10 April 2020


I keep thinking that I don't need to say this any more ... and it keeps coming up. So for my own convenience if for no other reason, here is my take on whether Hillary Clinton was a “good candidate” in 2016.

I am not talking here about Clinton's merits as a potential actual President. Nor am I talking about the tactical particulars of her 2016 campaign. Just whether she was a fundamentally strong candidate.

I submit that she would have been a great candidate for the race everyone thought 2016 was going to be, but the worst possible candidate for the race we actually got.

The lesson of the George W. Bush era was that a Democrat running for President has to face a movement conservative slime machine which can find bullshit to sling at anybody. After they slimed Bill Clinton for a real estate investment where he lost money, they perfected the art and slimed Al “Most Square Democrat” Gore for being a “liar” and slimed John “Sliver and Bronze Star” Kerry for being a coward.

Barack Obama slipped that punch by getting unprecedented Black turnout. But there is no going back to that well; even if Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King came back from the dead and ran on a ticket together, I don't think you could get the same numbers Obama brought out for his historic first.

So the Democrats needed a candidate who could counter the slime machine.

On that basis, Hillary Clinton was the best possible candidate. She had been facing the full force of that machine, under the most intense possible scrutiny, for decades. She knew all of their moves; she had already made every mistake you can and taken every punch they had and lived to tell the tale. Recall that they ground away at the Benghazi pseudoscandal for years, with Congressional subpoena power in their pocket, and couldn't make it stick.

Any other candidate was a risk, might turn out to have some unforeseen vulnerability which the conservative media machine would exploit. Not Hillary Clinton. She was the most thoroughly vetted candidate for oppo research of all time; no conservative was going to come up with new dirt on her, they had already tried everything.

If the Republican candidate for President in 2016 had been a movement conservative — Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or one of those guys — she would have crushed him like a bug.

But that was not the race we got.

Instead of a movement conservative, the Republicans had Donald Trump, buoyed on the enthusiasm of conservative voters disgusted with (or at least tired of) the movement conservatives whom Clinton had spent half a lifetime learning to fight.

To fight Trump, the Democratic candidate had to peel away a few conservatives and conservative-inclined “independents” who were unenthusiastic about Trump. They didn't even need those voters to switch sides, just to stay home.

Any other candidate could have done it. They could have played left, reaching for “conservatives” who actually like liberal policies but have a taste for conservative rhetoric. They could have played right, promising that they were moderate enough that four years of their Presidency wouldn't be too bad.

But Hillary Clinton could not. For two decades “President Hillary” had been conservative media's metonym for götterdämmerung, the worst nightmare imaginable. Anyone who gave the least bit of credence to conservative politics could not sit out an election with the Devil Herself on the slate.

That didn't make Clinton's loss a sure thing; recall that the race was a squeaker. But it did make Hillary Clinton a uniquely bad candidate for running against a unique Republican candidate named Donald J. Trump.