Review: What Happened


What Happened by Hillary Clinton

It was no surprise that Hillary’s Clinton’s latest book was greeted by many as yet another attempt by a calculating politician to deflect blame and reposition her reputation. Here was the former Democratic nominee, not even a year removed from a shocking electoral defeat that by all accounts should not have happened and that has imperiled American democracy, reinserting herself into the national discourse to yet again defend and explain her values and choices. Always opposed to losers, frequently distrusting of Clintons, and often unsympathetic to women, political pundits focused their reviews on whether Clinton sufficiently accepted responsibility for her election loss, seeking their pound of flesh. In a media landscape that allowed vague suspicions about Clinton’s motives and morals to reach equal footing with the daily outrages of Donald Trump, it was all too easy to dismiss Clinton as the worst interpreter of “what happened.”

In many ways, the critical reception proved the unstated thesis of the book. That once set, narratives never die. And for Hillary Clinton—a smart, ambitious, private, and independent woman—that narrative has always been that there was something lurking behind the curtain even when she was most exposed. Fortunately, then, Clinton didn’t write What Happened for those viewing her through that prism. Instead, she set out to expose that prism and show its effect on both the campaign and her public life. Continue reading


The Politics of Feeling

The seemingly pointless infighting between professional Democrats and its grassroots activists over the direction of the party has many liberals concerned. If the party is united in opposition to President Trump’s agenda, his controversial executive and judicial appointments, and his very presence in the Oval Office, why would its members turn to infighting and bickering about the way forward? After all, it’s not just Trump that connects Democrats of all stripes. Even after a deeply disappointing electoral defeat in November and the predictable media handwringing about out-of-touch, Eastern elites that followed, there has been surprisingly little dissent from the basic tenets of party orthodoxy as laid out in the 2016 Democratic platform. Protecting health reform, reducing income inequality, increasing taxes on the wealthy, combating climate change, passing criminal justice reform, expanding worker protections and LGBT rights. There remains no serious divergence from this agenda.

And yet…things are not so harmonious. Continue reading

A Disastrous Double-Standard

As the remarkable story of President Trump’s secret ties to Russia unfolds each day, it is hard not to think back to the day last summer where a press conference about a different investigation, with a different potential target, and an undoubtedly different outcome became the center of the political universe. On July 5, 2016, FBI director James Comey took to his high podium to deliver a statement about his organization’s criminal investigation into potential mishandling of classified information by former Secretary of State and then-presumptive Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. As Comey himself admitted, it was “an unusual statement.” He both gave “more detail about our process than [he] ordinarily would” while “not coordinat[ing] or review[ing] [his] statement in any way with the Department of Justice.” Intense public interest and importance, he said, justified his departure from protocol.

Comey’s statement was unusual for another reason. Despite finding no deceit or destruction of evidence, finding no intent to disclose classified information, and ultimately concluding that Clinton sent or received a mere 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains (plus six others found by examining e-mail fragments) containing classified information over a private server, he felt the need to publicly chastise his investigation target. Although determining that no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges based on such meager evidence of intentional mishandling of classified information, Comey took time to make the damaging and debatable charge that Clinton had been “extremely careless” and speculatively ruminated that it was “possible” a hostile foreign actor had accessed Clinton’s communications.

Now we know that just weeks after Comey made these public statements about a confidential investigation, his FBI was actively investigating the far more explosive possibility that Clinton’s Republican opponent in the presidential race was intentionally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to influence the election in his favor. Continue reading

Not as Wrong as it Seems

The results of this presidential election should inspire reflection from political prognosticators everywhere. They were wrong. The conventional wisdom, the counter-conventional wisdom, all of it. The collective reassurance that, no, this couldn’t happen here was mere wishful thinking. Going forward, greater caution is warranted.

