When I heard Hillary Clinton on the radio speaking about her new book, “What Happened,” I groaned. Even for those of us who supported Clinton, or just didn’t want to see President Trump elected, retreading this well-worn path nearly a year after the election is an exercise in futility at best, foot-shooting at worst. Was the reason for Clinton’s defeat Russia, PC-culture backlash or Comey, Wikileaks, sexism or Clinton herself? Clinton may just be publicly arriving to this conversation, but politically engaged liberals and leftists had it ad nauseam — and have since begun the hard work of organizing a more vibrant, coherent and compelling movement. Ax-grinding, justified as it may be, does not change the outcome of the election; many on the left would prefer to build for 2018 and 2020 rather than relitigate 2016.
So it was with serious trepidation that I bought “What Happened” when it was released Tuesday. If reading this stuff wasn’t part of my job, I definitely wouldn’t have picked it up. That said, it’s much better than I expected. There are enough behind-the-scenes details to keep the casual reader engaged (Clinton tells us what kind of wallpaper she has in her bedroom and about how she confronted then-Rep. Ryan Zinke after he called her the “Antichrist”). It has enough insight to satisfy hardcore political nerds, and enough warmth and verve to satisfy those who believe Clinton is too careful to connect. “What Happened” doesn’t take serious risks and is unlikely to rock anyone’s world, but as political memoir goes, it’s just fine.
And I wish she hadn’t written it. Not right now.
Did Clinton have the right to write this book? Of course she did — of course she does. It’s her experience, which the country lived alongside her, and as a 69-year-old woman who has spent her life in public service she’s earned her memoirs. (I mean, Justin Bieber wrote one when he was 16.) But even as a former Clinton supporter, as someone who likes what I’ve read of the book, and as a feminist, I do not want to see Clinton reenter public life at this particular moment. I do not want her to continue as one of the leaders of the Democratic Party.
It is not the book that bothers. It’s the accompanying media tour — it’s the inevitable distraction from issues on which Democrats are finally pushing forward. It’s a refracturing of Clinton supporters and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a scratching at old wounds that are finally starting to heal, and redrawing divisions between organizations that are beginning to build together. Trump shores his base up by attacking others, and having Clinton back on the scene gives Trump prime ammunition after he’s been weakened by a series of legislative and leadership failures. Trump has finally been forced to work with Democrats; for Pete’s sake, he’s having Chuck and Nancy over for dinner tonight. Please do not let the price of Clinton’s renewed visibility be another round of Trump leading his minions in ever more demented “Lock her up!” chants.
People who hated Clinton last time — whether because they saw her as a corporate centrist warmonger or because they believed she was corruptible and inauthentic — will still hate her after reading this book. Her voice is defiant enough to anger those on the far right who always thought she just talked a little too damn much for a woman. And leftists will note that she fails to challenge any of her original premises or policy prescriptions.
I bristle at anyone who would tell a woman — whether she be a public figure or a regular Jane — to shut up or sit down, unless that woman is pure evil like Ann Coulter, in which case go ahead. But in one of Clinton’s first interviews, with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” she goes in on Sanders and his supporters multiple times. She repeatedly says that he is not a Democrat (obviously true, and not a secret either; he’s registered as an independent) and does not support Democrats (debatable).
I too was exceptionally upset at Sanders supporters who didn’t vote for Clinton in the general election; the first time I saw a close friend who fits that description after Trump won, I was so spitting mad I literally could not speak. That was 10 months ago. We are all in a different place now. We have to be.
The fact of the matter is that many of Sanders’ supporters, Democrats and independents alike, would vote for Democratic candidates if they embraced more progressive policies. Democrats have been ceding ground to conservatives, losing easy local and national races for years. As someone who has generally sat on the center-left, even I had to look at our party after the presidential election and think — hell, we made all these policy compromises to win and we lost anyhow. So why not push for what we really want now? What’s the worst that could happen?
For all the particularities of Clinton’s race against Obama in 2008 and against Trump in 2016, she ran for president and lost twice. This does not indicate that she is not an effective politician or that none of her ideas should be heeded. It does indicate that she is not an effective figurehead for the Democratic Party.
Our political system has changed immeasurably since November 2016. Standards and norms have flown out the window. Partisan rancor is exceptionally high, with inter- and intra-aisle fighting encouraged by the president himself. The Trump administration has radicalized not just those on the right, but those on the left. The ranks of organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America are swelling; true progressives are starting to find a voice within dusty Democratic organizations; and Democratic representatives are finally starting to show some spine and unify around ideas such as single-payer healthcare, for which Sanders paved the way.
Clinton has the right to her book and her media tour. But if she’d focus on herself rather than on advising and rebuking those on the left, she’d help the party she claims to love move forward into a winning future.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.