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Despite book title, some say Clinton refuses to admit 'What Happened' in November

Hillary Clinton speaks to CNN's Anderson Cooper about her new book, "What Happened." (CNN)

As Hillary Clinton returns to the airwaves to promote her new book about the 2016 election, “What Happened,” the former First Lady’s personal account of her defeat by President Donald Trump is reigniting controversy across the political spectrum about why she lost, who to blame, and indeed, what exactly happened last November.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who has worked on failed presidential campaigns, said he understands the frustration Clinton feels after a brutal loss, but launching a national book tour is not how candidates typically handle the disappointment.

“She’s basically on a victimhood tour,” O’Connell said. “If she whines any more, she might actually get a year’s supply of cheese.”

Although Clinton has repeatedly said in the book and in interviews that she takes responsibility for her mistakes, Gregg Jarrett of Fox News counted at least 43 factors besides her own campaign that she lays blame on at various points in the 469-page tome.

In several interviews about the book this week, Clinton has elaborated on the challenges she believes she faced, including sexism and misogyny. She told NPR, citing a conversation with former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, that professionally successful women who want to lead are viewed negatively than men.

“Sheryl ended this really sobering conversation by saying that women will have no empathy for you,” she said, “because they will be under tremendous pressure — and I'm talking principally about white women — they will be under tremendous pressure from fathers and husbands and boyfriends and male employers not to vote for ‘the girl.’”

Clinton told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that hacked campaign emails released by WikiLeaks in the final month of the campaign cost her votes, not just because of their contents but because voters associated them with the larger issue of her use of a private email server as secretary of state that she believes received excessive media attention throughout the race.

In the book, Clinton also faulted women who have approached her since the election and apologized for not voting at all.

“These people were looking for absolution that I just couldn’t give. We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions,” she wrote.

She has also heaped blame on her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, for his attacks and a lack of respect she felt she received from him and his supporters after she won the nomination.

Experts say Clinton’s diagnosis is not entirely off base, but some argue she fails to grapple fully with her own unpopularity and inability to connect with midwestern white workers.

“All of those played a role,” said John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University and a former journalist, “but Hillary Clinton was also a historically inept campaigner. So the question really is, could a different candidate have overcome those hurdles?”

That is not a question “What Happened” attempts to answer, and it is one Clinton has been hesitant to address.

“I don't think it's useful to speculate because I was the nominee,” she told NPR when asked if another Democrat could have beaten Trump. “I mean, you can say that about George W. Bush and Al Gore and John Kerry.”

Despite the long list of factors Clinton sees as contributing to the outcome, she makes a case that then-FBI Director James Comey’s letter alerting members of Congress that the investigation of her email practices had reopened 11 days before the election was decisive.

"That was the determinative day because it stopped my momentum," she told Cooper.

Clinton cites an analysis by Nate Silver that concluded the dip Clinton experienced in polls in the days after that news broke was large enough to account for the margin of her loss.

The counter-argument is that her campaign failed to respond effectively to that last-minute curveball and that the race should never have been close enough for that development to make the difference.

“It does come back to the fact that her campaign wasn’t good enough, but it was also her message,” O’Connell said.

Clinton disagrees. On NBC’s “Today” Wednesday, she denied that her own mistakes were sufficient to cost her the election.

That she might have won despite her missteps if not for Comey’s letters or Russian interference does not absolve Clinton’s sins in the eyes of many.

“You cannot make the argument that Hillary Clinton lost the election for reasons independent of her poor campaigning and her mistakes in office,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University.

The extent and immediacy of Clinton’s personal campaign autopsy does appear unusual in recent history. Other failed candidates have addressed their losses in interviews and speeches, and vice presidential candidates have gone on to write books soon afterward, but nobody at the top of a ticket so quickly delivered a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong.

“I respect and admire and am a friend of Hillary’s,” 2008 GOP nominee John McCain told Politico. “But with these kind of things that happen in life, you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to quickly move on.”

Previous candidates have assigned blame to others at times. In January 2005, Democrat John Kerry admitted his 2004 campaign made mistakes, but he also told NBC’s Tim Russert that his poll numbers flatlined when Osama bin Laden released a video the Monday before the election.

2012 loser Mitt Romney sounded somewhat similar notes to Clinton in a Fox News interview five months after his defeat by Barack Obama. While taking responsibility for his own errors, he and wife Ann Romney also pointed fingers at the media, attacks by primary opponents, Hurricane Sandy, and the allure of Obamacare for lower income minority voters.

“My campaign had to kind of stop,” Romney said of the impact of the storm days before the election. “And we were in the last week and this was the time. We were -- you know, we were getting ready to hammer, hammer, hammer our message. We had to stop.”

