By Paul Waldman
You’ve seen the headlines, begging Joe Biden to just give it up and get out of our faces already. “Dems want Joe Biden to leave spotlight,” says The Hill. “Dear Joe Biden, please stop talking about 2016,” says a USA Today columnist. “Joe Biden is back. Should Democrats be worried?” asks The New Republic. “Can Joe Biden please go quietly into the night?” asks a column in Vanity Fair. A Daily News columnist begins his missive with, “Hey, Joe Biden, shut the f―- up and go away already.” Folks sure do hate that guy. And all he did was give a couple of commencement speeches and an interview or two.
Okay, you’ve probably guessed: Joe Biden wasn’t the subject of all those headlines. In fact, when the former vice president has made noises suggesting he still yearns to sit in the Oval Office, reporters treat it as at worst the understandable desires of a beloved uncle who may have lost a step or two, and at best a tantalizing possibility—despite the fact that Biden ran for president twice, and could barely have performed worse if he had punched out the mayors of Des Moines and Dixville Notch on national television.
No, the target of all that anger and contempt is Hillary Clinton, who has dared to be seen in public on a few occasions since last November, violating some unwritten rule that says that unsuccessful presidential candidates must never be heard from again.
Or to be more precise, it was a rule that didn’t exist until Hillary Clinton came along.
The problem isn’t just that Clinton has the temerity to show her face, it’s also what she says. One writer after another has been incensed that when Clinton is asked about why the 2016 election came out the way it did, she fails to perform a ritual of self-abasement with sufficient enthusiasm so we can all stand back and enjoy her humiliation. What she does say is that the ultimate responsibility lies with her and she made plenty of mistakes, but she also notes that had James Comey not rushed to publicly declare 11 days before the election that he was examining some emails that might be related to her — leading to a collective orgasm on the part of the mainstream media — she would probably be president. That happens to be true, but she’s not allowed to say it. Nothing short of her crying out, “Yes, I’m the worst! I deserve every ounce of your hatred!” will do.
So let’s be clear about this. If you don’t like Hillary Clinton, that’s fine. If you want to disagree with the substance of something she says in her occasional public appearances, that’s fine, too. But if seeing an article about her giving a relatively anodyne commencement speech makes you seethe with rage and demand that she go away forevermore, you’re the one with the problem.
This is the point where I have to note that she was an imperfect candidate who made mistakes, just like every candidate who ever ran for anything. I’d also note that I have written many critical things about her over the years. But that has nothing to do with the malignant loathing that continues to get poured upon her every time a word passes her lips. And yes, that hatred still matters, because it tells us how powerful a force misogyny continues to be in our politics. Given that there are at least four Democratic women senators who could run for president in 2020 (Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris), we’ll be dealing with issues around gender and power in the next election, too.
Am I arguing that all criticism of Clinton is only disguised sexism? Of course not.
Am I arguing that all criticism of Clinton is only disguised sexism? Of course not. But saying that the particular brand of venom Clinton inspires (even from many liberals) can be divorced from questions about gender is like saying that Republicans and the media were so consumed with the matter of her emails for no reason other than their deep concern for IT security.
Entire books have been written about the myriad ways the backlash against feminism was projected onto Clinton; if you want something more concise, I’d recommend this excellent segment from Samantha Bee, who notes that at every stage of her career Clinton was told to suppress her authentic self (cut your hair, take your husband’s name, apologize for speaking your mind, don’t make it seem like you have a strong role in his administration) until she was finally told that she wasn’t authentic enough to be elected president. Once again, Clinton is being told she’s doing it wrong, being held to standards demanded of none of the men who came before her.
Other losing candidates have made different choices about how public they wanted to be after their loss, but I can’t recall a single one who was told so emphatically by so many people to keep his damn mouth shut. Part of what makes this so unfortunate is that Clinton probably has a lot of interesting things to say, if she chose to say them. As New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister (who has reported extensively on Clinton) told me in an email, “Hillary Clinton is not like every other candidate ever to run for president. She is the only woman in American history to have been a major party nominee for president, to have run in, to have lost, to have won the popular vote in, an American presidential election. That makes her a crucial historic figure, and one who — while she is still alive and her memories of her experiences and perspectives remain fresh — SHOULD be talking about what she’s just experienced.”
Now maybe you still don’t want to hear what she has to say; if so, you’re free to ignore her. But don’t complain that with a few public comments she’s stealing the spotlight from somebody. It’s 2017 — there’s no shortage of spotlight to go around. No one can say, “I’d love to start working toward running for president, but all the attention Hillary Clinton gets just makes it impossible!” Every politician has a hundred different ways they can get attention or get their message out to the public, and nothing Clinton does or doesn’t do will affect them one bit.
And don’t tell me that Clinton is somehow keeping Democrats from having a robust debate about which direction their party should go in the future. Nobody’s voice will be heard less because of her. Perhaps you think that the party should reject her incrementalism and her focus on practicalities when a more sweeping vision might be more effective. Perhaps you think it needs to forge a new identity built around younger leaders. That’s terrific — nobody’s stopping you or anyone else from making your case. Clinton is not holding you back.
So why are so many people so angry at her now? For many of the same reasons they’ve been angry at her over her entire career. And you know what? That’s something I’d be interested to hear her perspective on.