the excited young people, were clearly deluding themselves about Obama’s ideology. Other than his position on the Iraq War, he was not one of them; in fact, he ran to Hillary’s right on our other major war. Obama kept demonstrating that he was a conventional center-left politician, just like Hillary, and liberals kept hearing what they wanted to hear. Now, in office, he is the president of an Afghanistan surge, drone strikes, a health-care reform built around insurance companies, an intervention in Libya, years of waffling on gay marriage, and all sorts of other things that a center-left incrementalist like Hillary Clinton would also have done — because Obama is a center-left incrementalist like Hillary Clinton. But his liberal constituency ignored the facts and now feels betrayed. As someone who voted for him twice, I feel no such letdown; ironically, it’s the moderates like me who preferred Hillary in 2008 who look fondly on Obama now. We got our ideology, but not the person best prepared to implement it at the time, because the left wing of the party fell in love with someone else.
Explicit and frequent comparison has been made this year between Bernie Sanders’ continued campaign and Hillary’s in 2008, as though the two were functionally the same. They absolutely were not; there were much better reasons late in the 2008 process to think Hillary could win the nomination, and that she should. She began as the strong favorite in national polls. Obama’s ascent and her decline were ultimately the result of the undemocratic nature of the system in general, and the undemocratic events of 2007–8 specifically. The sequential primary-caucus system favors the early states and their voters quite inequitably, and two states made direct challenges to the Iowa–New Hampshire system for the 2008 cycle, namely Florida and Michigan. These were states that Hillary was expected to do well in, and which matched the coalition she assembled that year. But owing to the Iowa–New Hampshire lock on national politics, the defiance of Florida and Michigan was sanctioned heavily, and from a democratic viewpoint, unconscionably.
Unlike anything that could be said about the process in 2016, the disenfranchisement of Florida and Michigan was very much a special case. Often heard in 2008, and often this year as well, is a mantra: “These are the rules, and everyone knew these rules going in.” No democrat should be comfortable with arguments like that, not when those rules are undemocratic; but the idea that the voters of two large, diverse states would not be counted at all was a new and outrageously-undemocratic rule. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, more than two million people voted in Florida and Michigan. Hillary had every justification from a democrat’s perspective to demand that those people be counted. The Obama camp insisted that they should not be counted, ostensibly because “everyone agreed” that they shouldn’t be counted. I may differ from others on this, but I do not need Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, candidate Barack Obama, or even candidate Hillary Clinton to tell me what is and is not democratic, or to tell me whether to acknowledge the voters of Florida and Michigan. “Everyone” did not agree to ignore those voters; those two million voters themselves did not agree, and tried to be heard.
The trap for the candidates was this: Iowa and New Hampshire are zealous about their privileged status, and vindictive to those who disagree. No candidate who wanted to win Iowa and New Hampshire could publicly support Florida and Michigan in their attempt to end the duopoly, and none did. Obama and Edwards (along with Biden and Richardson), went a step further, having their names ostentatiously removed from the ballot in Michigan for the viewing benefit of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. And they were rewarded for this pandering by finishing first and second in Iowa. An observer might attribute Obama’s late rise to his stance against the Iraq War; but Edwards voted for the war, just as Hillary did. The main thing shared in common between the two people who beat Hillary in Iowa was their stance on Michigan.
And we should think very hard about the fact that the smart thing for a Democrat — or a democrat — to do in 2008 was to publicly snub the voters of two of our largest states, one a key element of the Democratic base and the other the paradigmatic swing state, to insist that their voters did not deserve to have their voices heard because their governments had violated a rule that was designed to protect other people’s privilege.
If the Obama campaign didn’t like the terms of the original Florida and Michigan votes, the Clinton campaign was willing to schedule a revote, and to pay for it; Hillary backers Jon Corzine and Ed Rendell were lining up funders for this very purpose while the Obama campaign was running out the clock. The revote never happened. Not only was Hillary deprived of the narrative and poll boost that would have come from handily winning such large, diverse states early in the process, but she was also deprived of their delegates. The race was called by the press and the Obama campaign moved on.
