Margolis: Clinton’s grudging admiration for Sanders

Clinton and Sanders
Hillary Clinton posted a Twitter photo of herself and Sen. Bernie Sanders after he officially endorsed her presidential run in July 2016.

So Hillary Clinton didn’t trash Sen. Bernie Sanders in her book “What Happened” after all.

Or at least her condemnations were balanced by her praise.

Sanders was “a disciplined and effective politician,” Clinton writes, who “tapped into powerful emotional currents in the electorate.”

Was that wistful admiration, if not envy, from a candidate who never managed to tap into those emotions?

“Something was missing, an emotional lift,” she wrote. That was about the preparations for her announcement speech in June 2015. But it could have been about her entire campaign.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that the earlier leaked excerpts from the book included only her negative comments about Sanders. Conflict is juicier than comity and the leakers wanted maximum publicity. Not until the whole book was available did anyone know that Clinton also expressed some admiration for Vermont’s not-quite-Democratic senator.

And even now, no one (except Kevin O’Connor right here at VTDigger.org) seems to have noticed. The rest of the journalistic world is so far ignoring anything about Clinton and Sanders except her denunciations and his (quite sensible) rejoinder that “our job now is really not to go backwards. It is to go forward.”

But when it comes to Hillary Clinton, what else is new? From the non-scandal of Whitewater to the more recent non-scandal of Benghazi, a faction of the body politic has insisted on interpreting her misfortunes as her crimes. Some day some intrepid scholar may try to explain the mysteries of “Hillary Clinton Derangement Symptom” which compels sufferers to convince themselves that this flawed (as is everyone) but decent person is … well, “the Antichrist,” as then-Congressman (now Interior Secretary) Ryan Zinke called her. (She recounts that when they met he told her he didn’t really mean it.)

Thus much of the early response to the book complained that Clinton was “whining,” blaming others – Sanders, former FBI Director James Comey, the press – for managing to lose to a candidate as divisive and unpopular as Donald Trump, instead of blaming herself.

Whininess is in the eye of the beholder. The book is often argumentative. Sanders, Comey and lots of news organizations come in for their share of disapproval. But so does she.

“I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made,” she wrote. “I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want — but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.”

Besides, it isn’t as though all her complaints are unwarranted. Hillary Clinton would almost surely be president today had Comey not broken precedent (and apparently Justice Department policy) as he assailed her “extremely careless” handling of her emails and then revived the issue 11 days before the election.

And what Sanders called her “damn emails” may have been the most overblown story in the history of the universe. Using her personal email server for official business – foolish as it may have been — broke no law and did no harm. But it got more news coverage than all the public policy issues facing the country combined.

Clinton still finds it hard to acknowledge that the way she mishandled the email story was one reason it got blown so bizarrely out of proportion. Here and elsewhere, her (justified?) distrust of reporters kept her from being candid even when candor was in her interest. Because she so often seemed as though she had something to hide, journalists kept trying to find that something even when it did not exist.

Perhaps because so many politicians and media figures were indeed out to get her, Clinton seems to think that all opposition to her is personal. So she says that because she and Sanders “agreed on so much … he had to resort to innuendo and impugning my character.”

That’s debatable. Sanders criticized Clinton for making speeches, at $250,000 a pop, to closed gatherings of wealthy Wall Streeters. She said his attacks “made it harder to unify progressives … paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.”

Perhaps they did. But Sanders never called Clinton “crooked.” He did question whether, having gotten all that money from rich folks, she could support policies they didn’t like. But that’s not innuendo. It’s politics, and she should have seen that kind of attack coming before she took those lucrative gigs.

Taking lucrative gigs, to be sure, is more American than apple pie. After leaving the State Department, Clinton “found that organizations and companies wanted me to come talk to them about my experiences and share my thoughts on the world – and they’d pay me a pretty penny to do it.”

And neither she nor any of her supposedly brilliant advisers realized how politically reckless it would be to accept those pretty pennies? Forget the nuanced, sophisticated analysis. A quarter of a million dollars for a speech is simply obscene. In fairness to Clinton, she’s hardly alone. Former office-holders, corporate bigwigs, football coaches and media celebrities receive obscene speaking fees all over the country.

But they’re not running for office. Clinton was. A politically astute person should have known not to make herself so obviously vulnerable, and despite all her experience, sophistication and knowledge, Clinton is often not politically astute.

She was not a good candidate. Otherwise, she would not have lost to Donald Trump. It’s true she would probably have won were it not for what Comey did, were it not for what the Russians did, perhaps were it not for Bernie Sanders. But it was her weakness as a candidate that made the race close enough for Comey and the Russians to matter.

A good Democratic candidate would have had a convincing – and an easily discernible – economic message. Bernie Sanders did. His may have been simplistic; lambasting “millionaires and billionaires” in and of itself doesn’t lead anywhere. But it’s comprehensible. Clinton had economic policy proposals – for Social Security, college tuitions, health care. But they never jelled, and her book does not really address this failure.

What emerges from Clinton’s book – a very interesting look at how a presidential campaign works – is that the divisions between her and Sanders are political, but also what might be called sociological.

For instance, if Clinton were really whiney, she would have spent a lot of time (she spends almost none) talking about how she won the popular vote. But she won’t do that because she is committed to the system, to convention, in this case to the Constitution, under which the Electoral College chooses the winner. So she accepts her loss.

She criticizes Sanders for not really being a Democrat. He isn’t and doesn’t care. She does. She’s “proud to be a Democrat.” It’s part of the system, the one she wants to work through, all the while carefully and methodically improving it.

The system is what Sanders and his supporters often disdain as “the establishment,” which they vow to overturn and replace, even if they never define it. She and Sanders, Clinton said, “had different views about the role of policy – a road map for governing versus a tool for mobilization.”

Sanders would no doubt put it differently, but there is something to what Clinton says. He wants to rock the political boat. She wants to row it better. It’s an old and continuing argument.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

Email: [email protected]

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