Few Americans knew the voters who rejected Hillary Clinton better than her husband. He lived among them growing up, and then studied them with a fanatical intensity during his political rise.
But now, with any notion of a dynasty dead and gone, one explanation for the stunning political demise of the Clintons might be the extent to which they moved away from a middle-American sensibility into the realm of the coastal elite, from McDonald’s to veganism to put it in symbolic terms, making it harder for Hillary to bridge the nation’s yawning social divide. This rendered her vulnerable even to the most unlikely opponent, a wealthy Manhattan real estate developer who had nothing in common with many of his voters except his uncanny ability to speak their language of discontent.
Bill Clinton grew up in rural southwest Arkansas. His mother called him Bubba and thought of him as her Elvis. Their neighbors were mostly white, had little money or clout, and felt alienated from the social and economic changes rumbling through the outside world and headed their way.
These same citizens later dealt the brash young Bill Clinton an unsettling early defeat, tossing him and his wife, Hillary, out of the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1980 after a single two-year term. They thought he was too much of an elitist, that his wife was not one of them, but an independent feminist who wouldn’t even take his last name, and that his policies ignored their daily struggles. What incited their rage was a state tax on license plates based on the weight instead of price of a vehicle — making a farmer with a heavy, old pickup truck pay more than a rich city slicker driving a Porsche.
His opponent, Frank White, had been dismissed as a lightweight know-nothing who would drag Arkansas back into the 19th century, but White found a way to turn that argument on its end, saying he would return the state to its gloried past. His message connected with the frustrations of many white voters — an early variation of what Donald Trump would do to Hillary a full 36 years later with his evocation of a long lost great American past that only he could restore. Clinton became the youngest ex-governor in American history, and the Clinton era was thought to be over not soon after it had begun.
Bill and Hillary drew on the lessons of that defeat in constructing their comeback in Arkansas and their rise to national prominence, building an unprecedented political partnership that carried them through a decades-long cycle of loss and recovery and mostly success until it all came crashing down at long last in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They focused relentlessly on the economy and found ways to communicate directly with the electorate, creating a permanent campaign. A shared pragmatism that had been evident since they first met at Yale Law School in 1971 went into overdrive. Losing power so early shaped everything they would do from then on, their ambition at times overtaking their ideals in the fight to survive. They believed that in the name of doing good, the ends could at times justify the means.
In the four terms Bill served as governor after returning to power in 1982, he and his wife constantly tried to figure out how to keep going even as the country turned more conservative in the Reagan era. That became the essence of his successful 1992 presidential campaign, when he relied on pollster Stan Greenberg’s seminal study of Reagan Democrats in Michigan’s Macomb County, the blue-collar suburban region north of Detroit populated largely by white men who felt adrift from the cultural changes in America and struggling from the decline of manufacturing jobs. There and in similar areas, Clinton knew how to take his old Bubba personality and combine it with a relentless focus on “the economy, stupid” to make his winning case.
He used that ability again later in the White House to keep his connection with the white working class, among other ways by opposing same-sex marriage and supporting reform of a welfare system that many wrongly believed was aimed primarily at helping poor minorities.
Two decades later, when Hillary tried to reclaim the Clinton legend, everything had changed. The country and the candidate. She was no Bubba, but maybe he wasn’t anymore, either. By the time she won the Democratic nomination, she had more experience than any candidate in modern times, but also as much baggage. She had been investigated by a special prosecutor, called to appear alone before a federal grand jury, grilled for 11 hours straight by a hostile congressional committee and probed by the FBI. She was such an established persona in American culture that a first name sufficed. Hillary. Singular first names usually evoke singular identities, but not in her case. Despite all that she has done and been, or perhaps because of it, her identity remains not singular but kaleidoscopic, with ever-changing shards of opaqueness and clarity.
Many of her problems could be traced to her husband in ways large and small. She suffered both in comparison with him and because of him.
As a campaigner, he was magnetic and extemporaneous, she was studied and practiced. It had been that way from the beginning. In one of their first tag-team efforts, as partners in a mock Prize Trial run by the Barristers Union at Yale, Bill was soft and engaging and emotive, working to charm the judge, making the jurors feel as though he was addressing them individually, pouting when a ruling did not go his way, while Hillary was calm and cerebral, deliberate and tough. One classmate noted that while Bill “would massage their toes,” Hillary was less concerned about stepping on them. A campaign is not a courtroom, the sharp contrast between his performance style and hers did not help her any when it came time to be the candidate. Her style also played into gender stereotypes that persist in American life, the sexist denigration of an aggressively competitive female.
