Hillary Clinton's March to Victory

The presidential campaign has unfolded in ways she never could have imagined. It is ending in a morass of ugliness. What could possibly come next?

Carlos Barria / Reuters

MANCHESTER, N.H.—She was going to win, and that would be all that mattered.

Hillary Clinton hugged Elizabeth Warren and picked up the microphone and laughed, that steely chortle that had set so many men’s nerves on edge for so many years. She looked out at the crowd, a couple of thousand people, mostly white people, wearing plaid.

“Wow, I don’t know about you, but I could listen to Elizabeth go on all day!” she said, as if someone had accused her of not being able to do so. “It is so great being here, back in New Hampshire!”

It was finally happening: The election was just a few endless days away, people were already voting, she was up in all the polls. At long last, she was drawing respectable crowds, albeit often with the help of figures like Warren, and the people seemed actually excited to see her, even if it was an excitement partly born of panic.

It was a bright, wind-whipped New England fall day, all sun-blazed neon-orange leaves and church spires sticking out of copses. Behind the stage, big blue cutout letters spelled out “STRONGER TOGETHER.”

Looking out on the audience, she could see them all—the college kids who had voted overwhelmingly for her opponent in the primary; the Massachusetts liberals mostly there to see Warren. There on the stage was Warren, who had waited until the primaries were effectively over to endorse her, and Maggie Hassan, the governor and senatorial candidate who just a couple months ago, asked in a television interview whether she thought Clinton was trustworthy, bobbed and weaved and wouldn’t answer the question. Perhaps to make the event appear filled to capacity, the campaign had confined it to just half the college’s lawn.

First, a joke. “You know, I stood next to Donald Trump in three debates for four and a half hours, proving once again I have the stamina to be president,” she said. Then, the pivot to seriousness. “I take it really seriously,” she said. “I think the problems that keep you up at night, that stand in the way of your getting ahead and staying ahead, of providing the best opportunity of a good middle class job with a rising income for you and your kids—those are the problems that someone running for president should actually listen to, pay attention to, and come up with solutions for.”

What had she been through over the past year and a half—what had America been through? She had prepared for a normal campaign, prepared for something like 2012, a boring slog against a sane and decent regular Republican whom she would strain to argue was Wrong On The Issues. Instead she got a hair-on-fire carnival ride, a Russian spy thriller, a national nervous breakdown of an election.

Every day she got up and recited the same jokes and exhortations, and every day the hackers released more of her advisers’ private communications onto the internet, and every day her improbable opponent, a sort of primal scream in human form, waved his arms and called her a criminal.

She had piles and piles of proposals—to rightsize the prisons and roll back deportations and pay for child care and on and on—and then it turned out the election wasn’t about any of that. It was about trying to be as inconspicuous as possible and waiting for the fire to burn out. It was about being slightly less of a monster. Even then, about half of America looked at her and was not convinced.

“I do have a lot of plans, I do!” she said in New Hampshire. “I get criticized for having so many plans! ... I do have this old-fashioned idea that if I’m here asking for your vote, to be your president, I should tell you what I’m going to do! And maybe, as I said yesterday in North Carolina, maybe it is a bit of a women’s thing, because we make lists.” She had, in fact, said more or less the same thing the previous day, in North Carolina. And she’d said it the day before that, in Pennsylvania.

In the final days there would be a new heart attack, the latest self-inflicted wound from the neverending, picayune email scandal, and Clinton and everyone around her would freak out while working very hard to seem not to be freaking out at all, because that is how they do things. (“Careful but angry” was one Clinton adviser’s three-word description to me of the internal mood.)

And she would keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting the machine she built to do its work. Like she always had, she would accomplish with perspiration what she could not with inspiration. She was, in all probability, going to be the next president, and then what? How on earth was she the answer to the question posed by this insane campaign? How on earth would she reckon with the disturbed country she had struggled so hard to win over?

“I want you to vote for yourselves, and for your families, and for your hope for our future together,” she said, pacing the stage with wide eyes and a severe expression, and launching into another six-point list of all the issues she planned to tackle. “I believe with all of my heart that we will, after this election, get together to help heal the divides that have sprung up and are so painful among us.”

It didn’t matter if she believed it, or if anyone did. What mattered was that she was going to win—wasn’t she?—and the rest could wait.

Everything that came out seemed to confirm the worst suspicions.

Her paranoid opponents said she was a part of the elite globalist cabal secretly plotting to impose one-world government by surrendering national sovereignty. And there she was, according to emails between her advisers hacked and released by Wikileaks, telling a Brazilian bank in 2013, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” She was paid $225,000 for the speech. (The campaign has not confirmed that the emails from the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta are authentic, but many of them have been corroborated by third parties.)

Her critics had long charged that she said whatever people wanted to hear, and there she was saying behind closed doors that when it comes to policymaking, “You need both a public and a private position.” They said she was a member of the out-of-touch elite, and there she was saying she was “kind of far removed” from regular people’s struggles. They said she was too cozy with wealthy donors, and there she was telling the CEO of Goldman Sachs that she feels sorry for rich people, because “there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives.”

In a Democratic debate in April, Bernie Sanders charged that while he was introducing legislation to break up the banks that caused the financial crisis, “Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech.” And sure enough, the hacked emails showed her reassuring her hosts at Goldman that people’s anger at the banks was the result of “misunderstanding” and “politicizing” of the banking crisis. Could you imagine Sanders doing this? You could not.

At the rally with Warren in New Hampshire, Clinton praised the Massachusetts senator: “She’s going to make sure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again,” Clinton said. She would proceed from the rally to an evening fundraiser in Manhattan, where the 300 guests had each paid a minimum of $10,000 to hear Clinton explain, according to an aide, “that America succeeds when we work together to solve our problems and when everyone shares in the rewards—not just those at the top.”

