The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton is less popular than Donald Trump because nobody will let the 2016 election end

Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton square off during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 9, 2016. (John Locher/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Most of the time, the candidates who lose presidential elections collect a consolation prize: grudging public respect. With the campaigns over, with the negative ads bundled up for a museum, the defeated candidates slowly edge back into public life. They teach college classes. They appear in Viagra ads. They star in Netflix documentaries. Within six months or so, people ask themselves: “Hey, why couldn't this loser have shown this side of himself last year? I'd have voted for him!”

Enter: Hillary Clinton, the first modern candidate to break this rule. According to Bloomberg's new polling, just 39 percent of Americans view Clinton favorably. One month ago, Gallup found 41 percent of Americans viewing her favorably.

“Seven months after her loss, Clinton's image remains near its record low since 1992 — even though prior losing candidates' images improved after their defeats,” Gallup marveled.

Why is this happening? Simple. Many people, including the president of the United States, refuse to let the 2016 election end. Few defeated candidates loom as large in our national conversation as Hillary Clinton, who has been some combination of famous and infamous since 1991. With that size comes an unusually lengthy half-life, as political actors who could move on have no idea how to frame their arguments without her.

President Trump on June 7 in Cincinnati boasted about his victory in Ohio in the 2016 presidential election. (Video: The Washington Post)

To run them down:

The president can't quit Hillary. This is fairly obvious — unusually for a victorious president, Trump cannot stop talking about the candidate he defeated. He rates the controversies facing his administration on whether the media did enough to cover controversies facing Clinton.

He explains that polls can't be trusted because, well, polls said he'd lose to Clinton. (Polls accurately predicted the popular vote last year.)

The president has the world's loudest megaphone, and as the collapse of the Affordable Care Act repeal push showed, Trump is more comfortable using that megaphone to blare about well-worn subjects than about complicated ones. The natural result is that the media, which must cover the president, reports on his deathless feud with Clinton. Speaking of …

Conservative media can't quit Hillary. The political rise of the Clinton family coincided with (and perhaps abetted) the renaissance of conservative media, an organism that feeds on more outrage than it sometimes seems possible to process. In the end — and Clinton's political career absolutely is over — a decades-long feud between Clinton and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” was a victory for team red.

Yet like Burgess Meredith losing his glasses after the atomic bomb, Republican-centric conservative media has no idea what to do without the Clintons. There are investigations of whether her campaign committed murder (it didn't); there are calls to probe whether former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch colluded with her (not really, but she did intervene to soften the blow of the email investigation); there are, as there were on Fox News this week, breathless updates on how the media should spend less time covering Trump and more time exhuming stories it ran about Clinton last year.

This is not just unprecedented; in most media, it's seen as hackish to obsess over a past administration like this. Sean Hannity himself had plenty of fun, in 2009, attacking Barack Obama for mentioning that he had inherited a recession from George W. Bush.

“Isn't it time for the president to retire that line and maybe start to take some responsibility for his own?” asked Hannity, who could not have known that in 2017 he would be devoting hour after hour of his TV show to deflecting blame from a Republican president.

The left can't quit (dunking on) Hillary. The 2016 primary was the purest ideological contest Democrats had seen in a generation, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) running — and doing better than expected — by demanding that the party move away from the donor class and toward democratic socialism. Clinton's defeat birthed the slogan of our time: “Bernie would have won.” But you can't make that point without reminding people of why he did not get a chance to go up against Trump — Hillary Clinton beat him.

Nobody clicks through headlines to read articles (trust me, I know), but Bloomberg's own story about its poll made it clear that some anti-Clinton sentiment came from Democrats who resented what happened last year. To wit:

“She did not feel authentic or genuine to me,” said Chris Leininger, 29, an insurance agent from Fountain Valley, California. “She was hard to like.”
Leininger, an independent voter who leans Democratic, said she found Sanders much more likable and with a better story to tell voters.
“I felt like there was a smugness and that she was just a politician who was called a Democrat, but could have been a Republican,” said poll participant Robert Taylor, 46, a second-grade teacher from suburban Chicago who voted for Clinton, but would have preferred Sanders as the Democratic nominee.

There's more to it, though. Clinton, correctly for the most part, was inexorably linked to the neoliberal wave that brought Democrats back to power in 1992. To purge that tendency from the party, the resurgent left is on the attack against Clinton. Even Democrats not terribly interested in moving the party, like Joe Biden, start their argument about the Democratic future by attacking Clinton for not focusing as closely on populist economic issues as Obama did in 2012.

There are some risks here. The Observer, which in its current incarnation spends a lot of time publishing clickbait for anti-Clinton progressives, went up with a story this week attacking Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) for the revealing sin of … meeting with Clinton donors. That's a large group of people, as the 2016 election was basically all-hands-on-deck for Democratic donors. But in the syntax of the Observer, “any politician that doesn’t hold corporate and special interests accountable only results in more corruption.” Like Clinton!

See what Hillary Clinton has been doing since the presidential election

Hillary Clinton appears on screen reading an excerpt from the book "Fire and Fury" during a skit at the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in New York. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)