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The Death Rattle of Clintonism

Hillary Clinton’s new memoir is a requiem for the politics that she and her husband have trumpeted for over 20 years. Who will tell her the old Democratic Party is dead?

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Hillary Clinton has written an obituary in the form of a campaign memoir, What Happened. Released Tuesday, Clinton’s What Happened recounts much of her career, though she’s mostly reliving the 2016 presidential election.

True to her book’s title, Clinton writes in wide-eyed disbelief that Bernie Sanders competitively contested the Democratic nomination; that a scandal regarding her office email etiquette at the U.S. State Department dogged her campaign to the bitter end; and that she lost the general election to a New York real estate mogul and cranky NBC game show host who spent the final month of the presidential campaign battling charges of misogyny and sexual assault. In the span of this memoir’s 512 pages, the indignities and absurdities of the presidential campaign cycle that resulted in Donald Trump’s victory are too many to count.

In anticipation of the book’s release, the press had billed What Happened as Clinton’s revenge mission against her two main campaign rivals. Two weeks ago, media circulated early leaks from the book, which included several passages wherein Clinton unloads on Sanders, the old Vermont socialist who frequently excoriated Clinton for her campaign’s ties to Wall Street; he was a spoiler candidate who loudly challenged Clinton’s cautious style of politics.

In her rundown of the primaries, Clinton describes Sanders’s opposition as “profoundly frustrating,” both because she didn’t anticipate his success, and also because she found his politics to be idealistic and amorphous. “For Bernie,” Clinton writes, “policy was about inspiring a mass movement and forcing a conversation about the Democratic Party’s values and priorities. By that standard, I would say he succeeded.” But there is bitterness in Clinton’s appraisals of Sanders, which sound similar to Clinton’s old, cynical assessments of her former rival, Barack Obama, in 2008.

Worse yet, the Sanders discussion recalls Bill Clinton’s many indignant overtures, the worst of which imperiled his previously good standing with black voters while further risking obsolescence, in the name of his wife’s disastrous ’08 campaign. In those primaries, which pitted the early front-runner Hillary against the freshman Illinois senator Obama, Clinton seemed to resent Obama’s impractical grandeur, and her resentments echoed through to her successful campaign against Sanders eight years later.

“I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them,” Clinton writes. “When you don’t deliver, it will make people even more cynical about government.” Clinton goes on to summarize Sanders’s campaign rhetoric as a vapid joke; she characterizes his signature pursuits—universal health care, banking reform—as promising to give every American a pony. Flatly describing socialism as “wrong for America,” Clinton describes Sanders’s campaign as little more than rhetorical petulance from a dormitory leftist. “Bernie routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist who couldn’t be trusted,” Clinton recalls.

Hillary Clinton Signs Copies Of Her New Book 'What Happened' In NYC Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The indignity that seems to haunt Clinton throughout the book, and also in her recent interviews, is the suggestion inherent in the defunct Sanders campaign that Democrats may have found some other cause apart from centrism, and viable strategies other than Clintonism. Clintonism, the small-ball, centrist, transactional politics developed by Hillary and Bill Clinton in tandem throughout their respective careers, has displaced the Democratic Party’s legacy of broad social forms, from the New Deal through the Great Society, with only the most marginal progress in the way of tax rates, consumer protections, and civil rights. Clintonism has defined the Democratic Party since 1993, and its astounding failure to counteract the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right is a crisis that strikes at the heart of the Democratic identity going forward.

“I am proud to be a Democrat,” Clinton writes, “and I wish Bernie were, too.” Clinton’s fealty to the Democratic brand is quaint given how dysfunctional and mossy the party can seem in contrast to the Republicans. But, for better or worse, the Clintons essentially have been the Democratic Party for over 20 years, and they are nothing without their authority and credibility within it.

