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An end to the era of professionally explained candidates

Political candidacies are like jokes: if you need to explain them, there’s something wrong. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy launched an entire cottage industry of explanation. It’s been two weeks since election day and her supporters and surrogates are still assiduously re-litigating the whole election, from her primary victory over Bernie Sanders (he wouldn’t have beaten Trump and he undermined her candidacy), to her various scandals (James Comey cost Hillary the election), to the exit polls (white women favored a misogynist, because they hate themselves and couldn’t bear listening to her voice), to the nature of U.S. presidential elections (it’s time to junk the electoral college). One could respond to their arguments piecemeal, or one could throw up his hands and, reversing Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s famous retort to the fascists, say: Convenceréis, pero no venceréis (You will convince, but you won’t win).

While I hope 11/9 does not dissolve our 240-year-old experiment in self-government, let it mark the end of three things:

Yes, the Hillary campaign did offer a plethora of progressive policy nuggets, but she could not credibly push them to a Rust Belt so demoralized by decades of neoliberal devastation.

First, the Clinton political dynasty. Yes, there are reports that Chelsea is being “groomed” for a Congressional seat, but I suspect that if she follows through, she will enjoy as much success as Chris Hughes’ husband did. Yes, there is also the Clinton Foundation, but I worry it won’t enjoy quite as much philanthropic largesse now that it has been deprived of the swag (i.e. influence) that came with the donations when Hillary was headed for the Oval Office. (Serious query: Anybody know the new price for a Clinton speaking engagement?) Nope, they’re done. RIP, Clintons.

Second, neoliberalism. It took over the Democratic Party on Bill Clinton’s coattails, shaped all its policy thinking and ushered in our era of free trade, union-busting, deregulation, middle-class decline, mass incarceration, and massive inequality. It was fitting that this era left its leader’s spouse with a campaign so lacking in positive message—a thin gruel of identity politics, credential-brandishing, and anti-Trump harping. Yes, the Hillary campaign did offer a plethora of progressive policy nuggets discoverable by the Internet-savvy, but she could not credibly push them to a Rust Belt so demoralized by decades of neoliberal devastation. RIP, neoliberalism.

Third, the Shillaries. The host of journalists, commentators, pundits, and celebrities who took it upon themselves day in and day out to explain, scrub, polish, promote, praise, defend, and sell Hillary as the best thing that could ever happen to our blessed country, because she had an endemic inability to do what politicians are supposed to do: sell themselves to the public. Presidential candidates, especially those with Clinton’s record-breaking funding base, can pay consultants to promote their ideas and promise. We don’t need journalists to volunteer to do it for them, and we sure as hell don’t need journalists who are taking on double-duty as PR flacks to further their own careers in the liberal punditocracy’s cursus honorum from lowly scribe to editor-writer at a highbrow magazine or earnest millennial channel to White House press secretary—or the C-suite at a Silicon Valley unicorn. RIP, my Shillaries.

When it comes to explaining Hillary to the voters, no one performed greater yeoman’s work than our country’s lead explainer, “head vegetable chef” Ezra Klein. Back in July—as Hillary was preparing for the Democratic National Convention—Klein published a “Vox Media Storytelling Studio” un-profile (he denied his profile was a profile) cooked with the aid of thirty-one sous chefs (go ahead and scroll down to the credits). The piece launched from a paradoxical observation ne’er seen in the history of politics. Consider “the Gap”:

Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail?

I have come to call it “the Gap.” There is the Hillary Clinton I watch on the nightly news and that I read described in the press. She is careful, calculated, cautious. Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense.

And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will. Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes.

It is truly shocking to hear that people who interact with a politician on a day-to-day basis—especially those who work for her or depend on good relations with her—might have some positive and humanizing things to say about her. But putting that bombshell aside, why should we, the voters, care about a candidate’s affability and humor away from the podium? Would supporters of George W. Bush be dissuaded if they found out that, actually, people who are close to him say he’s not so much fun to grab a beer with? We vote a politician into office for doing what politicians do, which is, among other things, selling us on themselves and their ideas. Hillary might be wonderful in a one-on-one chat, but most of us will, unfortunately, never share Ezra’s good fortune in savoring that truth either first-hand or under the tutelage of Hillary campaign insiders.

Thanks to Ezra’s access to the real Hillary, he was also primed to explain both her primary success and general election failure. The day Hillary wrapped up the Democratic nomination via a flood of superdelegate endorsements (which happened to obviate the next morning’s California primary), Klein wrote “It’s time to admit Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarly talented politician” in which he proffered what I like to call the “Bernie is from Mars, Hillary is from Venus” theory of why the party bigwigs sided with her:

Another way to look at the primary is that Clinton employed a less masculine strategy to win. She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 208 members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; only eight have endorsed Sanders.

