As he introduced Hillary Clinton for her concession speech late this morning, Tim Kaine said something important. After much of the political world spent the last week speculating on whether Donald Trump would actually concede if he lost or if he would continue to complain about the system being “rigged” against him and encourage his angry voters not to accept a loss, Kaine was pointed without mentioning Trump’s name.
“Nobody had to wonder about Hillary Clinton,” he said, “whether she would accept the outcome of an election in our beautiful democracy. Nobody had to ask that question. Nobody had to doubt it.” That’s true even though she appears to have gotten a majority of the vote, yet watched as the presidency went to Trump through the profoundly anti-democratic vehicle of the Electoral College.
And so Clinton gave a brief speech that was familiar to those who have seen concession speeches before, but still poignant as they usually are. While wishing Trump success and vowing to help him however she can, she echoed the themes of her campaign and the things that most distinguished her from her opponent:
“We’ve spent a year and a half bringing together millions of people from every corner of our country to say with one voice that we believe that the American dream is big enough for everyone, for people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities — for everyone.”
This was perhaps the core contrast between her and Trump. Just think back to the Democratic convention, that multi-hued celebration of American diversity and hopefulness. And contrast it with what Trump offered: a vision of the country and the world as a cruel, zero-sum contest where someone else’s success could only come at your expense, and if you have problems then the answer is to find someone to blame it on and punch them right in the face — or at least deport them and build a wall to keep people like them out.
In the coming days there will almost certainly be a truckload of recrimination aimed Hillary Clinton’s way, but let me offer a defense of her candidacy. I do so as someone who, until this year, wasn’t much of a fan. I always found her too conservative, too hawkish, too calculating. She’s done plenty over the years one can criticize, from her ties to Wall Street to her support of the Iraq War. I worked for one of her husband’s primary opponents in 1992, and supported Barack Obama over her in 2008. But when you look at the campaign she ran this year, you have to give her credit.
Though we seem to always be obliged to say that she isn’t a “natural” politician and she doesn’t have great oratorical skills, Clinton performed nearly as well as any candidate could have. She fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Bernie Sanders, mounted a terrific convention, raised more money than her opponent, and decisively won all three debates. Did she make the occasional mistake? Sure, but every candidate does, and she made far fewer than most.
But in the end, she was defeated by forces that were partly outside of her control. She couldn’t fend off a tide of sexism, or the resentment whites feel at a diversifying America. She watched helplessly as the FBI director, in an unprecedented move with a week to go in the campaign, injected himself into the race to deliver her opponent a gift-wrapped attack. She saw Russian hackers cooperate with Wikileaks to hack into her allies’ electronic accounts and release whatever damaging information they could find. She couldn’t stop Republican voter suppression efforts from bearing fruit in state after state.
But the emails, you say, the emails. Isn’t that all her fault? It may be hard at this point to step back and look at this issue objectively after so much has been said about it. But if you could manage that, you’d have to admit that the real story of her emails is that what was at worst a misdemeanor was blown up by her opponent and an eager news media into the crime of the century. Yes, it was a failure in judgment to expose her communications to potential hacking by not using the State Department system. But she was facing a man who refused to release his tax returns, who left a string of business grifts behind him, who has had over a dozen women testifying to the sexual predation that he admitted to on tape, who has run a foundation that appears to be an outright scam from top to bottom, who has employed undocumented workers and been charged with housing discrimination and cheats small business contractors out of the money he owes them, yet Hillary Clinton is supposed to be irredeemably corrupt because she used the wrong email address.
When you listen to Trump’s voters talk about the emails, you’re tempted to believe they’ve simply lost their minds. They’re livid, disgusted, enraged that she could get away with such a horrific crime. This didn’t come from their deep and longstanding concern for cybersecurity. For them, the emails became a vessel into which they could pour every ounce of hatred they felt at Clinton and whatever combination of resentments they brought to the campaign. Most of them couldn’t tell you what exactly she was supposed to have done wrong and why it’s so terribly disqualifying; all they knew was that it’s something about emails, and that bitch ought to be locked up.
And the media spent so much time and attention on it — always with the assertion that although there might not be anything nefarious or criminal there, it “raises questions” and so therefore had to get extended front-page treatment every time they could find an excuse to bring up — that this absurdly trivial matter became without question the single most important issue of the campaign. So Donald Trump, the most unqualified, ignorant, authoritarian, impulsive, reckless candidate in history is going to be president of the United States in part because, and let me repeat this, Hillary Clinton used the wrong email address.
Near the end of her concession speech, Clinton said this:
“I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks. Sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks too. This loss hurts. But please, never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
Again, to a degree this is the kind of thing you hear in every concession speech, a plea to the faithful not to give up the good fight. But it was also an acknowledgment that this woman who spent decades being pushed down, insulted, attacked, and derided, and kept crawling through the river of sewage that was poured in her path, will in the end be defined by her setbacks, none more than this latest and most consequential one. We can take from her story an instruction on perseverance and grit, or we can take some lessons that are not so inspiring. Yes, there are things she could have done differently all along the way. But given what she confronted, she did almost as well as anyone could have asked.