At the same time, let’s not make this something it’s not. The levers of power may be held according to the binary system of wins and losses, but the story of an election—and its portent for the future—is much fuller. Democrats gained six seats in the House and two in the Senate, after winning eight House and two Senate seats in 2012. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton is just 158,987 votes short of Barack Obama’s vote total from 2012 and won the popular vote by more than 2.84 million votes—a full 2.1%. With her lead likely to grow slightly larger over the next week, she will at worst be only 1.8% short of Barack Obama’s reelection margin of 3.9% in 2012, just a few tenths of point behind George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection margin, and with a larger margin than ten different presidents (not including Donald Trump). Spare me the self-flagellation. Continue reading

How We Hate

We are now just days away from accomplishing the seemingly forgotten purpose of this presidential campaign—electing a president. It has been a wild race of unprecedented developments. Some were welcome (the nomination of the first woman to lead a major political party), others not so much (pretty much the rest of it). We started by discussing whether Mexican-Americans were predisposed to rape and murder, and are now embroiled in Russian intrigue, sexual assault allegations, and the reemergence of an investigation into the former Secretary of State’s electronic communication storage and transmittal practices, thanks to a laptop seized from a disgraced former congressman caught sexting a minor. But if this sixteen-month whirlwind of busted hopes and broken norms seems far too like the story arc of a House of Cards season, two baseline facts deserve attention in these final days. The two candidates are very, very different, and yet are nearly equally disliked. Continue reading

The House is in Play

The most under-covered story of this endless election is the battle for the House of Representatives. While it’s true that based on what we know right now Democrats are unlikely to take back the House, that statistical likelihood is being covered as a near certainty. Yet a shift of a few points in the national mood in the Democrats’ direction could completely reshape the post-election political scene. Considering that control of Congress is the difference between whether a President Clinton could enact her far reaching agenda or become further entangled in the legislative morass of the last six years, the possibility of such a shift is of major importance. If Democratic turnout is higher and Republican enthusiasm is tepid—and there is real reason to think it will be—the greatest drama as election night turns into the small hours of the early morning might be over control of the House.

The national polling data and the current state of play in races around the country suggest that Democrats will gain seats in the lower chamber, but fall short of the 30 pickups needed to regain control. Yet, the amount of coverage national media outlets and respected nonpartisan congressional analysts have given to the simple possibility that Democrats could take the House is far too low. Even though the national polling averages have remained steady in this election, the amount of uncertainty in the polls is far higher than four or eight years ago. A landslide victory at the presidential level would likely push Democratic House gains into the 25-35 seat range. That scenario is very much in play. Continue reading

The Lowest Point

Shortly after the second presidential debate ended, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway gave an interview to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. As their conversation drew to a close, Blitzer noted that CNN’s post-debate polling had Hillary Clinton winning the encounter, 57%-34%. “I watched a different debate but thank you,” Conway tartly replied. While Conway may have felt far differently about the debate than the public, her general sentiment wasn’t wrong (only the logic behind it was). TV news commentators watched the ninety-minute exchange and saw something far different from the rest of us. The operative phrase for the night was “Trump stopped the bleeding,” as this off-hand and misguided comment spread like wildfire throughout the punditocracy. That exact phrase was repeated over and over again on television and in print media. Apparently commentators were grading on a curve and refusing to deduct for lies and incoherence. But even applying such a forgiving standard, the analysts were indeed watching a different debate. Those ninety minutes in St. Louis, Missouri did not staunch Trump’s downfall. Instead, they hastened it toward the nadir of this already depressing election. Continue reading

Cool and Collected

For all the talk of Donald Trump’s primetime disintegration last Monday, the first presidential debate resulted in a clear win for Hillary Clinton for a less obvious reason. Yes, Trump was his typical boorish, mendacious, and uninformed self. It’s true that his lack of preparation and hateful rhetoric were bound to leave voters shocked and disgusted in what was for many their first lengthy exposure to it. And as described here yesterday, Trump’s complete inability to resist provocation led him astray time and again. Yet, left mostly unnoticed and underappreciated in this telling of Trump’s first one-on-one clash with Clinton, however, was how perfectly composed Clinton was in dealing with the potential stumbling blocks laid by her opponent and by the moderator Lester Holt.

