She navigated a hall of mirrors.
Back in March 2016, at a Democratic town hall in Ohio, Hillary Clinton made what was probably the best-known “gaffe” of her campaign. As part of an answer on energy policy, she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” This was immediately taken as a sign of her hostility to the working class and a confirmation of Democrats’ “war on coal.”
She now calls it the comment she regrets most, devoting an entire chapter to it in her new book What Happened. “The point I had wanted to make,” she writes, “was the exact opposite of how it came out.” She “felt absolutely sick about the whole thing.” (Ken Ward Jr. has some good excerpts from the chapter on his blog.)
It was only one episode in a long and bizarre campaign, but it’s worth dwelling on it for a moment, because it contains, in miniature, the whole of the Kafkaesque information environment Clinton faced. The release of her book has given her critics yet another opportunity to scold and deride her, but if you climb inside this coal gaffe for a while, and really interrogate it a bit, you start to see just how impossible a situation she was in.
There are several questions one might ask about the incident. Did she mean what her critics said she meant? If she didn’t, should she have avoided saying it? Did she bungle the response to the media coverage?
Let’s walk through them one at a time.
What did Clinton mean?
Clinton was asked what she would do to support working-class voters who typically vote Republican. Here, for the record, is her full answer:
Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? [Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) was in the audience.]
And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.
If all you knew about Hillary Clinton was these two paragraphs, there might be some legitimate doubt about what she meant in the offending sentence.
But Clinton already had a record on energy policy and coal communities. Putting together a detailed proposal for a $30 billion aid package to ailing coal communities was one of the very first moves her campaign made on policy.
— Bluegrass Politics (@BGPolitics) May 2, 2016
This is what she says about the answer in her book:
If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.
I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.
The account Clinton gives here of the decline of Appalachian coal is 100 percent accurate. The forces killing those coal jobs are market-based. President Obama’s regulations, the ones Clinton would have maintained, had very little to do with it.
What Clinton was obviously fumbling around trying to say is that lots of coal miners and coal companies are going to be put out of business by these market forces. By “we,” she just meant America — “we” are transitioning to cheaper, cleaner energy, and in the process, “we” are going to eliminate some dirty-energy jobs and companies.
Coal communities are going to continue hurting, whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency regulates anything. That’s why Clinton wanted to help them.
Interpreted with even an iota of charity, in light of her record and commitments, even in light of the comments immediately preceding and following, Clinton was clearly trying to express concern for coal communities. To believe otherwise, you’d have to believe not only that she delights in putting Americans out of work but that she would boast about it publicly, like Dr. Evil, to the very people losing jobs. It’s ridiculous.
When her political opponents plucked that phrase out of context and spun it as hostile to coal communities, they were distorting her meaning. They were lying.
We really have to establish this point before moving on. It matters.
There is no reasonable debate on Clinton’s intent. Her disposition toward coal communities was clear to any fair-minded observer at the time; it was the theme of her answer; it was the focus of a major policy proposal.
Whatever you might think about this incident, or what it says about Clinton, what it doesn’t do is reveal that she secretly hated coal communities all along. It does not reveal anything new or substantive about her views or intentions. Insofar as this was a story, it was a story about appearances, not realities.