Commentary: Clintons should start with themselves when playing blame game
‘Here’s the blunt truth that Bill Clinton and many other Democrats won’t face: The main reason they lost is that they had a poor candidate who ran a poor campaign. The old adage is true, that the buck stops at the president’s desk. That applies to campaigns, as well: The buck stops with the candidate. And her husband’
Bill Clinton was an elector from New York this year. After voting for his wife, Hillary, he explained her defeat: “We had the Russians and the FBI, and she couldn’t prevail against that.”
The former president was frustrated and disappointed, and he wasn’t alone. When you win the popular vote by 2.8 million, when a switch of 80,000 votes in three states would have swung the Electoral College your way, when you were absolutely convinced that victory was assured -- no wonder there’s so much frustration. No wonder the Democrats are playing the blame game.
They are trying to pin their defeat on a variety of outside factors: not only the Russkies and the Feds, but misguided reporters and misleading data, fake news and faithless voters. And in such a close election, all those variables certainly affected the outcome.
But here’s the blunt truth that Bill Clinton and many other Democrats won’t face: The main reason they lost is that they had a poor candidate who ran a poor campaign. The old adage is true, that the buck stops at the president’s desk. That applies to campaigns, as well: The buck stops with the candidate. And her husband.
Hillary is right in claiming there is a “vast right-wing conspiracy” ready to take down the Clintons. But repeatedly, over many years, the Clintons have handed their enemies ammunition to use against them.
Yes, the Russians hacked the computers of Clinton advisers, and yes, FBI Director James Comey seriously violated Justice Department norms by resurfacing questions about Clinton’s email practices so close to Election Day.
But in politics, stories resonate when they play into a pre-existing narrative, and the Clintons have acquired their reputation for deceptive behavior the old-fashioned way. They’ve earned it.
Bill Clinton was first dubbed “Slick Willie” in 1980, when he was running for re-election as governor of Arkansas. Paul Greenberg, the local columnist who coined the nickname, once told the Washington Post, “It doesn’t mean ‘liar.’ It means ‘dissembler.’ This is a particular subspecies of lying. It’s a very lawyerly, sophisticated, elastic lie.”
No one made Hillary set up a private email server when she became secretary of state, and then defend her decision with a series of “lawyerly, sophisticated and elastic” explanations. No one made the Clintons set up a foundation that was vulnerable to charges of influence peddling. No one forced Bill Clinton to meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch just as the Justice Department was investigating his wife’s handling of classified information, a self-inflicted wound in the “Slick Willie” tradition.
Exit polls reflect this long history of “elastic” explanations: 55 percent of voters viewed Hillary Clinton unfavorably; 61 percent said she was not honest and trustworthy. Sixty-three percent criticized her email practices, and those voters went 69 to 24 for Donald Trump.
Clinton compounded her problems with the way she campaigned. She candidly told the website Humans of New York, “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” and in private, she is a charming and witty person. But for the public Hillary, that perceived lack of warmth has been a political liability her whole career.
In hindsight, there were many warning signs that her campaign was in trouble. Long before the FBI or the Russians intruded, Bernie Sanders won more than 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries.
Jeb Bush’s crushing defeat should have sounded similar alarms, since Hillary and Jeb both depended heavily on lengthy resumes, large war chests and longstanding family connections -- all assets that proved far less effective this year than in previous cycles.
Both suffered from the same Trump sobriquet, “low energy,” and good sources inside Camp Clinton tell us that Hillary’s popular appeal was so tepid that aides had to book small venues to make her events look more crowded for the cameras.
Yet the Clinton campaign remained terminally complacent. They ignored all these signs because their data told them they were going to win. Even President Obama criticized her relaxed travel schedule on NPR: “If we’re not showing up, if we’re not in there making an argument, then we’re going to lose. And we can lose badly, and that’s what happened in this election.”
Trump did show up in Wisconsin and Michigan during the last week, and Clinton did not -- the final mistake in a long series of missteps. The Russians and the FBI have a lot to answer for, but if the Clintons are placing blame for their defeat, they should start with themselves.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.