Power

Ass-chewing and schadenfreude: Inside Hillary’s failed campaign

A new tell-all details Clinton's bid for the presidency.

Power

Ass-chewing and schadenfreude: Inside Hillary’s failed campaign

A new tell-all details Clinton's bid for the presidency.
Power

Ass-chewing and schadenfreude: Inside Hillary’s failed campaign

A new tell-all details Clinton's bid for the presidency.

The Democratic Party, for all its failures, can never be faulted for a lack of self-regard. Even after decades of hemorrhaging down-ticket power, wasting good fortune on a disastrous eight-year attempt to negotiate with the Tea Party and stumbling into the most humiliating election loss in American history, the party apparatus is anything but apologetic. The blame for Hillary Clinton’s failure to defeat a senile TV host, in their telling, falls entirely on Russia, poor whites, Bernie Sanders — the list goes on. In truth, Clinton’s 2016 campaign failed for most of the same reasons her 2008 campaign did: a disorganized staff struggled to define a clear and persuasive message for their unexciting establishment candidate.

In their brutal new account of Clinton’s presidential bid, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes depict the candidate as someone who is grossly incompetent at managing any degree of power. This is an interesting turn of events for the authors, who previously collaborated on a 2014 Clinton hagiography that, while billed as an unofficial biography, was speculated by reviewers to have been written under the auspices of Clinton’s exploratory committee. That liberal access-hungry Beltway figures (both formerly worked for Politico) would do an about-face tell-all and air Clinton’s dirty laundry without her consent suggests that she and her husband no longer have the pull they once did.

Clinton’s campaign, as Allen and Parnes render it, was a disaster before it even began in 2015. Just like when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary was widely viewed as an establishment candidate, and her campaign struggled to put together a coherent message. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau was brought in early on to punch up Clinton’s Roosevelt Island campaign-launch speech in June 2015 but left almost immediately, saying that the operation resembled that of John Kerry’s failed 2004 campaign: “...a bunch of operatives who were smart and accomplished in their own right but weren’t united by any common purpose larger than pushing a less-than-thrilling candidate into the White House.” The solution to Clinton’s persistent message problem was to bring in more (always Clinton-adjacent) speechwriters and strategists. Only Clinton could have known for sure why she wanted to be president, but she chose to let others decide for her. As one anonymous aide told Allen and Parnes, Clinton simply didn’t have a reason for running besides continuing the establishment politics of her predecessor.

Evolve

The book portrays Clinton as a temperamental and often absent boss, obsessed with leaks, infighting, and backstabbing among her employees. Hillary thought “almost everything her own campaign had done [in 2008] was flawed and almost everything Obama’s had done was pristine,” and so this time around, she read through all her staffers’ emails to determine their relative loyalty. This move was devious but not exactly shrewd; the latter campaign contained just as much inner turmoil. Shattered is punctuated with frequent outbursts of shouted dialogue, especially coming from Bill Clinton. Bill yelled at campaign chairman John Podesta “loud enough to be heard through the walls,” he grew “repetitive and forceful” with campaign manager Robby Mook, and he yelled at the entire staff on several occasions. Hillary was more passive-aggressive — at one point during debate preparation she responded to constructive criticism from strategist Jake Sullivan with a demand that the two switch places. As Sullivan played her role, Hillary savaged his performance. “She was visibly, unflinchingly pissed off at us as a group,” an aide recalled.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest source of intra-campaign squabbling were the infamous State Department emails that were a major factor in Clinton’s defeat. In March 2015, it emerged during investigations into the 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya that Clinton, as secretary of state, had used a private email server for government communications. Her fledgling campaign argued over the best course of action for more than a week after the revelations were reported before finally releasing a statement. John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, and Jennifer Palmieri, her director of communications, wanted Hillary to apologize publicly for using a private server, but Bill was adamant that would hurt her. This hesitance, not to mention Clinton’s refusal to publicly acknowledge her use of a private server before it became a national news story, damaged her professional relationships — Obama learned of the server’s existence on the news — and created a vicious cycle of negative press that dogged her throughout the election.

“She was visibly, unflinchingly pissed off at us as a group,” an aide recalled.