And to truly understand the 2008 process, and Hillary’s reluctance to give up before the very end, we need to understand the popular vote. The central principle of democracy has always been one person, one vote. The popular vote simply counts the votes of persons who show up and treats them all equally. It does not filter through delegates or states or electors. The parties don’t need to choose their nominees democratically, but for decades they have nominated candidates in ways that increased the democracy in the process, and by now most voters expect the nomination to be fully democratic. The popular vote is the most democratic measure available to us. If we want democracy in the process, the popular vote should determine a party’s nominee. In 2008, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. She won the most votes of actual people, and to say otherwise is to misunderstand democracy.
How can this be true, when the narrative from 2008 was the opposite? We can start with the bulk of states, where the popular vote is not in question. Even in most caucus states a tally of actual voters is released; for three of them (Iowa, Nevada, and Maine) we have to estimate, multiplying the released percentages by the estimated turnout. In three other cases (Washington, Nebraska, and Idaho), a state held caucuses to determine delegates, but later held a primary as well, in which the turnout was much higher. In Florida, all the candidates were on the ballot. That leaves only Michigan, where Obama and three others were not on the ballot, but where their voters were advised to vote “uncommitted”. And “uncommitted” got an astounding 40% of the vote, which is only explicable if we conclude that the missing candidates’ voters knew very well what to do with their votes. If we estimate the caucus vote in Iowa, Nevada, and Maine, and use the much-higher primary totals from Washington, Nebraska, and Idaho, then Hillary finished with 18,329,946 and Obama with 18,086,586, a difference of 243,360. The entire uncommitted vote in Michigan was 238,168, so even if all of those voters intended to vote for Obama and none of them for Edwards, Biden, or Richardson, it would not have overcome Hillary’s margin. Hillary Clinton won the most votes in 2008. She won the popular vote.
When discussing this year and its contentious interactions, it is often remarked that we have simply forgotten how much acrimony there was in 2008. There was some, to be sure; but one of the key examples that has often been dredged up is simply false. Hillary’s notorious reference to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is always remembered as a coded hint that a black nominee would be shot, with a dark insinuation of a desire that he should be. Any unbiased observer would view that comment in context, and realize she was saying something quite different. The context was that she was defending her decision to stay in the race, and thus talking about how nomination battles frequently extend into the last primaries in June without reaching a resolution. She offered first the example of 1992, which of course she had personal reasons to remember. Then she offered the example of 1968, which everyone had reason to remember. The 1968 nomination was not decided before the convention. Why do so many people remember that? Because Bobby Kennedy was assassinated moments after winning the California primary in June. He was a late entrant into the race, yet his last public words were about winning the nomination in Chicago. If you’re speaking extemporaneously on late-running primary contests and recall the example of 1968, you might also mention why you recall that example in the first place. If someone asks me what I was doing in the fall of 2001, the first fact in my head, and perhaps the first fact out of my mouth, will be where I was on September 11. I didn’t love September 11; it is just a very important strut in the scaffolding of my memory. This is human nature. Every reporter is the same, I’ll wager. So in imagining something venal in Hillary’s RFK remarks, even supposedly-neutral reporters are determined to interpret Hillary in the worst possible light.
Of course, the Obama campaign later made a display of offense for a New Yorker cover that was patently pro-Obama and lampooning his critics, and a display of offense at Ferraro’s remarks as well. So the Bobby Kennedy comments were just more fodder for a studied outrage machine. Obama is a highly-intelligent, highly-literate person. He knows how to take things in context. It’s just a reflection of his hardball tactical penchant that he was willing to use unjustified offense for short-term advantage. And given that his liberal constituency was all too ready to be outraged in general, and the news media are ever hungry for controversy, it’s hardly surprising that these gambits worked.
