Hillary Clinton was back in the news last week thanks to a Sunday speech at the PEN America World Voices Festival, which sounded custom-designed to give Donald Trump a nosebleed.
Pulling no punches, Clinton slapped Trump for his assault on such public goods as the arts, self-expression, knowledge, dissent, and basic reality. “We are living through an all-out war on truth, facts, and reason,” she declared.
But the bulk of her hits were directed at Trump’s war on the media, and the First Amendment more broadly. She lamented that “today, we have a president who seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy,” and who “has referred to the media as an ‘enemy of the people.’” Citing Trump’s crusades against Jeff Bezos and CNN, she asked, “Given his track record, is it any surprise that, according to the latest round of revelations, he joked about throwing reporters in jail to make them ‘talk’?” She even managed to work in a reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Considering Clinton’s own complicated relationship with the media (actually, it’s not that complicated—she hates us), it was heartwarming to hear her passionately defending the Fourth Estate. Admittedly, she couldn’t resist taking some shots at coverage of the 2016 presidential race. She brought up “the Russian disinformation campaign” and how it “has been abetted to some degree by the way politics has been covered.” She pointed to studies “showing how the mainstream political coverage was influenced by the right-wing-media ecosystem and other factors to depart from normal journalistic standards,” and she name-checked the Harvard professor Thomas Patterson for calling “the false equivalency in the coverage ‘corrosive’” and saying “the relentlessly negative news has had a ‘leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.’” Even so, she couched her criticism in praise for some media outlets that have recognized their mistakes and taken the “brave step” of “publicly examining” their screw-ups and working henceforth to “avoid the errors that helped put Mr. Trump in the White House.” Coming from Clinton, that’s practically a mash note.
All told, her PEN performance was cool, crisp, and destined to make news—which it did. (“Can Hillary Clinton Break the Internet?,” Vanity Fair asked of her “shrewd” new media strategy.) Which left me wondering, and not for the first time: Isn’t there someone who can convince this accomplished, inspiring, barrier-breaking superwoman to stop whining about 2016?
Yes, what happened to Clinton was awful. She did not merely lose the presidency, she lost it to an opponent singularly unqualified to hold the office. Worse still, multiple external factors likely contributed to her loss, including Russian meddling and former FBI Director James Comey’s October surprise and, yes, the media’s absurd obsession with “Servergate.”
But whatever the root causes, the result is what it is: She lost. And while her frustration, disappointment, and rage make perfect sense, Clinton needs to give the public kvetching and finger-pointing a rest—if not for the sake of her or her party, then for the nation as a whole.
What’s so wrong with Clinton’s letting off a little steam? For starters, she’s bad at it—by which I mean she too often winds up making herself look bad. Whenever she talks about What Happened, her recent book recounting her experience as a presidential candidate, Clinton comes across as self-pitying and self-justifying, in large part because she cannot resist bringing up all the other folks and forces she considers at fault. This has reached the level of bad political joke. (In October, Newsweek compiled a handy list of “Every Excuse Hillary Clinton Has Given for Her 2016 Election Loss.”)
Yes, now and again she’ll make some comment about how, as the Democratic candidate, she takes “absolute personal responsibility” for everything that happened. But such vague, half-hearted blame-shouldering simply cannot compete with her detailed, heartfelt, perpetual blame-throwing.
Even more damaging are the occasions when, in her frenzy of finger-pointing, Clinton’s disdain for everyday Americans seeps into view. Who can forget her trenchant bit of electoral analysis at a conference in Mumbai in March?
So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards. You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs, you don’t want to, you know, see that Indian American succeeding more than you are, whatever your problem is, I’m going to solve it.
Oof. That’s tone-deaf enough to make you miss her “basket of deplorables.”
Is it natural—unavoidable even—for Hillary to feel this way? Of course. And if she wants to spend her evenings ranting to friends over a bottle of Beaujolais about life’s unfairness and Trump’s unfitness, more power to her. But when she takes her self-indulgence public, it causes real problems for the Democratic Party, which is scrambling to recover its mojo after the 2016 massacre she led it into.
When Clinton says something irretrievably offensive, or even mildly disruptive, her fellow Democrats are expected to comment. (Much as Republicans are forever being asked about Trump’s outrages.) This can get really awkward really fast. “She continues to be an important voice, but we’re focused on new battles now,” Representative Daniel Kildee of Michigan told The Washington Post last May, soon after Clinton announced that she was joining the resistance. “I don’t think it’s productive to relitigate that race.”
