The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I said Hillary Clinton had the ‘Worst Year in Washington.’ Here’s why.

Hillary Clinton. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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I write a weekly column awarding someone — usually a political figure — the "Worst Week in Washington." It's just what it sounds like. At the end of the year, I write one big piece about who had the "Worst Year in Washington." President Obama won it in 2013 and 2014.  This year, I named co-winners: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.


How could I compare Jeb(!) with Hillary, people screamed. One is barely relevant in the presidential race; the other is a clear front-runner for her party's nomination. Naming Clinton as a co-winner was either evidence of my "both sides do it" obsession or the latest example of me being just plain dumb.

Roughly 1 billion people sent me this tweet from ESPN's Nate Silver, which provided further proof of my (a) bias or (b) stupidity.

It's possible, of course, that I am biased, dumb or maybe a little bit of both. But let me explain why I picked Clinton and why I stand by it.

First of all, it's important to define the terms of "Worst Year." This "award" is not meant to be predictive. It's focused on the self-contained year and how a politician did in those 365 days. Obama had the Worst Year in 2013 and 2014; he had, arguably, his most successful year in office in 2015. By giving Clinton the Worst Year, I had no intent making some sort of statement about her chances of winning the primary or the general election in November; those odds, as Nate notes, are pretty darn good — and always have been.

Now, to Clinton herself. There's no question that her past few months have been quite good. Starting with her strong performance in the first Democratic presidential primary debate, which was quickly followed by Vice President Biden ruling out a run of his own and her 11-hour star turn in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Clinton turned the narrative of her campaign around.

But all of that started to happen in October — the 10th month of the year. The previous nine months were, if not disastrous for Clinton, certainly something well short of how she and her campaign dreamed they might play out.

The biggest problem was, of course, her botched handling of the revelation that she had exclusively used a private email address (and a private server) during her tenure as secretary of state — the first person in that job to use such a setup. Clinton and her team misunderstood the depth of the problem from the jump and spent the spring and summer fighting a fight — that this story mattered — that they had already lost. Her numbers dipped accordingly as the controversy over her email setup reinforced many of the things — paranoia, a sense that the rules don't apply to them, etc. — that people already didn't like about the Clintons.

As Clinton was clumsily trying to seal this self-inflicted wound, Bernie Sanders caught fire. The story of the summer and early fall were the crowds (and the cash) that were flocking to Sanders's cause. Suddenly Sanders was raising nearly as much money as Clinton. Suddenly he was ahead of her, consistently, in New Hampshire primary polling. Suddenly he looked like a legitimate threat to her.

Now, as I noted above, Clinton righted the ship in October and has effectively kept that momentum up heading into 2016. But that doesn't mean that 2015 was a great or even good year for her. She started 2015 as the biggest non-incumbent front-runner for a major party's nomination in modern history. No one — and I mean NO ONE — thought that Sanders, a self-professed socialist — would come anywhere near her in terms of fundraising or anything else.

Here's a look at polling in New Hampshire from Jan. 1 until Dec. 24, courtesy of Real Clear Politics.

And here's Iowa.

Yes, of course, the little-known Sanders had nowhere to go but up as Democrats — especially liberals — got to know him and his policies. And, yes, Clinton had nowhere to go but down once Democrats began to see her as a candidate again rather than as an eminence grise of the party. But ask yourself honestly: Did you think Sanders would be ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire and within single digits of her in Iowa at the end of this year? I doubt it. (I certainly didn't.)

Regardless of whether Clinton is in strong shape to be the Democratic nominee (she is) or the next president (she's got a slightly better than 50-50 shot), the past year exposed problems that will linger for her in both races.

The truth is that the lasting story of 2015 was how Clinton — or at least her candidacy — was less than we all thought it would be. The past year revealed that she had the same flaws that she had displayed in her unsuccessful 2008 campaign. That despite a total staff overhaul between those two races, the candidate remained the same — and that was the main reason for her struggles.

Look at Clinton's numbers on the question of whether the words "honest" or "trustworthy" apply to her.

There's no question that Clinton's struggles with the private email server are primarily responsible for the increased perception that she is not fundamentally honest or trustworthy. It's more debatable how much people's perception of Clinton will affect whether they vote for her in November, but you can be sure that whoever Republicans nominate will use the email controversy as proof point No. 1 that it's time to move beyond the Clintons.

Did Clinton have as bad a year as Bush(!)? No. And I made that point in my original piece. But an examination of the entirety of 2015 — not just the last two months of the year — suggests that she damaged herself enough to turn a coronation into a contest for the Democratic nomination and to hand Republicans a cudgel with which to attack her in the general election.