What Hillary Clinton Says She Learned From Her Defeat

In her new memoir, the defeated Democrat regrets that she didn’t offer bolder ideas during her campaign.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a New York book event in June
Craig Ruttle / AP

A cash payment to guarantee a basic income for every American. A nationwide “carbon-dividend program” to tax fossil fuels and redirect the revenue to citizens. Taxing an individual’s net worth instead of their annual income as a way to reduce income inequality.

Hillary Clinton considered proposing each of these transformative ideas during her ill-fated presidential campaign last year, she writes in What Happened, the memoir she is releasing Tuesday. The former secretary of state discarded all of them, however. They were too costly, she writes. Her campaign “couldn’t make the numbers work.”

“We decided it was exciting but not realistic, and left it on the shelf. That was the responsible decision,” Clinton writes about the cash-payment proposal, which was based on Alaska’s program of distributing the state’s oil royalties in dividends to its residents. She is now having second thoughts. “I wonder now whether we should have thrown caution to the wind and embraced ‘Alaska for America’ as a long-term goal and figured out the details later.”

Another reason Clinton does not list, but that is left in the reader’s mind, is this: She didn’t need to go big to defeat either Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary or Donald Trump in the general election. She didn’t need to mimic their embrace of bold but unachievable ideas, to risk making promises she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep. Clinton, both she and seemingly everyone else knew, was going to win the presidency anyway.

The book’s title is What Happened, but Clinton could easily have called it, What Might Have Been. What might have been if she hadn’t used a personal email account and private server as secretary of state, or if the media had not spent so much time covering it? What might have been if Clinton hadn’t given paid speeches to Wall Street bankers—“a mistake,” she begrudgingly acknowledges? What might have been if Sanders had not “caused lasting damage” with his attacks during the primary that, she writes, paved “the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign in the fall?” What might have been if former FBI Director James Comey had not called her handling of classified information “extremely careless” or, more consequentially, not sent his infamous letter to Congress 11 days before the election? What might have been if President Obama had ignored the threats of Republican leaders and more forcefully warned voters about Russia’s attempt to influence the election?

Clinton addresses all of these possibilities, and she concludes, as many observers have, that she was defeated by “a perfect storm”—a confluence of errors (some her own) and unlikely factors that turned an exceedingly close election against her. Had any one of them not happened, she suggests, it might have been enough to swing the 40,000 or so votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that ultimately made the difference.

Yet another, often unstated theme of the book is that Clinton was done in by presumption, by decisions that she and other actors in the campaign—Comey in particular, as well as Obama—made because they presumed that she would become president whether they were taken or not.

No longer a candidate or a potential candidate, Clinton writes that she is “letting my guard down.” And indeed she does. The first woman presidential nominee of a major party writes extensively about the role that sexism played in the campaign in her defeat, as well as how it continues to shape the lives and perceptions of women in public life and in the workplace. She goes into more detail than ever before about the time, energy, and resources she and others would spend on hair and makeup during the campaign—an effort that only female candidates must make, and one that they dare not discuss for fear of appearing out of touch.

Clinton is also unguarded in describing the many ways in which she assumed she would win. That was not entirely the case before the campaign, when she and Bill Clinton considered the historic difficulty of one party holding the White House for three consecutive terms. But the presumption took hold once it became clear she would be facing Trump, a candidate who Clinton, like so many others, did not take seriously at the start. While Clinton spent weeks sweating the details of her victory speech, she didn’t so much as look at a concession speech until her aides handed her a draft in the wee hours of November 9. “I hadn’t prepared mentally for this at all,” she writes about election night. “There had been no doomsday scenarios playing out in my head in the final days, no imagining what I might say if I lost.”

More than measuring the drapes, Clinton actually bought a house in anticipation of becoming president: In August 2016, she and Bill purchased the one next door to their home in Chappaqua, New York, in part so they could accommodate the large Secret Service presence that would be necessary if she won.

Presumption also seemed to seep into other decisions Clinton made both before and during the campaign, whether it was continuing to deliver paid speeches in 2014 even when she knew she might run, or sticking to her admittedly cautious instinct and eschewing the kind of promises and proposals that could come back to haunt her if she won. Clinton is unrelenting in her criticism of Trump, but she appears to harbor nearly as much resentment for Sanders, who she needles throughout the book. (The word “Socialist,” always capitalized, is never far from his name.)

In particular, Clinton says that Sanders had the luxury of always trying to outdo her, by taking her pragmatic proposals for more infrastructure or banking reforms and issuing bigger ones. “I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them,” Clinton writes. “When you don’t deliver, it will make people even more cynical about government.” That may be true, but another way of interpreting her caution is that Clinton believed she had the luxury of being realistic, trimming her policy sails so that when she was in office—and perhaps running for a second term—she wouldn’t saddle herself with the burden of explaining why she failed to deliver on her promises.

The presumption wasn’t limited to Clinton, however. She suggests that one reason Comey chose to inform Congress that the FBI had uncovered more of Clinton’s emails in late October was that he believed she would win and feared attacks from Republicans if they found out he withheld information from them after the election. (Comey has hinted this might be true, saying in testimony before the Senate that the thought that he may have swung the election made him “mildly nauseous.”) The same goes for Obama, who privately warned Vladimir Putin to knock off Russian attempts to interfere in the election but who chose not to make a more aggressive public case because he didn’t want to seen as unduly helping Clinton. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already warned the administration that he would accuse them of partisan attacks if they made a bigger deal about Russia during the campaign. “I understand the predicament the Obama administration faced,” Clinton writes, “with McConnell threatening them and everyone assuming I was going to win regardless.”

Clinton gives a preview of what she would have said in an inaugural address, and she lays out what her priorities would have been in the first 100 days—a major infrastructure and jobs bill, criminal-justice reform, and comprehensive immigration reform. But she also reflects on a realization she had that could have ramifications for the Democratic Party for years to come. The party, she writes, needs to develop and emphasize “universal” policies that stand to directly benefit all people as opposed to those who seek primarily to help low-income Americans or other specific classes.

Targeted programs “may be more efficient and progressive,” she writes, but they are easily “stigmatized and demagogued” because they don’t benefit everyone. The Affordable Care Act is an example, because while it did improve protections for everyone, the most tangible benefit was offering insurance to those that didn’t have it. “For years,” Clinton writes, “it was attacked as a new subsidy for poor people of color.” Similarly, she expresses a new appreciation for Sanders’ “free college for all” plan, which she criticized during the campaign for giving wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids.

“The conclusion I reach from this,” Clinton writes, “is that Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad-based benefits for the whole country.” The examples she gives are the proposals for a universal basic income and a fossil-fuel tax that would redistribute money from polluters to ordinary Americans. More than the standard playbook of Democratic policy proposals Clinton campaigned on, they might have energized a wider population of voters who wanted something to vote for and not just against. They would also have been expensive, requiring Clinton to walk back on her promise not to increase taxes on anyone except the most wealthy. But that worry, with the benefit of hindsight and the devastating knowledge that she would lose to Donald Trump, is one that Clinton would have saved for another day.