How hard it must be for Hillary Clinton to sit next to Bill on the inaugural platform for the second time as an also-ran. She’s a good soldier, and she’ll carry it off with the grace of a former First Lady, but if there were a thought bubble over her head, it would say, “I’d rather be walking the dogs,” or “I can’t believe I lost to this lunatic.”
She was more qualified than Barack Obama eight years ago, and far more experienced and temperamentally suited to the presidency than Donald Trump this time around. But that’s not what gets you elected.
Clinton is the good student who got all A’s and then climbed every rung on the career ladder only to discover, again and again, that it’s not enough.
For 20 years—and a lot more if you go back to her days as an anti-war activist at Wellesley College—she has been working toward the presidency. To come so close not once, but twice, has got to be heartbreaking. There is no next time.
But duty calls, and Hillary and Bill Clinton are patriots. Their presence on the inaugural stage next week sends the strongest possible message that they value country above all. The peaceful transition of power is the hallmark of democracy even when the inheritor of power trashes people and institutions he doesn’t like.
Clinton will set aside all the “what ifs” she must have rolled over in her mind a million times since the election to listen intently to what Trump says as he performs his first act as president, delivering the inaugural address.
He has said it will be short, and that he’s writing it himself, a statement that invites derisive laughter from his opponents but could hit home with his supporters. He has the ability to connect in the Twitter age in a way that Clinton never could. She will have to take him more seriously now than she did during the campaign.
He wasn’t supposed to win, and yet he did. She did everything by the book and victory eluded her. As a woman, she will be tempted to think that good girls finish last. All those policy proposals earnestly crafted gone to waste as voters in key states bought Trump’s glib promises about building a wall and making American great again.
Her campaign echoed Michelle Obama’s dictum, “When they go low, we go high.” It’s an admirable sentiment, but there’s no evidence that it works. A Democratic strategist not involved in the campaign says a better response against Trump and the chants he led to “lock her up” might have been, “When they go low, we go lower.”
Obama eased the pain of Clinton’s loss in 2008 by recruiting her as his Secretary of State. Rather than have her return to the senate and plot a rematch in four years, he effectively cleared the field for her as his successor in 2016.
There is no consolation prize this time for a campaign that fell short. The cameras will zoom in on the moment when the Clintons encounter the Trumps, and it will be Hillary’s demeanor that is most analyzed and discussed.
She will rise to the occasion just as she always has in those tense moments that the rest of us can only imagine, whether it’s debating Trump and volleying his insults, or testifying about Benghazi for eleven hours, or soldiering through her husband’s infidelity with a grace that gave her the highest approval ratings in her public life.
This time there is no redeeming grace. There will be no role for her in the new administration. The Democratic Party is moving on as well, looking for new leadership now that the Clintons have had their turn. This is the end, and it’s not as if she lost to Mitt Romney, or John Kasich, or Marco Rubio. She lost to Donald J. Trump, who most politicians and the media wrote off for much of last year as a joke, a sideshow.
She can rationalize that she wasn’t the right person for the moment. Some people didn’t want to elect a woman, and some didn’t want this particular woman. She had a lot to overcome, and it wasn’t a resounding loss. She won the popular vote by almost three million, and the 100,000 voters she needed in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin would fit into a decent sized football stadium.
What must hurt Clinton as a devout Methodist is that her campaign had a moral duty to beat Trump, a man who had overturned all the norms that govern political behavior in a democracy, and they didn’t do it.
As she sits on that stage, she wouldn’t be human if she wasn’t thinking, “How could this happen?” and if she didn’t feel resentment toward a media that pounded away at her use of a private server as something truly nefarious while only scratching the surface on Trump’s numerous and far more serious and consequential conflicts.
What will save her as she watches Trump sworn in as our 45th president is the same resilience that has always marked her life. This is not about her. This is about the causes that she has cared about since she first went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund. There is more work to be done. This is a journey, and she’s still on the journey.