While the general election worked out and Obama did very well, there were reasons to think Hillary would have been a better candidate, owing to image positioning. Obama presented himself as an inspiring, post-political rhetorician and leader, and came across much of the time as a representative of disconnected elite culture and intellectualism. Hillary, by contrast, presented herself as a policy wonk versed in the details and a scrapper ready to do battle. In the midst of a recession and economic turmoil, whom do you want in your corner — a fighter, or a dreamer?
What Hillary knew as the race approached its end in June is that she ought to have been the nominee, in a more democratic system. She knew that she had a realistic chance of winning the popular vote, at least narrowly; an insightful analysis of electoral geography by Sean Oxendine in early April showed how she could do so, and it came to pass, despite the Obama campaign’s denials, and the media’s meek acquiescence. Hillary knew that she had an expectation of winning many later states, as she did, and closing the gap considerably in pledged delegates, as she did. And she had hopes that a resolution to the Florida-Michigan standoff would net her delegates as well. After that, her case to the superdelegates would have been clear: I won the popular vote, I never got credit for two of my big wins, I’m the better candidate in November, and you have always preferred me. Instead, the superdelegates accepted the Obama/press narrative — that Hillary had lost according to the rules, and to give her the nomination would mean stealing it from the prospective first black nominee. The narrative wasn’t particularly concerned about stealing the nomination from the prospective first female nominee, one who, by the most democratic measure, actually won.
It fits with Hillary’s Tracy Flick image to think that she just would not give up in 2008, despite being beaten, and was tearing the eventual nominee down and tearing the party apart, just as Sanders has been accused of doing this year. But is that a reasonable comparison? The undemocratic nature of the system clearly helped one candidate in 2008 and one candidate in 2016. In neither case was that candidate Hillary Clinton.
It’s surely difficult to pity Hillary as an individual. She has been prominent, and proximate to power, for a long time. She has had an extraordinary life with extraordinary opportunities; even if she made those opportunities herself, there are countless individuals of equal talent who have worked as hard but not had her success, for a variety of reasons that boil down to: the world is not meritocratic. So perhaps she should be grateful that she has enjoyed the success she has. But that reaction is not good enough, particularly when considering 2008. The fact that any woman in her position, with such a history of working on causes that progressives claim to care about, could be so easily dismissed and discarded for a candidate who largely shared her positions but was younger, cooler, and less female was bad precedent for every woman.
We’ll never know what might have come had the progressives’ preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, opted to run this year. Certainly Bernie Sanders would not have succeeded as he did, and almost certainly he would not have run in the first place. And it would have been more difficult, in a match-up with Warren, to suggest that Hillary was a victim of sexism. It would still have been true, though. The attacks Hillary has endured for so long are very much driven and aggravated by her gender. She is a target of almost-symbolic hate. Had Warren beaten her, it would not have proven that sexism was irrelevant to Hillary’s defeat, but only that a woman vying for public office had better be of very limited exposure and experience. She had better be a fresh face that the right had not bothered much with before.
The left’s preferred alternative to an “establishment” candidate in the Democratic primaries is not always, or even usually, a Warren-Sanders economic populist. In 2008, the closest to such a populist was John Edwards, but it was Barack Obama, on the strength of his Iraq War opposition, who got the nod from the left. In 2004, the left’s darling was Howard Dean, who talked about health-care reform but was fundamentally an anti-Iraq War candidate also. In 2000, it was Bill Bradley, whose positioning was somewhere between good government and racial reconciliation. The clamoring for Warren this time, and the flocking to Sanders, is a mark of the depth of the 2007–8 crisis, the lingering effects, and the Occupy Wall Street ethos that has enchanted the left since the last competitive Democratic contest.
There is no doubt that Bernie Sanders ran an impressive, effective campaign; but the idea that he almost won is patently false. To believe this is, in the way of Sanders, his supporters, and the press, to confuse large, adoring rallies with actual votes. It’s a mark of Sanders’ fortune that he even drew adoration for, of all things, having a bird land on his podium. There really is no competing in an atmosphere of such unbridled magical thinking.
