Just about everyone except my dog has weighed in on Hillary Clinton’s campaign post-mortem What Happened. Not surprisingly, opinions are fierce. If you love Hillary, the book will make you angry. If you hate Hillary, the book will make you angry.
It seems, though, that unlike my dog – who listened along with me during a long car trip – many with the loudest critiques didn’t bother to read it. You cannot read What Happened and not hear the gut-splitting sound of Hillary falling on her sword time and time again. She takes full responsibility for the loss and to say otherwise simply demonstrates poor reading comprehension.
Does she point to other factors in the loss? Of course! It’s a post-mortem; that’s how they are supposed to work. The patient died. I am the responsible doctor. Now, let’s figure out what made her sick and where we made mistakes so that it doesn’t happen again.
Please, no matter what you think of Hillary, do not miss the very real evidence that this election was profoundly influenced by Russian-backed propaganda (let’s call “fake news” what it is, shall we?) and a national media nearly undone by a candidate who has only a passing acquaintance with civility and truth. If there is no other takeaway from this book (there is; hang with me here), it is that a media-illiterate electorate is easily influenced and more easily manipulated. If we want this little democratic experiment we call America to continue, we need to smarten up, and fast.
By the same token, those who see What Happened as a feminist manifesto wrested from beneath the jackboot of misogyny are missing an even bigger point. Hillary didn’t lose because she is a girl; she lost because she ran like one.
(I’m pausing here to give you a chance to collect yourself. Trust me, you’ll like me again by the end of this post.)
Overt and latent sexism, and often outright misogyny, surely didn’t help Hillary. There’s no doubting that. There’s also no doubt in my mind – and the minds of 65,844,954 other Americans – that policy-maker Hillary was light-years ahead of and eminently more qualified than every other candidate in the 2016 race. She had prepared for this job for 40 years, gotten very real near-the-job training, and can run rings around anyone on the issues that Americans say are most important to them: healthcare, jobs, the economy, and, these days, not getting vaporized by North Korea.
If that weren’t enough (and it wasn’t), Hillary did her homework. If we’d stopped the car for Taco Bell every time Hillary (who narrates her own book. Tip: bump up the reading speed to 1.4x or you’ll make yourself a bit nuts) mentioned her briefcase full of policy papers, we’d still be on the road. No sooner than she decided to run, she pulled together a policy team. Describing her surprisingly normal daily morning routine, she tells of reading policy papers over breakfast. Explaining how she passed the time traveling from event to event, she turned to – you guessed it – policy papers. She even reviewed her policies on election eve, knowing she’d need to hit the ground running after election day. In short, Hillary was better prepared to be President of the United States than anyone. And none of that mattered.
Because American voters don’t give a rat’s ass about policy. We want sound bites and snappy slogans. We want Change We Can Believe In, Compassionate Conservatism, Morning in America, Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. And, yes, enough of us wanted to Make America Great Again that this really will need to be slogan and policy for candidates in 2020.
Hillary may have been the best student in this or any class, but cries of I’m With Her and Hill Yes! did very little to stir the souls of mouth-breathing voters who needed a simple handle to grab. What did Trump stand for? Why, he’s going to make America great again! And Hillary? Well, um, she’s, well. . . Even the most wonky voters couldn’t muster a snappy sound bite to take to the polls.
But, you know, it’s almost hard to blame Hillary for that. A lifetime of experience spurs her – and most high-achieving women – to work harder, be smarter, think faster and further than the men around them. It has been how we prove our worth. Silly slogans are just another empty suit. We will win in the board room and the campaign trail with better ideas, smarter plans, and carefully crafted policy.
Funny, though, it just doesn’t work that way.
Some years ago, at a startup festival in Montreal, the investor and writer Paul Kedrosky admonished young entrepreneurs to “get over the idea that you can win by being empirically better than the competition.” I have no idea what he said before or after, because that phrase stabbed me. It was profoundly depressing. I had spent a career working to be very, very good, and in one swift sentence, Paul said it didn’t matter. I tweeted as much, and Paul responded that he wasn’t dismissing good work, so much as saying if you can’t get above the noise, being better doesn’t matter.
Paul should have had a talk with Hillary.
Hillary ran like a girl. She bet that if her ideas were better, and she could articulate them well and fully, she would win. Meanwhile, the sideshow that was Trump was capturing the attention of voters who couldn’t grok policy, or if they tried, decided that it sounded like every other politician that came before her. Sure, Hillary has more experience and better ideas, but let’s go with the carnival barker who will really shake things up!
We know how that story ends. But just as What Happened is a post-mortem on the campaign, it is a cautionary tale for future women candidates. All your instincts will point you toward proving your value over other candidates and winning in the battle of ideas. A voice in the back of your head will remind you to play nice and to be “a lady.” Meanwhile all your great ideas will matter less to voters than that you can wrap all that policy into energetic sloganeering and some careful mud slinging.
Elizabeth Warren does this masterfully. She’s a brilliant lawyer and politician who doesn’t mince words. Admit it, you cheered every time she taunted Donald Trump and a little bit of you wished Hillary would have done the same.
But she didn’t. Instead of telling Trump to back off, she kept her cool and offered a detailed policy position that was difficult to focus on amid the boorish stalking. Instead of telling Matt Lauer to go fuck himself and his insipid email questions, she patiently tried for the umpteenth time to explain what had happened and why. Rather than asserting her win over Bernie Sanders and demanding he get in line, she placated his bros by giving him a special seat at the table.
It’s hard to fault her for it. She was smashing glass all over the place and there was no clear rulebook for a woman’s candidacy. But there is a rulebook for a presidential candidacy, one that goes back decades. Rile people up. Give them the raw meat of hopeful slogans. Keep policy to a handful of talking points and pull those out only as needed.
Toward the end of What Happened, Hillary writes about election night and nearly apologizes that she couldn’t break that “last, highest glass ceiling.” That’s wrong. She ran like a girl, and because she did, women candidates who come after her won’t have to.