More problematic, in the wake of her Mumbai debacle, Democratic lawmakers from all those racist, sexist, backward-looking Trump states were forced to choose between throwing Hillary under the bus or alienating their voters. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri aggressively sided with Missourians, deeming Clinton’s remarks “fighting words.” Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was even harsher. Asked in a local radio interview when Clinton was going to “ride away into the sunset,” she replied: “Not soon enough.”
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio tried a more delicate tack, telling HuffPost, “I don’t really care what she said,” but noting that it was “not helpful.” For his pains, Brown was dog-piled by Republicans, who gleefully portrayed him as “not caring” about Clinton’s sneering at his voters. (I lost count of the number of Republican attack emails on this topic that landed in my inbox.)
The national GOP, in fact, ran digital ads against 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Trump won. (The state parties, meanwhile, worked their own mischief.) This should surprise exactly no one because—and here is the broader concern—so long as Hillary keeps putting her 2016 drama in the spotlight, she will serve as an unparalleled rallying point for Republican voters.
You know how Donald Trump seems weirdly, almost pathologically, obsessed with Clinton, despite the election having occurred nearly a year and a half ago? He is not alone. The Republican base (as hosts at Fox News can attest) still hates Clinton with the heat of a thousand suns. Is that rational? No. Is it a super-effective way for the GOP to fire up its base with high-stakes midterms approaching? To quote that great political sage Sarah Palin, you betcha!
Sure enough, last week an Associated Press piece described how Republicans have vowed to make Clinton a key villain in their midterm narrative.
“We’re going to make them own her,” the Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said.
It’s hard to blame them. As the AP noted, internal GOP research has found Clinton second only to Nancy Pelosi in the hierarchy of disliked Democrats: “Just 36 percent of Americans viewed Clinton favorably in a December Gallup poll, an all-time low mark that bucked a trend in which unsuccessful presidential candidates typically gain in popularity over time.”
Why should the Democratic Party continue to “own” a broadly unpopular Clinton—who, to review, holds no public office of any kind? In part, because she won’t allow them not to.
Clinton is well aware of the controversy her public musings stir. Her thoughtful response: Dismiss the critics as sexist. At a March appearance at Rutgers University, she was asked about recent calls for her to take a lower profile. “I was really struck by how people said that to me—you know, mostly people in the press, for whatever reason—like, ‘Oh, you know, go away, go away,’” she said. “They never said that to any man who was not elected. I was kind of struck by that.”
Clinton then ticked through a few points of comparison:
I’m really glad that, you know, Al Gore didn’t stop talking about climate change. And I’m really glad John Kerry went to the Senate and became an excellent secretary of state. And I’m really glad John McCain kept speaking out and standing up and saying what he had to say. And for heaven’s sakes, Mitt Romney is running for the Senate.
For heaven’s sake is right.
In citing her male predecessors, Clinton seemed to miss a glaring difference: These guys did not build their post-presidential-campaign personas around relitigating their ill-fated races and seizing every opportunity to shift the blame.
A shell-shocked Romney came the closest, briefly attributing his failure to Barack Obama’s having given “a lot of stuff,” most notably health care, to minority voters. (And he got dinged for his grousing before moving on.) Kerry and McCain swiftly reimmersed themselves in the business of the Senate. And Gore? He is the worst person for Clinton to compare herself to. While his loss was to a less humiliating opponent than Clinton’s, the experience itself was more excruciating. The nightmare didn’t end for Gore on Election Night; it dragged on and on for weeks as the nation tore itself apart over hanging chads and butterfly ballots and, yes, the fairness of the Electoral College. But when things ultimately didn’t break his way, Gore did not shift his energies to trashing the Supreme Court or the Florida secretary of state or the political media (which had unquestionably been rougher on him than on his opponent). He temporarily left the public stage and stayed mum on matters of big-P politics. When he reemerged, it wasn’t to moan about what a travesty 2000 had been; it was to promote a cause long dear to him.
Gore, if anything, presents an alternative model for Clinton. If she wants her next act to be as a women’s-rights champion or global ambassador for the Clinton Foundation or diplomat (post-Trump, of course) or even the next mayor of New York, she should go for it. She should stand up, speak out, and let her star shine.
But when it comes to the national political landscape, she has not yet reached the point where she can sound off in a way that doesn’t reek of self-pity and bitterness and rationalization. Until that changes, she should recognize the yuge favor she is doing the GOP—and, by extension, Donald Trump.
With that in mind, she really does need to stop. Just. Stop.