Unlike in 2008, the popular vote in this year’s Democratic contest was not close. There is really no arguing that “but for” a few minor changes, the outcome would have been different. Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by 3.7 million votes, 12% of the total. She beat him by 360 pledged delegates, 9% of the total. Hillary won the popular vote in thirty states and every non-state territory. She won the largest states and most of the diverse states. It was a solid, decisive victory. It was unquestionable by any reasonable standard. Sanders and his supporters questioned it anyway, calling the result fraudulent, rigged, and undemocratic, in an act of delegitimization that Democrats expect from Republicans, not from their supposed allies, and which is hard to imagine were the winner someone else.
The fact that Sanders won a greater share of the delegates than of the popular vote is down to the disproportionate weight given to caucuses. We can see, not only from the examples of Obama and Sanders but of Ted Cruz and Ron Paul as well, that caucuses benefit certain kinds of candidates. A well-organized activist base, particularly a young activist base (Obama, Sanders, Paul), is more likely to spend a few hours in a public place at a designated time, openly supporting its preferred candidate. It’s good to have well-organized activists in a party, and the parties could let those activists make all the decisions; but such a thing would not be described as democratic. When Republicans, armed with elitist rationales, change the voting rules to favor highly-motivated people and place obstacles in the path of everyone else, we don’t call that democratic. We call it vote suppression.
Caucuses, simply put, suppress the vote. They take not minutes, like regular voting, but hours. They generally prohibit early or absentee voting, and they cannot be scheduled around the workday. If you are a second-shift worker or a single parent without child care, you cannot vote. Caucuses offer no secret ballot, creating significant social pressure to vote with your community or friends. And because convention delegates are not determined by turnout, the voting power of an individual is much greater in a low-turnout caucus than in a high-turnout primary.
Bernie Sanders himself described what an election should look like: “I hope that every state in this country learns from that and learns how to put together a proper election where people can come in and vote in a timely manner and go back to work.” But he was speaking of the Arizona primary, where he claimed (baselessly) to have lost because of the limited polling places and long lines. He was right to complain about the long lines and impinging on people’s lives. He just never seemed to care that this is exactly what caucuses are like.
Caucuses distorted the narrative throughout the primaries this year. Sanders’ largest net delegate haul for a day was due to caucuses in Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska, mostly the first. His next-largest net delegate take came on a day — Arizona, Idaho, and Utah — when he actually lost the popular vote. How? Caucuses. As Nate Cohn pointed out, Sanders appeared to be winning more because he won more days; Hillary had a lot of huge days, Bernie had a lot of small days. The press doesn’t really distinguish. And as Matt Yglesias pointed out, Bernie appeared to be doing better because he won the press narrative even when he had a net loss of delegates, as on the day of the Iowa caucuses, or on the day of the Michigan and Mississippi primaries.
And just as in 2008, there were states that held both caucuses and primaries — Nebraska and Washington. Sanders won both sets of caucuses, netting him his largest single haul in Washington. But then Hillary won both primaries, which had much higher turnout. Once again, she had popular-vote wins that did not count for delegates or publicity. After each, Sanders supporters sniffed that no one bothered with the primary, because it didn’t count. But even Sanders won more votes in the primaries than he won in the caucuses. It’s just that Hillary won still more.
Like Obama, Sanders also benefitted from the sequential primary system. The major benefit was avoiding the crushing blow that Hillary would have delivered to each of them in a national primary. Beyond that, having two largely-white states with liberal electorates go first certainly helped Sanders, especially when one of them was a neighboring state to his own. Hillary’s big wins were mostly clustered while Sanders’ own wins came one Tuesday at a time, often several weeks in a row, giving him a huge media boost.