It’s not as if Clinton was on the attack all night. She, too, is subject to biting critiques from her opponent and victim of unfavorable public perception of many aspects of her past. Unlike Trump, however, she did not feel the need to use her ninety-minute debate appearance as a means to vanquish every foe and right every wrong. She had goals and a strategy for achieving them. And she stuck to it.

Even with Trump’s run-on sentences and bizarre defenses, the narrative that emerged from Monday’s contest might have been far different had Clinton felt the unquenchable need to respond to every goading insinuation. A botched answer on emails or the crime bill or her record as Secretary of State—even if it answered a misleading and unjust attack—might have led debate coverage and swung the dial back in Trump’s direction. Her willingness to take unfair flak and move on has long been one of Clinton’s defining features, but it shone through in her debate performance. Continue reading

Finger on the Impulse

Even before Donald Trump’s epic twitter meltdown in the early morning hours today—where he tripled-down on his misogynistic comments about former beauty queen Alicia Machado, and in doing so created the first-ever news reports with the words “presidential nominee” and “sex tape” in the same sentence—it was very clear that the GOP standard-bearer had absolutely no impulse control. Whether it was leaning into fights with a federal judge over his Mexican heritage or a Gold Star family over their religion, or repeatedly defending his retweeting of an anti-Semitic meme, Trump has shown that he cannot resist regaining the perceived upper hand, no matter how great the political damage or how shameful the behavior necessary to do so. This pattern is what Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall called “the fever inside,” explaining: “Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination. There are dominators and the dominated. No in between. Every attack he receives, every ego injury must be answered, rebalanced with some new aggression to reassert dominance. These efforts are often wildly self-destructive. We’ve seen the pattern again and again.” It’s the character defect Hillary Clinton highlighted in her convention speech when she proclaimed: “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

But as damaging as each of Trump’s self-inflicted controversies have been, nothing has been as harmful to his presidential campaign than the first presidential debate. More than 80 million people tuned in on Monday—many of whom were focusing on the candidates in a meaningful way for the first time—and what they saw was one candidate of presidential mettle and another ill-suited to managing even his own twitter account. As we approach the final month of the presidential campaign, it’s worth examining Trump’s inability to resist taking the bait during the first debate. And it’s also worth considering how when faced with similar temptations, Clinton chose to absorb the smaller attacks rather than lash back and risk greater injury. The transcript is telling. Continue reading

Ignorance and Understanding

There is a terrible feeling of helplessness when others deny your undeniable truth. There are no good choices. You can withdraw and deflect to keep the peace; though how do you sit silently by as the voices blaring on the television screen or bleating in line at the grocery store contradict your reality? You can viciously attack the intelligence and motives of those in opposition, yet how does that persuade or provide the self-reflection necessary for open-minded reevaluation when confronted with new information? If you gently offer your pointed critiques in a civil give-and-take—the usual prescription—stifling your screams of indignation is a monumental task.

It’s really no wonder that electoral politics is marked by two distinct phenomena: self-sorting and withdrawal. Unlike cultural or lifestyle choices, political opinions have an inherent urgency. It’s easier to comfortably disagree with someone about a band or a restaurant. It’s harder to argue that a particular healthcare policy could save thousands of lives and then casually shrug when your fellow citizens make a different choice. The latter debate is emotional. It takes caring. And often, when the world seems—to your mind—disgustingly indifferent to the basic truths central to a fair and just society, dissent is too much to bear. This is the root of the partisan retreat to like-minded media or the comforting self-assurance of those who insist elections don’t matter or both parties are the same. There is no dilemma when no one disagrees with you or if you don’t care that they do.

All of this is true in every election season. In 2016, however, as the absurdity reaches a crescendo, dealing with unfathomable disagreement seems more fundamental. Because if there’s one defining feature of this presidential election, it is the staggering amount of pure, unbridled ignorance on display. Continue reading