Last weekend, Joe Biden was elected president of the United States — receiving over 78 million votes — the most in the nation’s history. His win was received by many as a rebuke of the Trump administration, although Biden’s established brand of moderation was a defining feature of his campaign. Biden’s experience set him apart from a Democratic primary field of over 20 candidates.
While most recently serving as vice president to the nation’s first Black president for eight years, Biden had spent decades in the Senate. His career earned him a reputation for working across the aisle to get things done — along with criticism for decisions that, looking back, were problematic. Biden’s trajectory, in fact, mirrors that of another recent Democratic nominee for president — Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Like Biden, Clinton had a lifetime of experience working across the aisle in multiple government roles. Like Biden, Clinton was running on an ambitious but politically “moderate” progressive agenda and was largely considered “The Establishment” candidate. Like Biden, Clinton was running against Donald Trump, a man who bragged about assault and was blatantly unqualified for the job. Unlike Biden, Clinton lost.
During and immediately after the 2016 election, the media and disgruntled progressives blamed Clinton for the loss. Despite winning all three debates and defeating Trump’s popular vote total by nearly 3 million votes, pundits across the aisle deemed the former secretary of state a fundamentally “flawed” candidate.
How, then, did two similarly positioned candidates achieve such consequentially different outcomes?
Mathematically, Clinton lost important swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while Biden won those three states. Some blame Clinton for not visiting those “blue wall” states in the final days of her campaign, even though the evidence does not clearly support that assertion.
I see only two credible explanations for these disparate election results — and both lead to the vindication of Clinton’s historic run.
Sexism and hindsight.
Biden benefited from all the knowledge that resulted from the 2016 election while Clinton suffered from implicit and explicit sexism. Harder to parse is whether more people supported Biden because they reflected on the failures of 2016 or whether that support was merely the result of Biden’s gender not being an issue.
Consider the “Bernie or Bust” movement of so-called progressives who refused to support the Democratic nominee if it was not Bernie Sanders. In 2016, 1 in 10 Sanders primary voters voted for Trump over Clinton in the general election. Senator Sanders himself refused to concede the primary to Clinton in 2016 even after she had decisively won. Biden did not face this same resistance from the left. In fact, further-left progressives even rallied behind a viral “Settle for Biden” social media campaign in support of the nominee. We cannot know whether this difference in behavior was because Sanders and his supporters disliked losing to a woman more than they disliked losing to Biden or because they learned from the past four years. Notably, Sanders came under fire this cycle for telling Elizabeth Warren that a woman could not win the presidency.
The media, in the same vein, failed abysmally in 2016, but are credited with improving their 2020 election coverage. Did the news industry learn from its obsessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails? Or did the email story play perfectly into perceptions of smart, ambitious women as calculating and untrustworthy — implicit biases that the media simply could not weaponize against Biden, a 77-year-old white man?
While asking these questions may seem divisive or unproductive, it’s important to correct the record on improper takeaways from the 2016 race.
It would appear that Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” was a moment, not a movement. The lazy post-2016 autopsy that “Bernie would’ve won” has been seriously called into question, yet another primary loss later and as party leaders blame ‘socialist labeling’ for surprising Democratic losses in Congress.
We know then-FBI Director James Comey’s unprecedented memo likely cost Clinton victory and we know that Clinton has been exonerated after multiple gratuitous investigations.
In October 2016, Clinton tweeted a message to voters: “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” An inconceivable 248,000 dead Americans later, she appears to have been right. Did voters not heed Clinton’s warning because they needed to see it to believe it? Or were the words of a woman being discounted as they too often are in American politics and our society at large?
They say that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Learning the wrong lesson from history, though, may be worse still.
It’s important that the history books get right what so many continue to get wrong about 2016. Hillary Clinton was not a flawed candidate. She was an excellent candidate whose failure to ascend to the presidency exposed flaws in our institutions and in ourselves.
I’m proud Joe Biden won the election. In a better America, Hillary Clinton would have too.
KAIVAN SHROFF MBA ’17 is an alumnus of the Yale School of Management. He is a Senior Advisor to the Institute for Education, a 30-year-old D.C. nonprofit, and was a digital organizer at Hillary for America. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.