In July 2015, as it became known that some of the emails were, in fact, classified, the Clinton camp planned her first national television interview to address the scandal. But even this, which could have been a power move by Clinton’s team, was needlessly bungled. When Palmieri asked Clinton which newscaster she wanted to do the interview, Clinton told her “Bianna,” meaning Yahoo News anchor Bianna Golodryga, who is married to a former Clinton aide. But Palmieri heard “Brianna,” and booked CNN’s Brianna Keilar, who proceeded to grill an uneasy Clinton harder than she had anticipated, or at least harder than a sympathetic Golodryga would have. This misstep only exacerbated the campaign’s problems, and levels of anger and distrust grew among the group. In August 2015, Bill Clinton reportedly gave the staff an “ass-chewing” for not burying the scandal. Hillary, described by staff sources as unpleasant and self-righteous, backed him up. It wasn’t until September that Clinton apologized and took responsibility for the emails, at which point, Allen and Parnes say, it was too little, too late — the scandal was already cemented in the public’s imagination.

Those seven months of question-dodging and negative press were also a perfect opening for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders, who was averse to “going negative,” benefited greatly from Clinton’s rising disapproval numbers and the general sense that she was untrustworthy. Before the New Hampshire primary, the Clinton campaign sent Chelsea Clinton out to claim that Sanders wanted to “empower Republican governors to take away health insurance for low-income and middle-income working Americans,” which PolitiFact said was “mostly false.” The media largely viewed this as an act of desperation, placing Clinton in the fraught position of having to fend off attacks from Sanders while avoiding the impression that she was too cruel to a well-liked underdog candidate. The campaign eventually chose to attack Sanders for his past criticism of Obama, a strategy that, disingenuous or not, won her points with the African-American voters who dominate the Democratic base in most of the South. Sanders lost, of course, and he eventually endorsed Clinton. However, the Clinton campaign considered his endorsement inauthentic because he refused to say her horrid slogan, “I’m With Her,” on camera (“That’s so phony,” Sanders reportedly said) and they chose to kill an October 2016 ad featuring his likeness.

Only Clinton could have known for sure why she wanted to be president, but she chose to let others decide for her.

Allen and Parnes also illustrate how the campaign’s ill-preparedness and overconfidence contributed to its loss to Trump in the general election. In a telling anecdote, Bill Clinton warned his wife’s campaign headquarters not to underestimate the right-wing populist uprising behind Brexit last June, but Robby Mook insisted that his data ran counter to anecdotal evidence. Nearly all of Clinton’s strategy was derived from Mook’s analytics, which assumed, based on polling and Obama’s two victories, that the Midwest was a Democratic stronghold and thus did not need to be attended to with on-the-ground campaigning. But the analytics were flawed in several ways. They relied too much on obsolete data, as Mook declined to pay for new polls in the last three weeks before the election. They overestimated the final voter turnout after seeing strong early voting numbers. Most crucially, they overestimated how many Midwestern counties that went for Obama would go for Clinton. While Trump concentrated on states where his pro-manufacturing message resonated most, Clinton attempted to expand her presumed bloc of blue states outward into North Carolina and Arizona, both of which she ended up losing.

The campaign was dealt another blow in October, when the contents of John Podesta’s Gmail account were posted to the web by WikiLeaks for public consumption. Most of the emails were innocuous but, again, the problem came not in their content but in how the Clinton campaign responded to them. Less-engaged voters conflated the Podesta dump and that summer’s DNC hack with Clinton’s leaked State Department emails from March, and the campaign hesitated to correct them and risk further publicizing the leaks. Instead, they responded to each email story by going negative on Trump, especially after the October 28 letter from FBI Director James Comey that announced a further investigation into Clinton’s emails. The campaign lacked for another strategy: “We had trouble moving numbers with a positive message,” an aide said.

Shattered leaves the reader seeing Clinton as an antihero. Every trace of sympathy is matched with schadenfreude. As the election results rolled in and it became clear that Mook’s beloved data was wrong, Clinton called Obama to apologize. Instead of facing a traumatized crowd anticipating her victory at the Javits Center in New York City, Clinton sent John Podesta. In hindsight, everything pointed to a Clinton loss. She was a status-quo candidate in an anti-establishment year. Her dysfunctional cadre of D.C.’s most insufferable wonks could not stop squabbling long enough to convince Americans that she deserved their votes. And so an opening was provided for the dumbest, fattest, oldest, least-qualified president in American history. As she prepared to read her concession speech, Clinton told her advisors “That was my last race.” Thank God for all of us.

Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs.

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