Was it All Hillary’s Fault?

A primer in the difference between tactics and strategy

A new book on the Clinton campaign called “Shattered” offers a supposed “insiders” view of what went wrong.

Before saying anything more, we might reflect for a moment on this approach to writing history.  There is little doubt that quite a few potential readers are still appalled by what happened in the last election. How could ANYONE lose to Donald Trump? Therefore, there is a temptation to argue that something was wrong with the Hillary Clinton campaign. It was their fault – her fault – that we got Trump. And the fault was something that should not have happened. In other words, Trump was elected because of tactical blunders that could have been avoided. That is what some folks want to hear and will pay money for to read in a book. And so it is no surprise that this is the message that is offered. The Hillary campaign screwed up.

Should we buy that argument?  At least one staffer disputes that the book gets the mood inside the campaign right And we might keep in mind that Hillary actually won the election as per the popular vote. If she had won the electoral college, this book probably would not have been written at all. Instead, we would have gotten a book about how clever Hillary was to rise above her 2008 loss to Barrack Obama.  Get my point?

But the fact is that Hillary lost the electoral college vote. And she did so because she and her campaign ignored certain signs that things were not ok in the upper midwest and Florida. She thought that there was a “democratic wall” there. Trump broke through that wall and squeaked out a victory by the tiniest of margins.

As Matt Taibbi writes, failing to see that danger was the result of poor strategy, not just tactics. Who is to blame for that? Matt thinks it is not just a Hillary issue, but a Washington beltway navel-gazing sort of thing. Bernie understood the strategic dynamic. Hillary didn’t. And I think Matt nails it. The campaign may have done all the right things from a tactical perspective, but did not have the right strategy that enabled them to see how to win.

When you boil it all down to the essentials, the real strategic problem may be the perception that candidates and campaigns lead popular opinion rather than follow it. Hillary thought she could lead the various factions that comprised the democratic party coalition. And she did lead those groups. Trump followed the public mood and gave lots of people exactly the kind of rhetoric that they wanted to hear. That strategy worked for Trump. Hillary’s strategy worked less well in this election.

So who can shape the public’s opinions? Ironically, experience shows that no one can do that unless they signal that they are listening. Policial dialogue is a two-way conversation. It is not just spouting off campaign slogans no matter what.   Hillary offered her message and I think she was clear about it — again, from a tactical point of view. It was just that that particular message was not the one that resonated enough in this particular election cycle.  She was an insider when lots of people wanted an outsider. And she could not fake being an outsider the way that Trump could fake it.

So in the end, who is to blame for Trump getting elected? Are voters to blame for buying into Trump’s phony-baloney campaign promises? Perhaps. Are conservative news outlets to blame for pumping up the anger over nothing? Perhaps. Are Russian hackers to blame for shifting the focus of news to fake stories? Perhaps. Is Hillary to blame for not being a better suited candidate for this setting? Perhaps.

These questions, I think, are less interesting than what we all will learn from this disaster — if anything.  Stay tuned.


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