The critics said she was willing to stand for whatever people seemed to want at the time. And there it was in the emails, her aides arguing about what her position ought to be on everything from banking regulations to carbon taxes. Before different audiences, she came out against marijuana legalization at one point, in favor of decriminalization at another. Her economic advisers wanted her to be for reforming a tax on expensive health-care plans that unions hate; her political team wanted her to be for scrapping it. The political team won.

They said she and her husband were enriching themselves off their eponymous foundation, doing well by doing good—doing very well—and there was literally a memo outlining the cross-pollination between the Clinton Foundation and what aide Doug Band termed “Bill Clinton Inc.” In the 13-page document, Band described the hefty paydays and “in-kind services for the President and his family” that resulted from the former president’s good works, even as his wife was jetting around the world as secretary of state.

The people around Clinton seemed to consider it their job to suck up to her as shamelessly and consistently as possible, according to another set of emails released last year by the State Department. One, the longtime Clintonworld fixer Lanny Davis, liked to send her emails enumerating all of her good qualities. Behind her back, they schemed and sniped at one another: “He’s kind of a nut bar,” her adviser Neera Tanden confided to Podesta about David Brock, the operative who runs a pro-Clinton super PAC.

They jockeyed for her favor, and nobody ever seemed to leave. When Podesta gently reprimanded another Clinton hanger-on, Philippe Reines, for browbeating a Washington Free Beacon reporter, Reines responded with an operatic display of self-pity, ending in the grandiose announcement that he would be removing himself from Clinton’s orbit for the good of everyone involved. By the end of the campaign, he would be back in the inner circle, helping with debate prep and joining Clinton on her plane.

And then there was that pervert Anthony Weiner, about whom Trump had said back in August, “I only worry for the country in that Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information. Who knows what he learned and who he told? ... It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this.” Amazingly, when the federal investigation into Weiner’s lustful communications with a teenage girl begat Friday’s news that the FBI was investigating a potential connection to Clinton, Trump managed not to tweet, “Appreciate the congrats.”

The best defense was that this was all totally normal, the complication and intrigue that teem behind every large operation. Wasn’t this just the way things always worked?

The people who believe in Clinton are naive enough to think she might actually make things better.

“I hope she will be able to negotiate with Republicans to get things done,” Jed Shugerman, a law professor from Massachusetts, told me at the New Hampshire rally. “Even though Republicans have railed against her, I think she has the ability to work across party lines. And if it’s a Democratic landslide, the GOP might be more willing to compromise.”

I asked them why they thought she could break the gridlock in Washington, unlike President Obama. “I think her approach is going to be more no-nonsense,” Paul Leone, a 56-year old software developer, told me in Raleigh, N.C. “She knows the difficulties he’s had with bipartisanship. Maybe she’ll be more forceful and get better results.”

They hoped that, with this campaign, things had finally reached a breaking point. “Republicans will realize we have to come together as a country,” said Letia Stanley, a 28-year-old insurance saleswoman I met at a Clinton rally in Philadelphia. “Hillary has always been someone to work across the aisle, even with people who didn’t like her personally.”

In places like Philadelphia, the campaign is airing an ad featuring a Republican woman who says she’s voting for Clinton because she has a son with autism. “I don’t always agree with her, but she’s reasonable, and she’s smart, and she can work with people to solve problems,” the woman says.

Even Obama seems to believe that Clinton can succeed where he failed. “If, in fact, it’s a President Clinton and Vice President Kaine, they will come into office in a different position than I did,” he told The New Yorker recently. “They won’t be confronting a crisis of historic proportions. They will have, hopefully, the luxury of choosing what are the first couple issues to work on, and, so, rather than trying to pass an eight-hundred-billion-dollar stimulus, or save the auto industry, or revamp the financial system—all of which were fraught with concern for Republicans steeped in small-government or no-government philosophies—they may be able to work on something like infrastructure, that is more likely to lend itself to pragmatic solutions.”

Obama always hoped the Republicans’ “fever” would break and they would finally see the political upside in giving him what he wanted. Yet the fever seems as hot as ever: Jason Chaffetz, the representative who heads the House Oversight Committee, has promised wall-to-wall investigations, and Ted Cruz, the Tea Party senator, wonders if the Supreme Court really needs a ninth justice.

An argument has broken out about whether, if she wins by a large margin, Clinton will have a “mandate,” with liberals saying her election will have been a clear endorsement of her vision and conservatives—a group that couldn’t even win their own party’s primary—saying it will have proved only that she was lucky enough to run against Trump.

The full-time attackers of the right and the left are circling as they always have, getting ready to demand their due and tear her apart. The Clinton voters regard all this negativity with puzzlement. “It feels like there’s a lot of anger out there,” Patrick Janovsky, who lives in Philadelphia and works in sales, told me. He wore an orange vest and a Chicago Cubs hat, and he had brought his 8-year-old son to see America’s first female president. “I’m not angry! I don’t know why people aren’t listening to one another.”

The rally in Philadelphia took place on a dark freezing night near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Clinton was joined by her running mate, Tim Kaine, who made an appeal to unity and consensus, as if those things still existed in America—as if they might still be possible. “There’s a momentum that’s happening in this race,” he said. “Americans are choosing the kind of country they want for their children and grandchildren!”

Then Clinton took the stage, and picked up the microphone, and laughed her steely laugh. “Hello, Penn!” she cried. “Hello, Pennsylvania! I am so excited to be here tonight!”

She was winning, doing whatever it took, and for now that was all that mattered. And then she would bow her head, grimly, to the next impossible task.