Instead of these unmistakable inequities, Sanders complained about closed primaries and superdelegates. But Hillary actually won more open primaries than Bernie did, and while she benefitted from closed primaries in some states, she suffered in others. In Cohn’s observation, Hillary was hurt by closed or semi-closed primaries in states, like Oklahoma or West Virginia, where there are lots of conservatives who are nonetheless still registered Democrats; unable to vote in Republican primaries, they voted for Sanders, because they hate Hillary and didn’t know Sanders. Not being a party member himself, Sanders was naturally sympathetic to unaffiliated voters who wanted to influence a party’s nominee, though there’s no requirement of justice that a party should let that happen. Sanders insisted that it was good for the party, on the grounds that “independents” are crucial to winning a general election. But this was confused thinking; the traditional “independents” so coveted in a general are not Sanders’ unaffiliated left-wingers, but swing voters, lying between the two parties, a group that is rapidly diminishing. The only way Sanders could win such voters is if they didn’t know how far to the left he actually is.
And this confusion extended to the Sanders camp constantly pointing to prospective general election poll match-ups in which Sanders always outperformed Clinton, regardless of opponent. These were clearly illusory. Hillary’s negatives are baked in, the result of twenty-five years in the spotlight as the target of right-wing enmity. Sanders, meanwhile, remained largely unknown or misunderstood. Liberals might celebrate that he has moved the Overton window on socialism in the Democratic Party, but socialism is still very unpopular with the electorate at large. And his problems went beyond the label; he proposed massive new spending programs that would require massive new middle-class taxes, which he was never honest about, and which even his ardent supporters are not willing to pay.
Bernie always favored the expedient argument on his appeal. He criticized Hillary for appealing to Republican donors, while appealing to Republican voters himself even in the Democratic primaries and promising to convert many of them with his “revolution”. He dismissed Clinton wins in “conservative” Southern states while rolling up delegates in the Great Plains. (This was not merely duplicitous, it was ignorant. The conservatism of a state’s general electorate is not reflected in its Democratic primary electorate.)
Ezra Klein has pointed out that Hillary — largely because she is a woman — was forced to find a new route to the nomination. Her initial dominant position with superdelegates in 2008, and her overwhelming position with superdelegates in 2016, were both indications of the tremendous success of her approach, at making allies, forming relationships, earning trust, building networks. These are functions that are valuable in electoral politics, but also valuable in government. Hillary would still have won handily this year had there been no superdelegates, but the superdelegate advantage can be seen as a proxy for broad party support, of elected officials and party loyalists working to get her nominated. Naturally, then, it was that very advantage that Bernie Sanders wanted so desperately, in the beginning, to eliminate from the process, and then to blame for the fact that he didn’t win the nomination. Hillary took a route that was open to her as a woman; the Sanders people were determined to cut it off. But after it became clear that Sanders could not win among pledged delegates, he started arguing instead that the superdelegates should play a deciding role — in favor of him. He redirected his ire against the fact that the superdelegates had all decided to support Clinton before the primaries started. The fact that Democratic officials around the country preferred someone like Hillary was cast as a form of cheating.
Sanders’ concerns reflect his view of the party. He is not a party guy. He thinks a nomination on which only party members can vote, and over which party and elected officials have special influence, is rigged — despite the fact that party membership is free and open to anyone, despite the fact that the superdelegates have never wielded their power to overturn a pledged delegate win and didn’t this year, either, and despite the fact that many of the superdelegates — the governors and members of Congress — have a far, far greater popular mandate than any of the caucus pledged delegates Bernie Sanders was so dependent on. Sanders’ petulance about an endorsement, that he might endorse Hillary if the Democrats promised to do all of the things his voters wanted, despite the four-million-vote gap between Clinton and him, is evidence of his genuine disinterest in the Democratic project. Similarly, while Hillary has been dedicated to expanding the party and its representation in states and Congress, Bernie’s late contribution to down-ballot candidates wasn’t primarily to help anyone win in November; it was to help a very small number of Berniesque candidates win Democratic nominations. His main foray was limited to three candidates, but he later added a fourth: a primary challenger to DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Primarying an incumbent is the opposite of helping to secure a Democratic Congress; but then Bernie called for Barack Obama to be primaried in 2012 as well. And Sanders and his supporters complained about collusion when the Clinton campaign raised money jointly for her candidacy and other Democrats, an arrangement Sanders could have made himself had he cared to. Hillary is prohibited by law from accepting more than $5400 total (primary and general) from an individual, or coordinating with a superPAC, so when any individual gave hundreds of thousands (such as through the Clooney fundraiser), that money mostly went to other Democrats. To the Berners, it’s all corruption and sleaze.