And Bill’s personal vulnerabilities when it came to sex and women, while sometimes making Hillary a more sympathetic figure to the public, had a long-term problematic effect on her. She developed an encrusted defensiveness over the years as the lawyer in her tried to protect him and their shared goals. What became a reflexive tendency toward secrecy and lack of transparency merged with her deeply held Methodist belief that her mission was to do the best she could in as many ways as she could and that she and her husband were persisting in the face of fierce and wrongheaded right-wing opposition.
Almost every controversy she has been enmeshed in over the years can be seen through that prism — her advice in 1993 essentially to stonewall the press as the inscrutable non-scandalous Whitewater story was unfolding; her decision to go on the Today show one January morning in 1998 as the Lewinsky affair was breaking to decry what she called “this vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband; and her more recent travails with the use of a private server during her tenure as secretary of state. Carrying the accumulated weight of those stories on her back through this 2016 campaign proved to be a load too heavy.
There is also the complicated interplay between Hillary’s pioneering status as the first woman to be the presidential nominee for a major party and her position in what was considered a political dynasty, which though not unprecedented rubbed against a myth of American democracy. Most modern presidents, from Richard M. Nixon to Barack Obama, with Bill Clinton as a prime example, came out of nowhere, pushed along by their own will, with no family wealth or prestige or political legacy to assist them. Hillary’s early rise was not all that different, from the middle-class heart of unpretentious Midwestern America in suburban Chicago, with her own generational story of despair and salvation involving her mother, who had been abandoned by her parents and grandparents and essentially made her own way since age 14, imparting that determination and will on her only daughter. But Hillary’s lift into elective office came only after another Clinton had paved the way, just as George W. Bush followed in the path of his father, George H.W. Bush. Among other things that Trump did in his improbable campaign, by disposing of first Jeb Bush and then Hillary Clinton, he took down not one but two dynasties.
The question of what role sexism played in Hillary’s defeat will be the source of endless debate, lasting at least until a woman finally breaks the glass ceiling in the White House, which has persisted for 227 years, headed toward at least 231. Back in 1969, when Hillary was delivering a commencement address at Wellesley, another accomplished woman who would later become her friend and ally, Paula Stern, wrote an article for the Atlantic about the nascent women’s movement titled “The Womanly Image: Character Assassination Through the Ages.” Stern wrote about how an employer’s most pressing question to her was whether she was in love, about how the legend of Eve, as man’s subordinate helper and temptress, overtook the legend of Lilith, man’s equal; about how the writings of Aristotle and Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson and Rousseau and Freud had all diminished the value of women in various ways; and about how being competitively aggressive was considered unladylike behavior.
All of that came back to Stern this week as she watched Hillary in the final days of what she hoped would be a history-making campaign, but instead became a moment of bitter disappointment. Speaking of the most popular mob-like incantation at Trump rallies, Stern said, “I see the cries of ‘Lock her up’ as the 21st-century expression of character assassination through the ages.” Hillary, she said, was not just trying to break through a glass ceiling, but “through centuries of misogyny.”
Bill Clinton had his own problems, but never that one, and neither did Trump, who openly disparaged women throughout his campaign and still prevailed. The result was at once unfathomably difficult for the Clintons and yet not entirely surprising to Bill. He saw the signs all along the way of this campaign. He knew the people who were voting for Trump, and also the people who during the primaries were voting not for his wife but for Bernie Sanders. He saw the anger and the feelings of disconnection, but he did not know how he, or his wife’s campaign, could connect to it effectively without resorting to demagoguery or false populism, something Hillary was not good at even if she was disposed to try.
Once, in New Hampshire back during the primary season, Bill Clinton described the mood of the moment, all the various forms of anger roiling to the surface, by using a line from one of his favorite poets, W.B. Yeats — “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Now, to borrow from another Yeats poem, there will be no second coming of the Clintons, and it will be Donald Trump slouching toward Washington.