Why is Hillary Held to an Impossible Standard, Even In Defeat?

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Hillary Clinton speaks at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on April 6, 2017 in New York City. Neil Buchanan writes that Clinton was going to be savaged no matter what, including by liberals and her own party. Michael Loccisano/Getty

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

It was apparently too much to hope that Hillary Clinton would, in defeat, be treated with the respect that she was denied during the campaign – or, more accurately, during her entire career.

What is more depressing is that even some of her most prominent supposed admirers still enjoy piling on when Clinton is being attacked.

When Clinton kept herself out of the public eye after the election, she was mocked for "wandering in the woods" and was the target of other smart-alecky criticisms from avowedly liberal comedians and commentators.

Now that she has broken her silence and made some public appearances, we are being reminded of the double standards and outright nastiness that has been aimed at Clinton for decades.

Last week, Clinton gave an extended interview to the journalist Christiane Amanpour at the 9th Annual Women for Women International Conference. (A transcript is available here.) It was predictable that Amanpour would ask about the election, and it was just as predictable that anything Clinton said on that subject would be featured in sound bites across the media landscape.

What I did not predict — perhaps because, after all these years, I have still not given up hope that liberals will stop being so self-defeating – is that Clinton would immediately be bashed by supposedly sympathetic commentators.

I make no claim to having systematically surveyed the range of responses to Clinton's interview. A tiny bit of online searching confirmed that the right-wing sites went nuts, engaging in what must have felt like a greatest hits reunion concert for their favorite attack lines.

No surprise there. After all, even at a Senate subcommittee hearing about Russian interference in the election, which was held on Monday of this week, Republican primary runner-up Ted Cruz decided to ask a witness about Clinton's use of a private email server. A collective rolling of the eyes is the only plausible response.

Here, I will focus on responses to the interview from two Clinton-friendly precincts, because both amply demonstrate that anti-Clinton presumptions and biases are alive and well. On "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," the host devoted an eight-minute segment to the Clinton interview, while the editorial board of The New York Times devoted a lead editorial to scolding Clinton for supposedly undignified behavior.

To get a sense of the petty, tut-tutting nature of the complaints about Clinton's supposedly unseemly attitude, consider that the editors of The Times decided that it was worth writing this: "Her insights were strained by insinuations against the president, whom she still refers to as 'my opponent.'" Bad Hillary!

Before I go further, it is worth recalling just how restrained Clinton had been during the campaign. She coolly crushed Trump in all three debates, even though he spent a great deal of time trying to rattle her with references to Bill Clinton's infidelities, including bringing his accusers to one of the debates.

Throughout the campaign, Clinton was able to act like an adult in the face of the childish, hateful antics of an avowed sexual predator who re-tweeted neo-Nazi messages and who mocked the very idea that being prepared and qualified should mean something.

Related: Matthew Cooper: Why Clinton Lost to Trump

Before the campaign began, I was not a fan of Clinton, based on her history of center-right policy views. I expected to support her if she became the Democratic nominee (given how far around the bend the Republican Party has gone), but I never expected to feel enthusiastic about it.

Much to my surprise, however, both on policy substance (with a few exceptions) and on everything that can be called style (including her almost supernatural ability to remain calm under pressure), she had won me over long before the campaign's end.

I was not surprised that Monday morning quarterbacking began immediately following the election. That is part of any campaign. What amazed me, however, was that Clinton was faulted for everything that she did and did not do, and I never saw any of her critics acknowledge that the real-time decisions that she made might have been smart at least as an ex ante matter.

So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, people -- most definitely including liberals -- were quickly faulting Clinton for everything under the sun. One prominent line of attack was that she had taken for granted the post-industrial states that ultimately cost her the election, with hair's-breadth margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin providing Trump's majority in the Electoral College despite his big loss in the popular vote.

For example, some media outlets reported on the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, who claimed to have told the Clinton campaign that they should be worried by what he was supposedly seeing "on the ground" in his state.

I have no doubt that there were people such as that mayor trying to get the attention of the Clinton campaign. I also have no doubt that it is extremely difficult to determine when such people are merely crying for more attention as opposed to the times when they have something important to say. I suspect that campaigns receive calls all the time saying, "You need to pay more attention to us."

Related: Neil Buchanan: The Cruel 'Crooked' Caricature That Doomed Clinton

But maybe the difference between what counts as a good campaign and a bad campaign is that the professionals running it know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even so, Clinton was being held to an impossible standard, because at the same time that she was being pressured to shore up maybe-wavering areas, she was also being told that she needed to win big in order to have a mandate to govern.

Therefore, if Clinton had diverted campaign resources to Wisconsin and then won, she would have immediately been second-guessed for not "running up the score." "Why were you wasting time on states that everyone knew you would win, when you could have been winning states like Georgia and North Carolina?"

Because there were competitive House and Senate races in some of those swing states, Clinton would also have been excoriated for failing to devote her time and resources correctly and for selfishly guaranteeing her own victory at the expense of down-ballot Democrats. She and her campaign could not be everywhere at once, so any choice that she made was going to make many people unhappy.