Sanders, on the other hand, is an independent socialist who has caucused with Democrats throughout his 26 years in Congress but never changed his party affiliation, not even when he ran for president as a Democrat. Clinton will never let Sanders live this down. Still, where her critics and supporters alike will read the book’s harshest passages about the primary and detect nothing but contempt for Sanders and his fans, Clinton’s sense of injury is bigger than her feud with Sanders. “I think we operate better when we’re between center-right and center-left,” she recently told Vox, elaborating on her bland outlook on the Resistance, which she outlines in the book. “Until recently, that’s where most Americans were.” That’s the Clintonism speaking, and it has never sounded so obviously out of step with a Democratic Party that is still fighting Paul Ryan’s tax reforms—and now also contending with the rise of authoritarianism. Those words, and this book, are the language of a badly flagging standard-bearer who has, frankly, run out of time.

In 1970, Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton met at Yale Law School. We’ve known them as a political power couple since the 1990s, but their first time working together in presidential politics came in 1972, when Rodham and Clinton both worked in Texas for South Dakota senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign against President Nixon. McGovern was an anti-war crusader, and his nomination marked a high point of Democratic resistance to U.S. military operations in Vietnam. Rodham, raised a Republican in a Chicago suburb, attended Wellesley and gravitated toward anti-war activism and the civil rights movement from 1968 onward. Meanwhile, Clinton had already gotten his start working in Democratic politics while he attended Georgetown University, clerking for his home state Senator J. William Fulbright on the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Neither Rodham nor Clinton identified as hard-core leftists; “[Rodham] was very much committed to working within the political system,” one Wellesley classmate recalled to The New York Times a decade ago. But Rodham and Clinton both touted McGovern, whose left-wing volley against Nixon was a watershed moment in anti-war politics at the national-party level. Unfortunately, McGovern’s candidacy also marked the death of firebrand liberals at the presidential level. On November 7, 1972, Nixon ensured the right wing’s ascendancy with 60 percent of the popular vote, humiliating McGovern by winning every state in the Electoral College save for Massachusetts. To witness the final months of the McGovern campaign, as the Clintons did ringside, was to witness a disastrous end of the Democratic Party’s liberal idealism until Obama wagered his political legacy on health care reform in 2009.

In the 1960s, Nixon and Barry Goldwater created the modern Republican Party. They drafted its dark obsessions with war and crime at the ’64 GOP convention in San Francisco and the 68 GOP convention in Miami. And McGovern’s loss has haunted the Democratic Party at almost every turn in the decades that followed, with party leaders and favored candidates inclined to pitch themselves as moderates, hoping to win back white, rural, and suburban voters who abandoned the party in the 1970s during Nixon’s law-and-order presidency. Writing for The Atlantic, the journalist Peter Beinart tracks the post-war smear campaign that Republicans launched against “liberals” and “liberalism” in contemporary discourse. “‘Liberal’ became a dirty word at a time of soaring crime, when Democrats came under attack for allegedly prioritizing the rights of criminals over the safety of everyone else,” Beinart writes. “Finally, ‘liberal’ grew associated with weakness during a humiliating phase in American foreign policy: when America’s defeat in Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis dealt painful blows to national pride.” Following both these humiliations of the 1960s and ’70s, the Democrats spent the entire 1980s out of the White House. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won Nixonian landslides against Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. In the Senate, too, liberals folded.

Only after then–Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, a hippie turned yuppie and peacenik turned domestic policy wonk, beat California’s dear liberal (and current) governor Jerry Brown for the Democratic nomination in 1992 did the Democratic Party reclaim the executive branch. Clinton did not run on social upheaval or market revolutions; he simply promised tax-based economic remedies in the midst of a recession. If a reformist, anti-war leftism proffered by McGovern spelled the Democratic Party’s obsolescence in decades prior, then the Clintonism of the ’90s seemed to ensure that Democrats would never again run so dramatically aground at the left extremes of the American political imagination. Since then, the Democratic Party has always erred to the right, and the perpetual dissatisfaction of its left wing would, indeed, become a strange point of pride in partisan negotiations.

Bill Clinton recaptured the White House from the Reagan-Bush axis in the 1990s and held it until the end of the decade. To understand how Clintonism accomplished such a resurgence, consider the signature policy achievements of Clinton’s presidency: NAFTA, welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1994 crime bill, telecom deregulation, and the federal assault weapons ban. Save for the assault weapons ban, all these achievements were Republican policy pursuits that Clinton simply co-opted. Clinton is remembered as a Democratic champion not because he was a great liberal, but because he was a winner. The 1990s weren’t a boon to liberalism. They were a winning time for Democrats, though. For liberals, Clintonism was a way through the political wilderness, but never quite out of it, because within Clintonism, there is no promised land.