And in his aforementioned essay on “the Gap,” he argued that what distinguished Hillary from other politicians is that . . . wait for it . . . she listens—a strength that, according to Klein, was “reframed as a weakness” during the campaign:

Given where both candidates began, there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders proved the more effective talker. His speeches attracted larger audiences, his debate performances led to big gains in the polls, his sound bites went more viral on Facebook. Yet Clinton proved the more effective listener—and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder. . . . One way of reading the Democratic primary is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case—the first time at the presidential level—the female leadership style won.

Funny, somehow Sen. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t have the same trouble speaking as vociferously as Sanders on the issues that matter to them and to a large swathe of Democratic voters.

We don’t need journalists who are taking on double-duty as PR flacks to further their own careers in the liberal punditocracy’s cursus honorum

Hillary’s feminine mystique became a liability in the general election, however, when her preternatural ability to listen and build coalitions confronted an electorate desperate enough for change to favor the incompetent male blowhard instead. Klein had an election prewrite that assumed a Clinton victory, which he nevertheless quoted from to explain his thoughts:

Clinton has a different definition of success than the presidential candidates we’re used to. She is not running to change the system. She refuses to paint an inspiring vision of a political process rid of corruption, partisanship, and rancor. If anything, she is contemptuous of the quadrennial promises to remake American politics—she views them as distractions from the hard, important, unsexy work of politics. And she views her appetite for that work, and her readiness to work tirelessly and cheerfully within the system we have, as her core political attribute.

He then added in his post-election analysis:

I think there’s a case to be made for Clinton’s political realism. But I don’t think it’s a case Clinton was comfortable making, and it clearly wasn’t a case voters wanted to hear.

Was the electorate’s decidedly unfavorable view of Clinton, as well as her own discomfort with making her case, the result of her unsexy “political realism”—her steadfast commitment to listen, build relationships and uphold the system the way exhausted mothers traditionally uphold the family unit? That’s one way to put it. Here’s another: through her lucrative corporate speaking gigs (or “listening tours” if you prefer), her influence peddling at the Clinton Foundation, and her private email server, she represented the privileged political elites that voters were desperate to reject, even at the cost of electing a (far more) corrupt non-politician.

I don’t mean to pick on Klein in particular, but to hold him up as an exemplar of the “Hillary, explained” industry. As we reprimand Facebook for its promotion of fake news and the MSM for its disastrous focus on the horserace and the titillating scandals, let us not be fooled into thinking that the left can bolster its credibility by explaining its favored candidates to America’s unwashed, low-information voters when those candidates fail to do so themselves. No, the email scandal was not an “attack on women.” No, its chief lesson was not that the Hillary who “exists in the real world is the one the folks at her rally saw: kind, grandmotherly, and smart as hell.” Yes, Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress may have violated DOJ protocol and hurt her chances, but the incident started not with his outsized male ego or with Anthony Weiner’s phallus, but with a Clinton staffer’s inability (yet again) to turn over evidence to an investigation. You may think that Hillary is an outstandingly honest politician, but to say so after Comey’s July 5 report demonstrating how she repeatedly told falsehoods about the controversy is not particularly well timed. You may think Hillary is an upstanding politician, but there are those who think her assiduous courtship of money, while legal, is corrupt all the same (albeit not nearly as corrupt as Trump’s career of scams).

In a post-election elegy for a T-shirt with the pro-Hillary message “When they go low, we go to the White House” that she bought for her daughter—now never-to-be-worn—The Nation’s Joan Walsh argued that, contrary to popular belief, Clinton did have a positive platform for voters:

Whether you liked it or not, Clinton’s campaign did have an over-arching message. It was her slogan: “Stronger Together.” That message was rejected by 63 percent of white people.

That slogan was also selected from a group of eighty-five limp phrases that consultants coined as they tried to guess at what their candidate wanted to say to voters. If the campaign had gone instead with one of the alternatives, such as “Next begins with you” or “Your future. Your terms,” would the electoral result have meant something different? Would it have meant that 63 percent of white folks rejected those messages, too? That whites believed “Next” should begin with non-whites, that the futures of non-whites should unfold on their own terms? Yes, if Hillary had only chosen a different slogan, Trump’s victory would have marked a huge advance in popular support for racial equality. It’s a scenario worthy of a Paul Beatty satire, but not serious political thought.