Bernie got a great deal of credit for appearing, in the common interpretation, to forgo an attack on Hillary for her e-mail troubles. The language and tone in which he did it suggested to me, at least, that he was not forgoing an attack at all. He may as well have said: “We’re all sick and tired of hearing about this awful mess you’ve created.” And he did indulge in the issue at least twice more, on the release of the State Department inspector general’s report and on the FBI director’s recommendation not to press charges, while the media, as always, did the work of hyping the scandal rather than discussing it in the measured way it warranted. And e-mail was the only issue where Sanders even feigned to avoid personal attacks. He very much painted Hillary Clinton as bought and paid for by Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, or any other large and scary corporation he could name, and his followers loudly booed her during his speeches without reproach from him, even as it was certain that she would be the party’s nominee.
The debate over whether Bernie should have dropped out, or whether anyone had a right to demand it, was misrepresenting the issue. As a California resident I resented not getting a bigger say in the process, and I was eager to cast my vote in the contest in a meaningful way, even if just to confirm what we all knew would happen. The substantive debate was whether Bernie should at some point have stopped acting like he could win, stopped attempting to damage Hillary, stopped sucking money from his followers on a quixotic quest when they could have given it to Hillary for the general election or, if they couldn’t stand to do that, to a Senate or House candidate more to their liking.
People who remember 2008 as being worse than 2016 must first believe the comparison is sound. This is an injustice to Clinton. She was not a sore loser. Bernie Sanders had nothing like the democratic claim to the nomination that Clinton had; she won the popular vote, and he lost it badly. She was not refusing to give up despite being beaten fairly. By the most important measure of the 2008 race, she won. In any case, to compare Bernie 2016 with Hillary 2008 is to fundamentally miss the point. Bernie was losing, fair and square, even with the distortion of caucuses and the sequential calendar. Hillary was only losing because of the distortion of caucuses and the sequential calendar. And yet Hillary folded tent and endorsed Obama spiritedly a few days after the last primary.
Donald Trump has exposed what the Tea Party was really about all along. Of course, many suspected racism when the Tea Party first emerged. But racism is only part of the explanation for the Tea Party, and only part of the explanation for Donald Trump. We know there are racists in the United States, and we would expect them to be upset about the election of a black man to the presidency. The Tea Party was a combination of racial resentment with an economic recession that was as deep as any Tea Partier had lived through, and which they unrealistically blamed on the incumbent who had just gotten into office. The racial resentment was particularly critical to the rejection of Obamacare, because it was a new government program created by the liberal party, headed by a black man, and the mindset of racial resentment is that such programs always siphon benefits from white people to give them to black people.
The Tea Party took the ostensible form of a Constitutionalist, anti-government movement. That was made possible by the fact that Obamacare was a big government program. But the main reason the Tea Party took this form is because the Constitutionalist ideology was to hand, neatly packaged, ready to go, and socially acceptable. Overt racial resentment was rejected at the time, not through deliberate tactics but organically, because (as we used to think) racial resentment can’t fly in US politics, but no one can argue with the Constitution.
The most obvious precursor to Donald Trump was Pat Buchanan, with his populist, anti-trade appeal. Buchanan couldn’t make it work, but it is not surprising that someone has. It is not surprising, whether we read the polls or analyze the socioeconomics, that the Republican base is not enamored of Republican economic policies. Much of the base is not for endless slashing of taxes for the rich or of government benefits for the middle and working classes, not for trade deals that seem to cost good jobs in the US. The angry Tea Party seniors who hated “socialized medicine” and didn’t want the government to mess with their supposedly-non-governmental Medicare were almost there. But the Tea Partiers were coopted, to some extent voluntarily, by the Constitutionalist movement, to endorse things they didn’t really care about. Donald Trump has finally set them free.