However, he hastened to add, “I lost my election because of my campaign, not because of what anyone else did.”

That balance between contrition and recognition of outside forces is what many Clinton critics feel is missing from “What Happened” and the promotional tour so far.

“She’s named everything from Russia to Netflix,” O’Connell said. “At some point, you need to own up to your role in it.”

Supporters, however, point to passages in which she explicitly does accept fault.

“None of the factors I’ve discussed here lessen the responsibility I feel or the aching sense that I let everyone down,” she writes toward the end of the book.

Experts say a candidate’s firsthand account of their failed campaign can be valuable historical document, but some question whether Clinton’s book is an honest enough reckoning with her own choices to serve that purpose.

“I have literally never seen a person be so intent on a self-serving explanation why they lost an election,” Vatz said.

According to O’Connell, Clinton’s focus on the actions of others and outside forces is a reminder of exactly why she lost the race.

“Her hubris doesn’t allow her to be honest about the role that she played,” he said.

Some readers may benefit from hearing what Clinton feels went right or wrong, but Carroll said the book is “an empty exercise” for the many who have already hardened their opinions.

“There’s so much preconceived perception of Clinton, it’s hard to believe that anything she would say right now would change anyone’s mind among her supporters, among her opponents, or in the news media,” he said.

Trump, who frequently rehashes the campaign in public, recounts election night, and regales crowds with tales of his electoral college victory, has criticized Clinton for laying out her version of events.

“Crooked Hillary Clinton blames everybody (and every thing) but herself for her election loss,” he tweeted on Wednesday night.

Coming from someone who famously refuses to accept fault for much of anything, that attack may ring hollow, but the sense that Clinton is evading responsibility has become a common complaint in the media as the list of other elements she blames grows.

“The Hillary Clinton ‘I-take-full-responsibility-but-here-are-all-the-other-reasons-I-lost’ tour continues to be intrinsically problematic,” CNN media reporter Dylan Byers tweeted Wednesday.

Clinton supporters say the backlash against “What Happened” is entirely predictable and entirely unjustified.

“This is all so obvious - Republicans love to rev-up the Clinton outrage machine,” Democratic strategist Matt McDermott said. “But the reality is that anyone who has actually taken the time to read the book has found it to be a shockingly honest and astute reflection on the 2016 campaign. She is the first female nominee of a major party in U.S. history, who went on to lose the most shocking election in U.S. history - of course she deserves to tell her story.”

McDermott also suggested criticism of Clinton’s book and interviews from the press is itself an attempt to dodge responsibility for the results of the election.

“A word of advice to the media: stop throwing stones from your glass house, and start assessing the outsized and outrageous role you played in the outcome of last year's election,” he said.

However, according to Vatz, Clinton’s attacks on the media in “What Happened” will seem “paradoxical” to those who felt the press was too sympathetic to her and did not pursue her scandals aggressively enough.

“It really tries to sell a point that’s unsellable,” he said.

Clinton has also taken fire from the left for tearing open the scars of the 2016 campaign at a time when progressives are trying to gear up for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“Look, Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country and she lost and was upset about that and I understand that,” Sen. Sanders told Stephen Colbert last week. “But our job now is really not to go backwards. It is to go forward. It is to create the kind of nation we know we can become. We have enormous problems facing us and I think it's a little bit silly to keep talking about 2016.”

To the extent that Clinton’s book exacerbates tensions between her supporters and the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and shifts the spotlight away from Trump, O’Connell said it is a gift to Republicans.

“This is a good thing for Republicans and for Trump voters because at this critical juncture it reminds Trump supporters why they voted for the president,” he said.

Whether it hurts Democrats in the long run or not, it certainly does not appear to be helping.

“The question becomes, does it benefit the Democratic Party to see this kind of internecine fighting when it’s not necessary,” Vatz said.

Even as a guidebook or a warning for Democrats who will presumably face Trump again in the 2020 election, Carroll said the book’s value is limited.

“This is not a template for elections to come, for the most part,” he said. “The 2016 election was so distinctive in its elements, and especially in its candidates, that it’s hard to believe the same dynamic would play out going forward.”

Whatever headaches “What Happened” creates for Democrats in the weeks to come, McDermott argued Republican critics coming out of the woodwork are just flogging the book as a disingenuous distraction from their own problems.

“Maybe Republicans, who are suffocating under a historically unpopular president and facing a massive challenge in maintaining their control of the House in next year's election, should worry about putting out the fires in their own backyard,” he said. “Better yet, maybe Republicans should actually start governing - and stop the hysterics about a woman who merely wrote a book.”

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