She’s back. Already. After his 2000 defeat Al Gore taught at a few universities. After 2012 Mitt Romney retreated into seclusion in La Jolla, California. Both men eschewed interviews. In defeat, they even looked different. Gore grew a beard. Romney stopped putting gel in his hair.
Not Hillary Clinton. Last Tuesday she returned to the political fray, sounding the same and looking the same. “If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview in New York.
“I was on the way to winning,” she explained, “until the combination of [FBI director] Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.” Readers will recall that Comey’s letter was addressed to Congress, and stated that he had reopened the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server.
There was, Clinton lamented, “unprecedented interference . . . from a foreign power whose leader is not a member of my fan club”, as well as “false equivalency” in the news media. Oh, and sexism. But never fear, Clinton fans. She reassured Amanpour that she is “back to being an activist citizen — and part of the resistance”.
There is no denying that Clinton is resistant — to acknowledging the real reasons she blew the election. No question that WikiLeaks and Comey contributed something to the victory of Donald Trump. But we still need to explain why a political outsider such as Trump could have got close enough to Clinton for such variables to hand him victory. Might it possibly have something to do with Clinton and the disastrous campaign she ran?
For those who like political post-mortems, I recommend the new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. Here’s what I learnt from it. Whereas Trump’s campaign was hastily improvised and based on a strategy of viral marketing, Clinton’s was over-managed to the point of dysfunction. It had far too many moving parts.
There was the “network of donors, friends, allies and advisers” dating back to her husband’s heyday. There was (until it was scrapped) Ready for Hillary, which “built grassroots enthusiasm [and] gave Clinton a network across the States”. There was also a “vast network of unpaid advisers and professional sceptics”, policy wonks with degrees from Yale Law School busily churning out bullet points. Lost in all the complexity was the simple reality that the candidate was connecting with key voters less effectively than Trump.
Everyone knew what Trump stood for: it was summed up in the slogan “Make America great again”. I vividly recall a dinner party on the affluent Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard at which my friend the Financial Times writer Gillian Tett had the temerity to ask what Clinton stood for. A leading Democratic donor snapped back that she clearly hadn’t read Hillary’s five-point plan for infrastructure investment. Right.
Clinton still hasn’t let go of the fact that she won the popular vote. Yes, but that’s not what matters in America, remember? A contest between an amateur politician and a veteran should never have been so close that fewer than 39,000 voters in three swing states — including one she never even visited, Wisconsin — could decide it by picking the amateur.
The acid test was provided on April 23 by a Washington Post-ABC poll, which asked people how they would vote if the election were held again. The answer? Trump 43, Clinton 40. So much for “Trump is a disaster”, the mantra chanted night and day by commentators who thought they had jobs in a Clinton administration. Yes, there is much wrong with Trump. But if we re-ran the election now, after 100 days of supposed disaster, he’d even win the popular vote. (That devastating fact didn’t get mentioned in the Post’s story until paragraph 26.)
There is, however, a deeper dimension to all this. When political parties enter a period of structural crisis, the default setting is to blame the leader. We see that in Britain today, where the Labour Party’s dismal performance in the local elections and its certain defeat in June 8’s general election are blamed on Jeremy Corbyn. We see it in France too, where François Hollande is held responsible for the Socialists’ recent miserable performance.
Another possibility must be considered. Maybe it is the parties themselves that are in decay and their useless leaders merely represent a more general uselessness. In an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, Pierpaolo Barbieri argues that the real story of western politics since the financial crisis has not been the rise of populism so much as the demise of social democracy: the “implosion of the centre left”.
Greece was first. The once-dominant Socialist party, Pasok, got just 6% of the vote in 2015. Then came Spain, where the Socialist Workers’ Party failed twice to unseat a weak conservative government. In Italy the great hope of the centre left, Matteo Renzi, fell from grace after losing a referendum. The once-mighty Dutch Labour Party, the PvdA, came seventh in March, with less than 6% of the vote. And today’s presidential run-off in France is going to be won by a candidate, Emmanuel Macron, who simply abandoned the Socialist brand, creating a new party with the inane name of En Marche!.
True, parties belonging to the EU-wide Party of European Socialists (PES) participate in the governments in 20 of the 28 member states, but they do so as junior coalition partners. Only eight heads of government and eight European commissioners are PES members.
American Democrats and British Labour supporters have essentially the same problem. Blame the leadership, by all means. But the reality is that the centre left — whether it calls itself progressive, Labour or social democrat — is in disarray. And it can’t be because all the candidates are terrible. It’s because social democracy is dead.
The old coalition between progressive elites and the proletariat is broken. The former are too liberal on immigration, too in love with multiculturalism. The latter loathe both. As David Goodhart shrewdly observed 13 years ago, a redistributive welfare state is viable only in an ethnically homogeneous society. He was vilified for saying it. He has been vindicated by events.
Hillary Clinton says she is writing another book. Please, no. Instead she should go home to Illinois and read one. I recommend Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. For her generation of centre-lefties, the choice is now between Somewhere and Nowhere.