White resentment, particularly among men, has both hurt and helped Hillary. The clearest example is Appalachia. In the 2008 primaries, running against a black man, she scored huge margins in Appalachia. In the 2016 primaries, running against a white man, she was thrashed. And come November, Donald Trump, the overt candidate of white resentment, is going to eat her alive. Hillary’s direct appeals to the white working class in 2008 were not her finest moments. But in fairness to Appalachia, there is more going on. Obama, in both air and coalition, was the candidate of metropolitans, of educated city-dwellers and their high-culture concerns — generally shorthanded as “wine track”, but symbolized in 2008 by arugula. Obviously Hillary didn’t pick up the arugula crowd this year, but by running as Obama’s heir, and speaking to urban concerns like gun control, she left the door open among the white working class to someone who, because he was unknown, could have been an ally. Sanders railed against Wall Street and painted Hillary as the bankers’ tool. He spoke against free trade and for a (completely-unrealistic) return of manufacturing jobs. And in that way, Hillary lost coal country to a man who insists that climate change is the leading national-security threat. And in November, she will lose it again to a wealthy Manhattan real-estate heir. It is perhaps emblematic of Hillary’s career that she is hated by the arugula crowd and by the people who hate the arugula crowd.
So, yes, Hillary is hated. She’s been hated by a lot of people, by a lot of different people, for a very long time. Still, she’s entitled, I think, to feel a little offended at the media’s constant comparison of her unpopularity with Trump’s — “two historically-unpopular nominees”, “more unpopular than any nominee ever, except for Trump himself” — as though the unfavorables for both arise from the same general source. Donald Trump is unpopular almost entirely because of who he actually is and what he has actually done. This is just not true of Hillary, tarred with imagined scandal and the acts of others. And to the extent that she and Trump are both hated for who they actually are, the two are still not comparable. He is hated for being a race-baiter; she is hated for being an accomplished woman who has never fit into traditional gender stereotypes. Very few people would openly defend race-baiting, very few would openly admit to resenting accomplished women, and not that many would even defend traditional gender stereotypes. In other words, our social consensus, at least in rhetoric and aspiration, is to scorn what Trump actually is and embrace what Hillary actually is. But, sure, they’re both “unpopular”.
And though I’m not sure ‘hatred’ is the right term, the antipathy of the press has greatly contributed to the Hillary hate by everyone else. Journalism is a noble profession, the free press is an indispensable institution in a liberal society, and shoe-leather reporters deserve our praise for tracking down the actual news. But their interests are not identical to public interests. Think of no more than the constant griping of the press corps about Hillary’s inaccessibility, and specifically her failure to hold press conferences. Press conferences and bus chats are an unquestionable good only for the press. They are not always in the public’s interest, and they are often not in the candidate’s interest. A candidate like John McCain, who flattered reporters with chummy access, could expect to get friendly coverage. Hillary Clinton doesn’t trust reporters and she doesn’t flatter them. That is hardly surprising, though, given the media’s history of scandal manufacture around Hillary Clinton. It is hardly surprising given the unflattering spin put by supposedly-impartial journalists on so many of her actions. This year has made that clearer than ever. Trump is surely believed by the press corps to be the most dangerous major-party nominee most of them have seen, and yet by at least two studies the candidate who got the most negative coverage, and the least positive coverage, was not Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, or even Donald Trump himself. It was Hillary Clinton.
