Hillary Clinton to President Obama on Election Night: ‘I’m Sorry’ I Lost
A dishy new book details the avoidable missteps—and the unstoppable forces—behind Hillary Clinton’s shocking campaign loss.
It is traditional in the United States that, after a presidential election, the losing candidate recedes from the public eye for a period of self-imposed exile.
After five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices cast second—and far more consequential—votes for George W. Bush in December 2000, soon-to-be ex-Vice President Al Gore disappeared from the public eye, returning nearly a year later sporting a Failure Beard and a few extra pounds. After losing to incumbent President Barack Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney emerged from isolation only long enough to be photographed in clothes he’d clearly slept in, pumping his own gas. More recently, Hillary Clinton was spotted—clad in mourning black—by an eagle-eyed hiker in the woods of upstate New York, a latter-day Hawthorne heroine banished to the glens of Chappaqua.
These post-election disappearances are vital for public healing—allowing voters and candidates to put the campaigns in the rearview mirror.
But the Clinton clan’s relatively dignified exeunt from the political stage is about to be interrupted by the publication of an exhaustive postmortem examination of her fraught presidential run. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, written by longtime Clinton chroniclers Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, aims to be the definitive answer to the question millions of hungover Americans asked on Nov. 9, 2016: “What the hell happened?”
Based on interviews with more than 100 unnamed sources from within Clinton’s orbit—each account given under the condition that the tales would be told only after the final ballot was counted—the 480-page report relays the behind-the-scenes drama behind many of the Clinton campaign’s most embarrassing blunders and unforced errors. More damning than any anecdote of petty infighting or a deadly devotion to data, however, is the book’s verdict on the main reason for Clinton’s loss: Clinton herself.
Despite many obstacles beyond her control—including a bitter primary opponent who refused to concede long after all routes to the nomination had been exhausted, a Republican rival whose personal attacks shattered all established standards of decency, and a Kremlin-orchestrated operation to thwart her campaign and delegitimize her incipient administration—Clinton’s race, Allen and Parnes report, was winnable.
But despite its buckets of money, its deep bench of supporters and surrogates, a general-election opponent in a constant state of implosion, and the imprimatur of a popular sitting president, Clinton’s campaign couldn’t overcome its biggest obstacle. “The variable she couldn’t change,” Allen and Parnes write, “was the candidate.”
Like other books about epic disasters (Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania) the book is mostly a catalogue of avoidable missteps that killed Clinton’s campaign by a thousand cuts. The campaign’s maladroit attempts at “damage control,” former campaign aides grumble in the book, often caused more damage than the inciting controversies—particularly in the case of the never-ending scandal over Clinton’s use of private email servers during her time as secretary of state.
When The New York Times first reported on Clinton’s email servers in March 2015, the campaign’s first response was to pretend it was no big deal. “I’m in this zen place now where I’m focusing on the website and telling myself this is all background noise!” emailed campaign manager Robby Mook.
Clinton herself was long oblivious to the maelstrom her email servers would eventually generate. After her first and what she presumed to be final public remarks on the issue, in which she was adamant that she never sent or received classified information on her personal email server, Clinton emailed campaign chairman John Podesta a thank-you for “helping steer the ship thru our first choppy waters.” Of course, those waters would later become a whirlpool—caused, in large part, by the candidate’s claims, later revealed to be inaccurate, that she had neither sent nor received classified information.
As the scandal brewed and Clinton’s public insistence that she’d done nothing wrong was picked apart, the campaign’s communications team botched her first national television interview of the campaign by accidentally booking with CNN’s Brianna Keilar, instead of Yahoo! News’ Bianna Golodryga, the wife of a former Clinton administration aide and Clinton’s choice for an interviewer.
The Keilar interview went… poorly.
Allen and Parnes frame this and similar stories of Clinton’s insistence on trying “every approach but confession and contrition” as indicative of a Clintonian truth, universally acknowledged: that she is “a terrible judge of how her actions could backfire and turn into full-blown scandals.”
The denialism ran in the family, Allen and Parnes report, particularly with Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, who delivered what one aide called “an ass-chewing” tirade on a conference call with senior campaign staff about their supposed failure to articulate the campaign’s message and bury the email scandal.
“Neither Clinton could accept the simple fact that Hillary had hamstrung her own campaign,” Allen and Parnes write.
The email scandal did more than just earn the ire of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” of Clintonian nightmares—it also hampered the campaign’s ability to build a volunteer organization in early primary states at the same time Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was riding the wave of anti-Washington populist sentiment that would later help deliver Donald Trump the White House. “The caucus electorate,” one campaign source is quoted as saying, “is disproportionately watching cable news. And it was every day for six months.”
Part of the problem, Shattered implies, was Clinton’s Cersei Lannister-like reliance on a cadre of informal “advisers” who offered counsel that was often equal parts sage and self-serving, in the hopes of maintaining close relations with the Clinton political dynasty—or, better yet, undercutting a rival for her attention.
That same dynamic bled into the campaign apparatus, Allen and Parnes write, hampering efforts from speechwriting to debate prep as staffers feared undercutting “protected” members of the Hillaryland old guard. The candidate’s tendency to “favor loyalty over competence” turned the campaign into a popularity contest. “There’s one goal here: to win the fucking election for president,” said one speechwriting source. “It’s like, do you want to win the goddamn thing or are we in junior high school again?”
It was this cacophony of contradicting information, Allen and Parnes report, that prolonged the Clinton campaign’s struggles with recognizing an existential crisis in the candidate’s standing with working-class whites. When the former secretary of state was getting hammered in the leadup to the Michigan primary, primarily due to weakness among that cohort, Clinton floated the idea that the problem lay with her stance on guns. Meanwhile, the real culprit—her close, lucrative relationship with Wall Street banks—was staring her in the face at every Sanders campaign rally.