In short, Clinton was going to be savaged no matter what, including by liberals and people in her own party. This also applies to complaints that she had been too interested in supposedly divisive social issues rather than bread-and-butter economic issues. In fact, she ran hard on a strongly progressive economic platform. But because she lost, no matter how improbably, she was deemed to be a terrible candidate.

To some degree, an election post mortem is going to be unkind to every losing candidate. But because Clinton has been subject to so much unfair criticism throughout her career, she has been ripped apart like no one else would have been for making completely defensible decisions -- decisions that were, in fact, not merely defensible but were actually the smart calls. When one's opponent draws to an inside straight, skill has its limits.

Even so, Clinton exited the stage after the election with dignity, and she laid low for months. Finally, she decided to appear in public, including the long-form interview with Amanpour. Was that a mistake?

I suppose that one could fault Clinton for even agreeing to sit for such an interview. After all, she had to know that Amanpour would ask her about the election, so one might argue that Clinton should have either declined the interview or stipulated that she would not discuss the election. (Amanpour, for her part, could reasonably at that point have canceled the interview.)

So Clinton sat for an interview in which she knew that she would be asked about the election. She then created a few moments that made news, including when she took some sly jabs at Trump (to the delight of the audience).

Again, it is no surprise that the right-wing outlets immediately started to whine. What is depressing is that nothing seems to satisfy her supposed supporters — or even those commentators who claim to be balanced. Apparently, Clinton once again was supposed to prove that she was able to be better than everyone else (the classic "backwards and on high heels" requirement), even in the aftermath of the ugliest election campaign and result imaginable.

And it was not merely a matter of Clinton's having decided to answer questions about the election. Apparently, her answers were too good. Trevor Noah, for example, suggested that her most effective comments were "classic Hillary," claiming (with no evidence) that she had hidden out for six months obsessively preparing zingers, a la George Costanza's "jerk store" comeback on a classic episode of Seinfeld.

Noah also faulted Clinton for being boring, which he tried to demonstrate by showing a clip of Clinton's answer to a policy question. Again, this was a long-form interview, not a post-election campaign rally of the sort that Trump favors. Even so, it was just too easy for the comedian to lazily reach for the nerd-Hillary meme.

The editors of The New York Times, however, do not have that excuse. Even so, they faulted Clinton for being supposedly "unable to shake free" of the campaign. The editors acknowledged that Clinton's statements were all based in fact, noting that her comments about Russian meddling in the election and FBI Director James Comey's ill-considered decision to change the course of the election were not only plausible but "merit continued scrutiny."

So what is the problem? "But coming from Mrs. Clinton, given her own unforced (but largely unacknowledged) errors in the campaign, such accusations can sound merely like excuses." Unacknowledged?! In that very same interview, Clinton acknowledged over and over that she had made mistakes — so much so that Noah mocked her for blaming herself too much.

Let us be clear. It is completely consistent for Clinton to say something like this:

There are things that I could have done differently, especially with the benefit of hindsight. I wish that I could have made the race a runaway, so that Comey's intervention and these other things could not have made the difference. But pointing out the decisive role of those external forces does not mean that I am refusing to take responsibility for my own errors.

Perhaps even more depressing than the nonsensical attacks on Clinton is that both Noah and The Times packaged their attacks as the worst kind of false equivalence. Both included fact-based criticisms of Trump, and both acknowledged that he is a menace, not least because (as The Times noted) Trump has a country to run.

But because they also took shots at Trump, they can now say, "Look, we criticized Trump more than we criticized Clinton!" And that is supposed to make snarky, baseless attacks on Clinton somehow acceptable.

It is clear that Clinton, even in the current circumstances, continues to receive the opposite of the benefit of the doubt, even from people who endorsed her. It is now obvious that nothing she does or says can ever be good enough for people who have decided that she is to be held to impossible standards.

Immediately after the election, I wrote a column under the title, The Cruel 'Crooked' Caricature That Doomed Clinton. My argument there was that Clinton had been taken down by just this kind of unfair narrative, even though she was no more flawed than a standard-issue politician. Indeed, she was in fact much less flawed — not just compared to Trump but to many other politicians who are never attacked in the way that Clinton has been smeared.

Because the media's Clinton Rules are different, however, even left-leaning sources spent more than a year feeding the notion that there was something especially fishy about Hillary Clinton.

The email story was fully investigated, as was Benghazi, but none of the debunking of those stories ever mattered. The standard line from non-right-wing commentators was that "even though her scandals have never added up to anything, people just don't trust her." And the story line was thus reinforced.

Again, I am almost surprised at myself for being surprised that Clinton is not being given some slack, even under current circumstances. But the ugly brew of false equivalence, sexist assumptions and unwillingness to challenge the conventional wisdom is even more potent than I thought.

What is most amazing of all is that no one is ashamed.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

Why is Hillary Held to an Impossible Standard, Even In Defeat? | Opinion