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Clinton’s Slow-Motion Strikeout

A new book renders Hillary Clinton's insider elitism in great detail, but fails to explain how that elitism translated into her electoral downfall.

Hillary Clinton in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 2016. Matt Johnson / Flickr

How I Lost by Hillary Clinton sets out to explain Clinton’s 2016 defeat in Clinton’s voice. The book presents a collection of Hillary Clinton’s speeches and emails, originally published by Wikileaks, annotated by journalist Joe Lauria.

Lauria relies on a series of addresses to Goldman Sachs and at various industry events, emails from the Wikileaks Podesta release from last fall, and public campaign statements to argue that Clinton was the victim of her own insider elitism — and that her elitism is to blame for her defeat.

Ultimately Lauria doesn’t make a compelling argument as to how Clinton became so widely disliked by Americans of all political stripes, and how that ultimately resulted in her defeat. But How I Lost succeeds in illustrating why she was widely disliked and distrusted, showing Clinton to be completely removed from ordinary Americans.

Clinton’s public persona has been so thoroughly managed and filtered through focus groups that it’s impossible to know how genuine her personality is, nor is it easy to grasp what she really believes politically.

But as these leaks show, the Democrat’s promises ran aground against the reality of her private statements. Voters instead chose the more fantastical promises of Donald Trump, a man who might actually be dumb enough to believe his own bullshit.

Still, as Lauria writes, “Clinton [did] not see the rise of right-wing populism in the US as being connected with the elitism she and her backers represented.”

Let Them Eat Cake

One of the long-running national criticisms of Clinton, stretching back to her run for the nomination in 2008, was that she was too tied into the inside-the-Beltway money pipeline.

It was true that Clinton was reflexively invested in the institutions she had protected for her entire public career. As she told the American people during an October 13, 2015, primary debate with Bernie Sanders and other opponents, every so often the US government needs to “save capitalism from itself.”

This tone-deaf approach to the aftermath of the economic crisis was nothing new. Clinton had delivered remarks to that effect two years earlier to Goldman Sachs in October 2013. Then, Clinton suggested the victims of the financial crash of 2008 misunderstood the situation completely. People were yelling at her everywhere she went, she said, because the conventional wisdom was wrong.

“Tellingly,” Lauria writes of those comments, “she names only two victims of Wall Street’s perfidy: Wall Street itself and government— not ordinary Americans.”

Clinton’s inability to conceive of new ideas and her lack of any interest in “turning the clock back or pointing fingers” at those who destroyed the economy meant she was exceptionally vulnerable to a challenge from someone like Sanders in the Democratic primary or Trump in the general election.

Clinton refused to accept the electorate’s desire for a new economic direction in a country where the majority of wealth recovery since the recession had gone to the top. People wanted a change, but Clinton wouldn’t — or couldn’t — give it to them.

“In a fiercely anti-establishment year for both parties, it was risky for the Democrats to put up a quintessential insider like Clinton up against the demagogue Trump,” Lauria writes.

The Perennial Insider

Voters felt Clinton was neither as “real” nor as honest as Trump. They believed she was part of the elite, and nothing she had done in the years leading up to the election disproved their view of the candidate.

Her insistence on giving speeches to the banking institutions that had destroyed the economy only years later for fees in the hundreds of thousands was not a good look. Especially not for someone considering another run at the White House.

And the existence of the private email server she had as secretary of state was a perfect example of Clinton’s arrogance and disdain for playing by the rules. Using the server was a blatant violation of protocol, but Clinton didn’t care.

The server, described by Clinton ally Neera Tanden as “fucking insane,” would be a constant theme on the campaign trail and an easy attack line from Trump (Sanders did nothing with the information during the primary, instead providing cover as the scandal grew. At a debate in October 2015, he told the crowd that he was sick of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails”).

Beyond simply exposing the candidate as careless with sensitive intelligence, the server revealed Clinton for a career Washington insider, unwilling to play by the same rules as the rest of the country.

Lauria hammers this point home by referring to the easily exploitable cellphone hacks exposed by the Snowden leaks.

If Clinton knew about that crack in the country’s cybersecurity armor, Lauria wonders, how could she have thought using a private server in her home was a good idea? And if she hadn’t been a member of the ruling elite, is there any doubt she would have faced grave legal consequences for her actions?

Of course not — and that’s the point. After all, no substantial punishment was given to General David Petraeus when he leaked classified information to his lover-biographer. Clinton was secure in the knowledge that her behavior would have no legal ramifications.

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

But there were political ramifications for Clinton. When Clinton’s documents were released by Wikileaks during October and November of 2016, the nation found itself staring into the insular world of a candidate representing the political and financial elite.

The existence of the server alongside the unrelated Podesta email leaks turned her “damn emails” into a maelstrom of corruption and scandal that the candidate would not be able to get out from under. Clinton found herself on the defensive — where she would remain for the majority of the campaign.

Lauria could have used the data he collected to great effect by providing some perspective how specifically the information leaks damaged the candidate.

In the end, however, Lauria isn’t able — or willing — to tie all the information together to make a cogent and compelling argument of the “how” behind the loss. He doesn’t draw the reader into the kind of campaign intrigue that Shattered, the recent gossipy tell-all from the trail, was able to deliver.

Instead, Lauria wants us to interpret the speeches and comments he compiles as the explanation for Clinton’s loss, full stop. Clinton’s candidacy and campaign ultimately collapsed, Lauria argues, because the personality at the center of it was so obviously disingenuous and corrupt.

“Clinton’s own words in this book portray an economic elitist and a foreign policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans,” Lauria writes.

But how that elitism translated into her electoral downfall is never fully explained. It simply is.

Clinton’s elitism played a role, and not an insubstantial role, in turning voters off her campaign. But by not connecting that elitism to the many other factors that helped determine the outcome of the election, How I Lost fails to live up to the promise of its title.

The fact that Trump was able to defeat Clinton handily in November surely speaks to a widespread dissatisfaction with the politics of the center. In 2016, voters wanted something different than the same old, same old of Washington. The defeat of Clinton’s campaign threw this dissatisfaction into harsh relief. This, at least, is one lesson we can take from How I Lost.