In the summer of 1992, Houston was typically broiling, and inside the air-conditioned comfort of the Astrodome, things at the Republican National Convention were getting even hotter.
Delegates, incited by a podium speaker, had begun taunting a woman most of them really didn’t know at all. The iconic dome was reverberating with the delegates’ high-pitched taunts:
For Republicans at all levels, it seems there has always been something about Hillary. (Even then, when she held no public office but was just married to a guy running for president from the other party, she had become one of those first-name-suffices public figures. The delegates had been roused to chant her name by a speaker who insisted she practiced an evil known as “radical feminism.” All they knew about her was she had stood by her husband when a woman had accused him of being her lover. Fast forward just a bit: Once Hillary and her husband were in the White House, congressional Republicans began demanding official probes of whatever she had done as a lawyer back in Arkansas, when she and her husband, who was the governor, got into a real estate deal.
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Former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC morning news-star, recalls when he first ran for Congress: “When I ran in ’94, I wasn’t running against Bill Clinton so much as I was running against Hillary Clinton, and Hillarycare, and all the negatives that were attached to her.”
For most of her public life, Hillary had been targeted for probes, and investigators were forever trying to get at her written communications. By the time she was secretary of state, she had reacted in the worst of ways, by trying to conduct her public business on a private email server — even when dealing with sensitive matters. She was stupid to have done that (and her staff was stupid to let her do it). The more she tried to shield her emails, the more trouble she caused herself.
Her email mal-conduct became the albatross she wore as a bad conduct medal throughout her presidential campaign. She was investigated by multiple Republican committees in Congress and twice by the FBI (which concluded her actions were careless but not criminal). But her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, a rich man with a flair for innovative derogation, made sure voters would assume she was guilty of something. He simply amended her first name with a prefix and called her Crooked Hillary.
For good measure, he said during a presidential debate he would put her in jail when he became president. And as an extra memory refresher, Trump had every crowd chant: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Of course all that damaged her. But I think the damage it caused, while perpetual, was also peripheral to what became her central problem. I think Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was ultimately done in not by GOP demonizers, but by an effort that began within her own Democratic Party. During the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont damaged her significantly throughout the Rust Belt states by appealing to blue-collar, middle-class whites who had seen their workplaces close down while jobs went overseas. He railed against global trade deals — which she spoke about as little as possible. Clinton never found a message that matched Sanders’s appeal — and Trump’s position was as compelling as Sanders’. Hillary missed the chance to relate powerfully as a problem-solver for the disenfranchised. She stayed competitive thanks to backing from blacks and Latinos — and party poo-bahs who were superdelegates.
Those blue-collar whites Sanders reached are akin to those in other eras who had flings as Reagan Democrats and as Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority.
Clinton and her strategists seemed to assume they would automatically remain in the Democratic core. But those fed-up folks are not ideologues. They liked what Trump was saying. No wonder Clinton lost not only white, blue-collar men (which most Democrats lose) but the first-ever woman presidential nominee also lost white, blue-collar women in Rust Belt states she was sure would be hers. Clinton didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin in the fall campaign — yup, she lost Wisconsin to Trump. Clinton never sharply debated trade with Trump. (Too bad no one reminded her of Bill’s old campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”)
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as Trump’s Electoral College numbers approached the 270 victory total, his headquarters crowd spontaneously combusted into their familiar “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Back stage, Trump received a call; Hillary was conceding defeat.
And at 2:47 a.m., Trump passed the word to his faithful. “Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country,” Trump said. “I mean that very sincerely. Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division.”
Trump’s first act as our president-elect was to speak of compassion and call for unity. We can only hope.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.