Monday, May 8, 2017

“Shattered” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

I started reading Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign and quickly found myself paying close attention to the numerous accounts of the presidential candidate’s interactions with her speechwriter, Dan Schwerin. Perhaps it was because corporate (and a little political) speechwriting has been such a large part of my career. Perhaps it was because the accounts, as chronicled by authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, rang so true to my own experience.

Perhaps it was because I worked for a wide array of executives, a few of whom shared character traits in common with Clinton.

After reading the book, here’s my understanding of Clinton and her speechwriter. She liked him; he was a fine speechwriter. She worked him tirelessly; he believed in the candidate and was willing to work long, thankless, hours. But she was never really satisfied with his work, because he seemed unable to articulate why she was running for President of the United States.’

There was a good reason for that, one that went right to the heart of why Clinton ultimately lost the election. The candidate herself could never articulate why she was running for President. “I’m the most experienced and competent candidate ever” was not a compelling campaign narrative. “It’s time we broke the glass ceiling for women” was also not a reason.

That wasn’t the speechwriter’s fault.

Allen and Parnes take the reader on a highly detailed, in-depth tour of the Clinton campaign, from the time before the announcement that she was a candidate all the way to the post-election remorse and recriminations. I didn’t for a minute doubt that they themselves were Clinton supporters, but this book is not a flattering kiss-up to the candidate. Instead, it is a clear-eyed view of what happened and why. And other factors built on her inability to articulate her reason for being in the race in the first place.

Clinton was determined to avoid the mistakes she believed her team had made running against Barack Obama in 2008. She was so consumed with this that she ended up making many of the same ones, because she missed the essential nature of those mistakes in 2008.

The campaign relied heavily on data analytics – perfected by the Obama campaign teams in 2008 and 2012 – and less on traditional polling. They likely should have relied on both. Data analytics misled them in Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan, until it was too late to do anything about it.

The candidate and the campaign team first missed and then misunderstood the huge wave of populism that rose like a monster from the political deep. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both rode that wave. Both Sanders and Trump were able to articulate clearly why they were running for the country’s highest office. And both Clinton and her team saw but seemed unable to deal with the revolt of the American working class, especially in the Rust Belt.

The campaign team and the candidate assumed the “narrative of the blue wall” – and believed that states that had gone Democratic in recent elections would continue to do so. The Sunday before the election, warning lights were flashing full tilt in the Rust Belt, and the response was too little and way too late.

The ruthless power struggles within the campaign team, by the paid consultants, and by the DNC were all factors.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
The perceptions of the Clinton political empire played a role – the Clinton Foundation and its acceptance of money from all comers; the speeches she made to groups like Goldman Sachs; the hovering presence of Bill Clinton, who always believed he knew better than the campaign team. Sometimes he was right. Sometimes he was wrong, like when he met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Phoenix airport.

Clinton went into the campaign hobbled by the ongoing media coverage of her private email server used for State Department business. And once Wikileaks started the release of the hacked John Podesta and Democratic National Committee emails, most people conflated those emails with Clinton’s server problems.

FBI director James Comey playing popup-head with “We’re ending the criminal investigation of Clinton, no indictment but she did a bunch of illegal things,” “We’re reopening the investigation,” and “We didn’t find anything after all” was also a significant factor.

All of this, and the details of the primary campaigns and the general election, form the narrative of Shattered. Donald Trump plays a small role in this story. Clinton’s campaign team had never run into a candidate like him before, not to mention some of his wild statements and antics (like inviting four alleged women victims of Bill Clinton to one of the presidential debates). But the authors clearly see the reasons for Clinton’s defeat not so much explained by Trump as by the significant failings of the candidate and her campaign team.

Allen is an award-winning journalist with a long political reporting pedigree, including Politico, Bloomberg News, and Roll Call. He’s currently the head of community and content at Sidewire and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. Parnes is senior White House correspondent for The Hill and has also written for Politico. She has previously reported on the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. Allen and Parnes are also the co-authors of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014).  

Dan Schwerin, the speechwriter
The authors rely a lot on unnamed sources (like “a senior campaign official”), but they explain why and how they managed that. The account of the Clinton campaign in Shattered has the ring of truth. And while the authors don’t cover much beyond the two days following the election, there is much here that points to what happened in the months afterward – the shock of the defeat, the rage it engendered, and the “Russia interfered with our election” narrative. Among others.

And I keep thinking about Schwerin, the speechwriter, struggling to write his candidate’s speeches in the context of a vicious campaign, constant crises upending finished speeches, sniping from the campaign team, Obama’s people, the consultants, the DNC, and the candidate herself. Of all the people covered by this book, he’s the one – the only one – that garners my sympathy.

Shattered is an absorbing book, but if you’re not a political junkie, it does require some stamina to get through the detail. But there’s a reason for that – the explanation is in the details.

Top photograph: a Hillary for President campaign poster.

1 comment:

booksndiaries said...

Very interesting book. I never really stopped to think about what was going on behind the scenes. I don't know that I would pick up this book to read it. I am not much into the politics of things, but you never know.

Maybe I should one day just sit back and think of the behind the scenes of campaigns and maybe think to pick up a book on someone I might be interested in learning in. Clinton is just not one of them.

Thank you for an interesting review to read about.