Saturday 16 December 2017

Unpicking an American shambles: how Hillary blew her run

Non-fiction: Shattered, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Crown €22.99

Hillary Clinton concedes defeat to Donald Trump on the night of last November's US presidential election
Hillary Clinton concedes defeat to Donald Trump on the night of last November's US presidential election
Donald Trump

David Blake-Knox

To begin with, it seemed there would be no contest. On one side, there was Hillary Clinton: a vastly experienced politician, who had held the highest offices of state, and who was well prepared to answer any question of policy detail that could be thrown at her. On the other side, there was "the Donald": a preening narcissist and reality TV star, who had never held any elected post, and who seemed incapable of completing a simple sentence, let alone formulating complex policies.

Clinton also had a national organisation, with scores of campaign offices, and was endorsed by dozens of celebrities and entrepreneurs with deep pockets. She had recruited a team of super-smart advisers and media consultants who were at the cutting edge of modern technology, and who seemed to know how that could work to her advantage. In comparison, Trump's campaign seemed risibly old school, with lots of barnstorming rallies but little presence on the ground. The Republican candidate also seemed unstable and out-of-control as he lurched from one self-inflicted crisis to another.

Clinton's advisers were confident that Trump's campaign would eventually implode, and that the presidency would be Hillary's for the taking.

How she managed to lose the election is one of the most extraordinary political stories of modern times. This is the subject of Shattered: a devastating critique of her campaign written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. These two journalists spent months on the campaign trail, interviewing Clinton aides on the understanding that none of the information they provided would be used until after the election.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Their book is sub-titled 'Inside Hillary Clinton's doomed campaign - and in several respects Clinton's fate was determined by her actions before she had even declared her candidacy. In particular, there was her use of a private server to send emails while she was Secretary of State under President Obama. This was strictly against government regulations, but Clinton was slow to realise its significance and the damage it could inflict on her campaign. As a result, it was months before she could be persuaded to address the issue.

When she finally spoke to the press, she insisted that she had never sent or received classified information through her private server: claims that were subsequently proved to be false. She thought she had buried the issue, but the scandal followed her through the Democratic primaries and into the general election. There were other actions that would also come back to haunt her. She had sought huge donations from questionable sources for the Clinton Foundation, and had accepted enormous fees for speeches she had delivered to Wall Street bankers.

This may explain why a sizeable section of the electorate concluded that she was neither honest nor trustworthy. It may also explain why the primaries for the Democratic candidacy proved to be a much harder fight than she had ever imagined, and why Bernie Sanders was able to mount such a formidable challenge for the nomination. As Allen and Parnes observe, Sanders was able to portray Clinton as corrupt, and the creature of elite circles in Washington and Wall Street. ("A quarter of a million bucks for one speech," Sanders would regularly remind his audiences, "Not a bad day's work.")

According to Allen and Parnes, Clinton should be held responsible for the failed strategy of her election campaign. She placed her confidence in Robby Mook, her ambitious young campaign manager, and, on the basis of this book, it would seem her faith in him was a serious misjudgment. Mook did not believe in the traditional means of conducting polls to assess popular opinion. Instead, he used data analytics to produce models that could apparently predict future voting intentions. On the basis of such predictions, he advised Clinton against visiting battleground states such as Wisconsin.

This was an unforced error that was to have catastrophic consequences for her campaign. There were, of course, other factors in her eventual defeat that are identified by the authors of this gripping account of the presidential race. Perhaps, the most obvious of these was Clinton's lofty dismissal of millions of US voters as a "basket of deplorables". However, what emerges from this closely-argued book is an even more fundamental problem. The political machine that was built around Clinton's candidacy was never able to answer the most basic question: why did she want to be president in the first place?

This did not mean that she had a shortage of policy goals - she had an abundance of them - but she lacked what Allen and Parnes term a clear and defining "narrative". Sometimes, it appeared that her supporters believed she should be president simply because it was her turn. It is also clear from this account that Clinton's chief advisers refused to believe that Trump could run an effective campaign.

By and large, the US media also underestimated Trump's campaigning abilities. He was constantly mocked for his use of Twitter, but it proved a highly efficient means of communication. Trump also showed extraordinary skill in setting the agenda for debate, and in orchestrating free coverage of his campaign. This media coverage was often negative, but it still helped to ensure that his basic messages were driven home. Above all, as Allen and Parnes make clear, Trump was able to tap into the mood for change in the American electorate that Hillary and her team had failed to appreciate.

Defeat came as a profound shock to Clinton. She had spent the last weeks of the campaign drawing up plans for her new administration, and preparing a victory speech. That speech was to be delivered at the Javits Center in Manhattan because of its most distinctive feature: a glass ceiling. Hillary was confident that it would be the glass ceiling of the presidency that would be shattered at the end of the night. Instead, it was her own political ambitions.

According to Allen and Parnes, Hillary was in denial as the election results rolled in, and had to be urged by President Obama to concede that Trump had won. She could not bring herself to make the concession that night, but eight days later, she spoke at a Children's Defense Fund event, and used some of the speech she had written for the victory that never happened.

In this speech, she imagined being able to talk to her deceased mother, and telling her that she had just won "more than 62 million votes for president of the United States". In the original draft, she had told her mother that "as hard as it might be to imagine" her daughter had just become the next president. This book explains some of the reasons that led to that revision.

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