“Even when she talked about the economy,” one campaign aide said, “it wasn’t at all clear to them that she was on their side.”
The “Hillaryland Problem” was nothing new—the Clintons had been insular and clannish since their early days in the White House, a habit they carried into the New York senator’s first run for president. But while the campaign was 2008 redux on some bad habits, other lessons from Clinton’s failed race for the Democratic nomination were apparently overlearned.
Shattered points to the muzzling of Bill Clinton as one major contributor to what its authors call the campaign’s “failure to read the national mood.” While the former president with the silver tongue had been seen as running roughshod over her campaign in 2008, Bill kept himself on a shorter leash during the 2016 race—this time, to his wife’s detriment.
The former president, a preternatural reader of crowds since his early days as a Democratic political wunderkind, saw in the Democratic and general electorate a resentfulness among the blue-collar whites that the rest of his wife’s team didn’t. A dyed-in-the-wool member of the white working-class, Bill saw the constituency's frustration with being "left behind" in the economic recovery as an opportunity for the populists—and a problem for his wife that needed to be addressed head-on.
But Mook, a dreamboat-for-politics who won Hillary Clinton over with his near-obsessive fixation on data-driven decisionmaking, instead focused on turnout among minority constituencies, a play that cost Clinton dearly both in the Michigan primary and, later, the general election.
“Michigan really baked in this idea that we had pushed him to spend time in the African American communities when he should have been out pursuing white people,” one aide said of Bill Clinton, according to the book. (As a result of the Michigan cataclysm, due in large part to faulty data showing Sanders behind, Mook would eventually be “layered,” a nicer way of saying that he was demoted while never losing the title of campaign manager, Allen and Parnes write.)
Of course, not all of Bill Clinton’s impulses were good ones. After his infamous tarmac chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch led to Lynch’s recusal from involvement in the investigation into Clinton’s use of private email servers, the response from both the White House and Clinton campaign officials was, according to one source, a unanimous “what the fuck?”
That “misread” of the electorate’s antipathy toward the establishment extended, most fatally, into the general election. Trump was recognized early as a potential threat to Clinton’s candidacy, according to Parnes and All, by one longtime adviser, with an early 2016 memo declaring “FACT: Donald Trump can defeat Hillary Clinton and become the 45th president of the United States,” cautioning Clinton not to “underestimate his capacity to draw people to the polls who normally do not vote.”
But that adviser’s warning to “add three or four points” to whatever Trump’s polling numbers put him at was disregarded by a campaign—and a candidate—that prized hard data over nebulous instinct, Allen and Parnes write. The campaign’s faith in the so-called Blue Wall of 18 states and the District of Columbia that had voted Democratic in every election since 1992 led them to underestimate basic fact of the campaign: that Clinton could never “cast herself as anything but a lifelong insider when so much of the country had lost faith in its institutions.”
Eventually, even Clinton caught on to the chasmic breach between her own worldview and that of the electorate—but it was too late, according to Allen and Parnes.
“I don’t understand what’s happening with the country,” Shattered quotes Clinton as saying. “I can’t get my arms around it.”
Shattered, for all its insidery venom and bitter backbiting, contains very little examination of the “why” behind what it frames as Clinton’s pitfalls as a candidate. Her clannishness, her reliance on close longtime advisers, her difficulty opening up to voters—all are largely presented as problems without a solution, just facets of Clinton’s constitutional makeup to be overcome.
But we’ve known about these qualities for as long as Clinton has been in the public eye—as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin poetically observed in the seminal Game Change, “ambition and caution were the twin totems of her psyche, and she was torn between them.”
Clinton is framed—in all senses of the word—as an impossibly flawed candidate who still could have won, had she been better versed in the populist shift of the country. But Allen and Parnes fail to answer whether recognition of “the national mood” could have done anything to change the political manifestation of that mood. It’s not like Clinton could have, in the words of Allen and Parnes, become “a torch-bearing outsider ready to burn the nation’s institutions to the ground,” as was true of both her major opponents.
In the rush for lifeboats, campaign aides even criticize Clinton's fixation on the Flint water crisis—if she'd spent more time courting suburban whites in Michigan than African-American voters who were already "in her pocket," they say, they could have wrapped up the nomination earlier and laid better groundwork for the general. Whether it would have been moral for a presidential candidate to cynically ignore inner-city blacks with a poisoned water supply in favor of suburban whites with "economic anxiety," however, is not addressed.
But for all its occasionally superficial readings of its main subject, Shattered is at its best in its closing chapter, with a stunning tick-tock of the final hours of the campaign.
“You’re going to come up short,” vote-counter Steve Schale told Clinton at around 7:45 p.m., pointing to a nascent tsunami of support for Trump in Florida that presaged a cataclysm in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The candidate’s husband, Shattered reports, was furious; the candidate herself, inscrutable. Three hours later, after Fox News called Wisconsin for Trump, the White House called, urging Clinton to concede despite razor-thin margins.
“POTUS doesn’t think it’s wise to drag this out,” White House political director David Simas told Mook.
But it wasn’t until Clinton received a call from President Obama himself that reality hit.
“You need to concede,” Obama told her, before saying the same thing to Podesta.
After this, Clinton was done.
“Give me the phone,” she asked, before dialing her opponent. “Congratulations, Donald.”
After her concession call, Clinton made one more.
“Mr. President,” Clinton said softly, as it dawned on her that instead of “that highest, hardest” glass ceiling, it was the hopes of millions of supporters that were about to be shattered. “I’m sorry.”