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Posted by on Jun 3, 2008 in Politics | 14 comments

Why Did Hillary Clinton Lose?

First, there was the mountain.

Hillary Clinton entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination sixteen months ago with higher negative ratings and lower approval ratings than any major candidate in history. While hardcore Democrats liked the former First Lady, other Americans were more wary.

Or even hostile. They were represented to me by the legion of progressive women anxious to vote for a Democratic nominee this year, who have told me, “I will never vote for Hillary Clinton. She can’t be trusted.”

Fair or not, these women and other voters, were part of the mountain Clinton tried to scale, hoping to win over just a few of these Hillaryskeptics, adding them to her core constituency to form a winning coalition for the Democratic nomination.

But that optimistic strategy ran into a second snag: the wall.

In 1968, Earl Mazo and Stephen Hess released their biography of Richard Nixon. No campaign puff job, it sought to comprehend and convey the real Nixon. It’s been forty years since I read the book and I no longer own it, but I recall that it began with a brief vignette from the years between Nixon’s disastrous run for California governor in 1962 and his bid for the presidency in 1968. A fire hit Nixon’s home and some enterprising news photographer arrived on the scene. He snapped a candid picture of the former Vice President. But, uncertain whether the photograph he’d captured in that pre-digital era was a good one, he asked Nixon to pose. Back in the dark room, the photographer was surprised to make a discovery. The candid shot looked posed, the posed shot looked spontaneous. Although Nixon’s true character would eventually catch up to him and bring him down ignominiously in 1974, he apparently had mastered the art of faux self-disclosure.

Clinton, to her credit, has never achieved such mastery.

But neither has she learned how to disclose something of herself, or at least a plausible version of herself, an indispensable talent for presidential candidates in this hypermediated age.

For reasons both well-known and unknown, Clinton has, in spite of all her tireless campaigning–and she has been the most tireless of presidential campaigners in 2008–remained ensconced behind a wall, wary of self-disclosure.

Perhaps if I had been hurt as many times as Clinton was in the years leading up to her presidential campaign, I too would have erected a wall, preventing people from getting a glimpse of my real self. Maybe I too would have, similar to Al Gore and Bill Richardson before her, invented stories about myself, maybe even tales of harrowing adventures or world-changing achievements like those told by Clinton this campaign season. But whatever its many sources, Clinton almost never lowered the wall.

It did happen once. On the eve of the New Hampshire, Clinton responded to a maelstrom of emotions and choked up while replying to a question from a woman, herself an Obama supporter, who sympathetically wanted to see and understand the human Clinton.

The New York senator was subjected to a hail of unfair criticisms from conservative talkers and from opponent John Edwards, claiming that her emotion proved that she lacked the toughness for the job of president. I personally suspected that commentator Camille Paglia came closer to the truth when she suggested that Clinton’s emotions had more to do with the shattering of her presidential ambitions than frustration with any abuse she may have endured or suspected, although the language of victimization has always figured largely in both her rhetoric and that of her husband.

But these are only surmisals. And, in any case, it’s dangerous to put too much stock in public displays of emotion, in spite of the fact that in the post-modern West, we have become addicted to displays of emotion. Nonetheless, Clinton is a cipher. The wall makes it difficult to know her.

And what of misogyny? How large a role has it played in Clinton’s loss of the nomination. Undoubtedly, in recent primaries, some unreconstructed sexists voted for Obama because Clinton is a woman, just as some whites voted for Clinton because Obama is black. That clash of bigotries is, probably, a sad wash that hurt Clinton no more than it did Obama, likely less.

It’s a tribute to Hillary Clinton’s tenacity and the millions of chits she and her husband had to collect that, in spite of the mountain and the wall, she came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

[This is being crossposted at my personal blog.]