The first time Hillary Clinton ever gave a political speech for herself, as opposed to for her husband, I was there. It was a memorable and seismic event for people who were around then, probably little remembered now, perhaps totally unknown to the younger reporters who covered this Clinton campaign.
It was July 1999 on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s farm in upstate New York. A pleasant, sloping little hillside, defiled that sunny day by hundreds of journalists from all over the world, with their trucks and antennas and mult-boxes and miles of cable strewn across the innocent landscape. She was nervous that day as Moynihan introduced her; unaccustomed to putting herself forward on her own behalf. She acknowledged that everyone must have been surprised to find her there, took a few questions that Moynihan helped her with, and went off to start the listening tour and campaign that eventually landed her in the U.S. Senate—from which perch it was instantly and always assumed she would seek the presidency.
And now, 17 years later, I sit here in front of my computer and watch her last speech as a politician. She didn’t expect that career to end last night, and hardly anyone else did either. But end it did, in a shocking way. “This is painful,” she acknowledged, “and it will be for a long time.”
She will be second-guessed more than any candidate ever—because she always has been, because she’s a woman, and most of all because she let herself lose to Donald Trump. I’ve done plenty of that second-guessing myself. But today, for the most part, I’m of a mind to spare her.
She ran a good campaign. People—in some ways liberals in particular—loved to carp about what a lousy candidate she was. Well, no. She won a primary in which she never trailed. She led pretty much the entire way in the general election. She oversaw a very successful convention. She won all three debates, two of them by a mile. She had better TV ads (the ads were fantastic). She had better field operations.
It’s hard to do all those things. Candidates who do them almost always win.
But she lost.
I submit she didn’t lose for anything she did as a candidate. She lost for two main reasons. One, the email server decision. Yes maybe it got over-covered, and yes, Jim Comey probably killed her on Oct. 28 (and Anthony Weiner, whom I saw referred to on Twitter last night as the Steve Bartman of this election, didn’t help her).
But she skirted the rules. Before that story broke in March 2015, her approval and trust numbers were above water. Within a couple months, they were not, and they stayed underwater ever since. I can’t agree with other liberal writers that, hey, bosses often skirt rules, no big deal. She wasn’t a private-sector boss. She was a public servant. Public servants should obey the rules in a way that makes common sense to regular people. If she had, she’d be the president-elect today, I have little doubt. She’ll have to spend her life waking up thinking about that.
Two—and this one wasn’t her fault at all—she strolled into a tornado that almost no one foresaw. That tornado, make no mistake, gained some of its force from the man at center threatening to put her in jail. And it gained most of its force from xenophobia, sexism, and rage at elites. We all knew it was out there. We just thought it couldn’t win a presidential election.
Would anyone else have done any better against that tornado? Who knows. Bernie Sanders’s partisans say he’d have won, but remember, if it had been Trump vs. Sanders, Mike Bloomberg was going to run. He would have split the center-left vote, and we’d likely have the same result.
Elizabeth Warren? Maybe. She’d have neutralized Trump’s populist appeal. But the Democrats have tried “Massachusetts liberal” twice in recent history, and it hasn’t exactly worked.
Joe Biden could likely have won, being Mr. Scranton Cred. But romanticizing Biden requires a little rewriting of history. Only in the last year or so, after the email story started to dog Hillary and after his son’s awful death (those two events happened just two months apart), did Biden become a liberal icon. Up until then, he was thought of as a good guy but one who wasn’t really ready for the big stage. He’d run for president twice and gotten nowhere. He looks great today, but in 2014, when Democrats were starting to decide these things, he didn’t seem so obvious a choice.
And that was because someone else did. She had flaws and shortcomings, but she was the choice. It was her turn to make history. Maybe there was an extent to which after Obama, liberals came to believe that making history wasn’t so hard after all: first black president, check; how hard can the first woman be? Alas, we have our answer.
So the Clintons are done, and so is Clintonism. I covered them, and it, with a mixture of admiration and skepticism and a lot of other things. The revolt that buoyed Trump was worldwide and fierce, but all year I thought the Clintons could prevent it overtaking America. Obviously, I was wrong. But I don’t really blame her and don’t think you should. Tornadoes wreak havoc. As we are certain to see.