People don’t like Hillary. That’s in part, perhaps in large part, because at some point the press decided not to like her, and they’ve collectively communicated their contempt and distrust to the public. And as Obama’s approval numbers continued to rise, while Hillary’s stayed down, pundits and others began more frequently to lament that he could not just continue in office. Such people forget that Hillary Clinton was among the most popular politicians, or even the single most popular, while she was Secretary of State, that it is mainly, in Sady Doyle’s analysis, the act of running for office, of asking for approval, that makes her unpopular. (Unless, again, anyone really thinks the Benghazi/e-mail questions were more than the most recent excuses to hate her.) Comparing an office-seeking Hillary with a retiring Barack Obama is just another example of an impossible standard to which she is held — how she must look apolitical and uninterested in winning … in order to succeed in politics and win.
Despite being far less assured of his party’s nomination than Hillary was of hers, Donald Trump sewed up the nomination earlier by driving out his remaining opponents, partially due to the structure of delegate awards in the Republican Party, and partly owing to the fact that Trump was competing against actual Republicans who wanted a future in the Republican Party, while Clinton’s opponent had little apparent interest in party unity and is near the twilight of his career. Trump’s earlier turn to the general election gave him at least something of a boost in national polls, as Republicans consolidated around their nominee and their mutual hatred for Hillary Clinton. That only reinforced the media narrative; anyone who could do so badly against Donald Trump must be structurally flawed.
Weeks after the last primary, Bernie Sanders was still talking like a disgruntled third-party voter. When asked whom he personally would vote for, rather than straightforwardly acknowledging that there was an enormous difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or between the Democrats and the Republicans, he was still insisting that the Democrats needed to be a lot more leftwing (“progressive”, as he would always say) to earn his vote. And he disingenuously suggested that his supporters could only be won over by the wholesale adoption of his positions, rather than by a full-throated endorsement from their leader along with a reminder of just how much better Hillary Clinton is than the alternative. Not just that Trump is much worse, but that Hillary is much better. She is much better than Trump personally; not just staffers but Senate colleagues, and not just Democrats but Republicans, genuinely like her, trust her, and believe she is a model public servant. She won’t bring a revolution; she’s too smart for that. Revolutions are disruptive, and the Great Recession that has given Sanders so much fuel should have convinced all of his supporters just how little we should want another major disruption. What Hillary Clinton will do is continue to make progress on the things Democrats and even Sanders supporters care about. And if those supporters turn out in big numbers for the down-ballot races, she might have a Congress that will make possible even greater progress. But none of that will happen if self-described progressives cannot get past a quarter-century of conservative mudslinging, or the progressives’ own puritanical idea that no one who has stuck it out in pragmatic politics — so, the “Establishment” — can be trusted.
Hillary Clinton has never been perfect, and anyone reading the facts above could insert facts of his own to that effect. The issue is not Hillary’s imperfections, though, but the double standard by which her imperfections are magnified and her male counterparts’ imperfections are minimized, by which due skepticism about her is abundant, but due skepticism about her critics is rare. Even many young women now apparently believe the grotesque caricature of Hillary Clinton that only exists because Hillary has actually done the things that many of them would like to do. Unless our society improves at a much, much faster rate than it ever has, these young women will discover, in the very near term of their working lives, that things are just harder for women, more closed — less fair. They may eventually be exposed to enough resistance and antipathy that they will finally sympathize with Hillary Clinton. And if they’re observant and concerned, even a few of the young men will figure that out. They’ll look at Hillary’s career, at the long time it took her to break through that last barrier, at the obstacles and the relentless negativity, and finally say to themselves, Oh, so that’s what all of that was about. They’ll understand what she did and why she did it, what she endured, why she was made to endure it, and perhaps even why she chose to endure it. And if they figure that out, they may finally decide, as many of the people who have worked with her have testified, that she is an extraordinarily intelligent, capable, compassionate, industrious, and, yes, principled person, a genuine exemplar of her kind. They’ll find that she deserves to be respected, possibly even admired. And if they can’t bring themselves to adulate her as they so easily do her male counterparts, perhaps they will also discover that adulation is not the best attitude towards our elected officials. That can be another way Hillary Clinton has changed our politics for the better.