Why is one of the most qualified leaders in the world continuing to let Trump define her, when she could be changing the subject?
It’s tough to lose an election for student council, let alone for president. So it made sense that, after November 2016, Hillary Clinton would have spent some time wallowing in the past, howling at the universe with a side of Chardonnay. That’s the frame of mind she described in What Happened, her post-campaign memoir that came out in September, which was more of an angry play-by-play of how she was wronged than a clear-headed self-assessment of the race. Now, five months after the book came out, 15 months after the election, Clinton’s been spotted promoting family friend Lanny Davis’ new book, The Unmaking of the President 2016: How FBI Director James Comey Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency.
We just passed Groundhog Day on the calendar, but it feels like we’re still living it; we can’t break free from the gnashing and rehashing of the 2016 election. It’s not just the Mueller probe and legitimate questions about Russian influence. It’s the emotional notes of triumph and defeat. President Donald Trump hasn’t dropped the subject, which is as perplexing as anything else Trump has done. But Clinton hasn’t dropped it, either. And at this point, she should.
I feel little nervous saying that, knowing what backlash will come: Clinton won the popular vote, she made history, she’s double-ultra-accomplished, and suggesting that she sing a different tune is really just trying to silence her. Her fans are highly sensitive about critiques, and their fury reached a crescendo in December, when Vanity Fair posted a snarky video suggesting New Year’s resolutions for Clinton—including “put away your James Comey voodoo doll” and take up knitting—and then, after a Twitter frenzy, sort of apologized.
Knitting was a little much—I’m not suggesting Clinton retreat from public life to a domestic one, unless that’s what she wants. But let’s put the video in context: The media are often unkind to losing candidates of every gender. In March 2013, four months after he lost to Barack Obama, theAtlantic ran a snarky piece about the “Bizarre Post-Election Life” of Mitt Romney, caught in such shocking acts as pumping his own gas, ordering McDonald’s and going to Costco. Around that time, Romney did his first major post-election interview on “Fox News Sunday”; a Washington Poststory about it began, “One hundred seventeen days later, Mitt Romney still isn’t over it.” Ever since his gut-piercing loss in 2000, writers have pop-psychologized over Al Gore’s weight gain and post-election facial hair. “It is the beard of the hermit,” one Guardian columnist wrote, “a former warrior sorely done by and meditating in his manly cave until the people realise their folly.”
What Gore and Romney have managed to do, though, is move on—or at least make it look like they have—and reinvent. Romney has made his way back to the arena, after finding a new state in which to run for office and distinguishing himself as a rare Republican politician who criticized Trump flat out (with a brief interlude when he tried to position himself to be Trump’s secretary of state). Gore turned the 2000 race into a throwaway punch line and embarked on a second act as an investor, climate-change Cassandra and Nobel laureate. This is what many of Clinton’s critics want for her: Not to be silent, but to say something different. She’s missing an opportunity to define herself beyond being the candidate who—fairly, unfairly, or both—lost a seemingly winnable election to Trump.
Self-definition, reinvention, self-improvement; those ideas sound like the stuff of Oprah, the potentially-though-probably-not-but-hell-who-knows 2020 presidential candidate. In fact, the internet is clogged with advice about what to do after a painful defeat. A 2016 piece of aggregated wisdom in Business News Daily, “How Successful Leaders Recover from Failure,” wraps it up in bullet points: “Apologize quickly and own up,” “Analyze what went wrong,” and “Move on.” The job search website Ladders recently posted a list of “10 things smart people never say,” from “It’s not my fault” to “It’s not fair” to “He’s lazy/incompetent/a jerk.”
How is it that Clinton, who is successful and smart, hasn’t followed the most basic, Goop-like advice? For one thing, self-reflection isn’t easy or natural, which is why there are so many of these lists in the first place. Plus, it’s harder to let go when a mob of people—from inner-circle loyalists like Lanny Davis to the internet hordes—are egging you on while rending their garments over Trump.
But the irony is that Clinton has done it right before, handling past adversity in ways that were productive and inspired. In one of the feminist triumphs of modern politics, she refused to lock herself into the “wronged wife” story line, launched an ambitious bid for U.S. Senate from New York, and began a soaring political career. In 2008, after a tight loss to Obama in the Democratic primary, she graciously accepted his offer to be secretary of state, where she oversaw Washington’s “reset” with Moscow, managed sanctions in Iran and crises in Pakistan, and launched the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative.
Perhaps Clinton was able to bounce back so quickly because she knew the presidency was still within reach. Now that goal is off the table, and she has yet to fully embrace a cause or future that can separate her from her loss. Finding the right path, among many possible options, is surely a challenge. But if she does commit herself to reinvention, Clinton will find that she is better-positioned than ever to make a difference. She’ll be free from the daily trench warfare of Washington. Her every move will still attract attention. And her experiences as senator and secretary of state have prepared her for roll-up-your-sleeves work on policy issues, from the child-welfare matters that started her career to the status of women worldwide. Clinton has taken baby steps in that direction: Last week, at a Georgetown University event, she spoke about how climate change will disproportionately affect women.
She could dive into the private sector, creating a market solution for any number of problems. She could follow Gore’s path and take on a single cause as a public advocate. Naysayers be damned, she could run for office again. She’s the same age as Romney—and younger than Joe Biden.
The point is to drop any public grumbling about the past, or calling out of Trump in outraged tweets, or stirring up partisan fury by mocking Trump in public. (Though at least her cameo at the Grammys, reading a passage from “Fire and Fury,” redeemed itself with a self-deprecating joke: “The Grammy’s in the bag?”) There are plenty of people willing and able to analyze the 2016 race and point out the absurdities of Trump. Clinton doesn’t need to be a voice in that mix. She has the chance to go down in history as much more than the almost-first-woman-president. It starts with changing the subject.
~Joanna Weiss is a writer based in Boston and a former television critic for the Boston Globe.