Hillary Clinton Addresses American Library Association Conference In Chicago Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

As a first lady with an unprecedented public policy portfolio, Hillary fronted the Clinton administration’s ill-fated attempt at health care reform beginning in September 1993. The legislation, mythologized as “Hillarycare” by its opponents (though at the time it was not referred to with that phrase), would have revolutionized the private U.S. health care market to achieve universal enrollment. Privately, Republicans feared that the legislation would make way for “the largest federal entitlement program since Social Security,” which would have been a groundbreaking achievement for American liberalism. While Hillary Clinton presented the administration’s health care proposal to a Congress led by Democrats, a well-funded, conservative coalition eviscerated the plan in the press and advertisements.

A year after Bill and Hillary Clinton formed the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, their legislation folded in the face of criticism, competing proposals, and a looming GOP takeover of Congress. That defeat would be the last time Hillary Clinton would champion a liberal project as massive and sweeping as universal health care. From 1994 onward, Clintonism became a strictly incrementalist political strategy, one less concerned with producing great improvements in the quality of American life, and more so concerned with producing wins. In 2016, Clintonism lost. The right has decided that it wants authoritarian nationalism, and the left has decided that it simply wants better.

Hillary Clinton’s recollection of the 2016 presidential campaign is filled with Clintonism’s wrecked premises. “Bernie’s presence in the race meant that I had less space and credibility to run the kind of feisty progressive campaign that had helped me win Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2008,” Clinton writes. It’s a deeply Clintonian sentence that defies practical interpretation: How, exactly, did Sanders’s campaign force Clinton to comprise her “credibility” simply by his existing and sharing news cycles with her for a year? It makes sense only within the shameful logic of Clintonism, which holds that the truly progressive arm of the Democratic party is its own embarrassment, and the louder liberalism gets, the further one must stand from it. In Clinton’s account, the very “presence” of just one, alternative, leftist candidate in the Democratic field necessarily drove her to the political center with regard to health care, immigration, and the federal minimum wage. But Clinton maintains that Sanders, at best, stood only slightly to her left. “I think most of the perceived drama between the center-left and the left-left on this question is overblown,” she writes. “We’re far closer together than any of us are to Trump and the Republicans, who just keep getting more extreme. Bernie Sanders and I wrote the 2016 platform together, and he called it the most progressive one in history.” The core question of the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries is whether Clinton would have ever produced such a platform on her own.

Clinton will likely end her presidential ambitions with her current, hard-fought, 0-2 record. On Sunday, she told CBS anchor Jane Pauley, “I am done with being a candidate,” though she added that she will remain active and visible “because I literally believe that our country’s future is at stake.” But while Sanders and his allies in the Senate, including the rising star California legislator Kamala Harris, now push for single-payer health care in the Senate, Clinton is active and visible only insomuch as she is rehashing last year’s politics in order to sell books and safeguard her legacy. (She’s also peeked her head out to promote a strange, divisive website called Verrit, launched by Clinton’s former campaign aide Peter Daou.) “I understand why some people don’t want to hear anything that sounds remotely like ‘relitigating’ the election. People are tired. Some are traumatized,” Clinton writes. “I get all that. But it’s important that we understand what really happened. Because that’s the only way we can stop it from happening again.”

The “it,” in Clinton’s account, is a complicated series of misfortunes that all deserve their own addendum to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—Russian hackers, misogyny, James Comey, the alt-right, “deplorables,” etc.; the song goes on—but whatever you believe to be the root cause of her defeat (Clinton says your guess is as good as hers), I doubt Clinton will have much say in what happens next. In 2008, Clinton told The New York Times that she “never seriously considered a single-payer system” for U.S. health care. In a 2016 debate with Sanders, Clinton characterized single-payer as a threat to Obamacare. In 2017, Sanders and 16 Senate cosponsors—including potential 2020 presidential contenders such as Harris, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren—are pushing single-payer health care legislation without her.