July 19, 2024

Hillary Clinton criticized her fellow Democrats over what she described as a decades-in-the-making failure to protect abortion rights, saying in her first extended interview about the fall of Roe v. Wade that her party underestimated the growing strength of anti-abortion forces until many Democrats were improbably “taken by surprise” by the landmark Dobbs decision in 2022.

In wide-ranging and unusually frank comments, Mrs. Clinton said Democrats had spent decades in a state of denial that a right enshrined in American life for generations could fall — that faith in the courts and legal precedent had made politicians, voters and officials unable to see clearly how the anti-abortion movement was chipping away at abortion rights, restricting access to the procedure and transforming the Supreme Court, until it was too late.

“We didn’t take it seriously, and we didn’t understand the threat,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Most Democrats, most Americans, did not realize we are in an existential struggle for the future of this country.”

She said: “We could have done more to fight.”

Mrs. Clinton’s comments came in an interview conducted in late February for a forthcoming book, “The Fall of Roe: The Rise of a New America.”

The interview represented Mrs. Clinton’s most detailed comments on abortion rights since the Supreme Court decision that led to the procedure becoming criminalized or restricted in 21 states. She said not only that her party was complacent but also that if she had been in the Senate at the time she would have worked harder to block confirmation of Trump-appointed justices.

And in a blunt reflection about the role sexism played in her 2016 presidential campaign, she said women were the voters who abandoned her in the final days because she was not “perfect.” Overhanging the interview was the understanding that had she won the White House, Roe most likely would have remained a bedrock feature of American life. She assigned blame for the fall of Roe broadly but pointedly, and notably spared herself from the critique.

Some Democrats will most likely agree with Mrs. Clinton’s assessment. But as the party turns its focus to wielding abortion as an electoral weapon, there has been little public reckoning among Democrats over their role in failing to protect abortion rights.

Even when they held control of Congress, Democrats were unwilling to pass legislation codifying abortion rights into federal law. While frequently mentioned in passing to rally their base during election season, the issue rarely rose to the top of their legislative or policy agenda. Many Democrats, including President Biden, often refused even to utter the word.

Until Roe fell, many in the party believed the federal right to an abortion was all but inviolable, unlikely to be reversed even by a conservative Supreme Court. The sense of denial extended to the highest ranks of the party — but not, Mrs. Clinton argued, to her.

“One thing I give the right credit for is they never give up,” she said. “They are relentless. You know, they take a loss, they get back up, they regroup, they raise more money.” She added: “It’s tremendously impressive the way that they operate. And we have nothing like it on our side.”

Mrs. Clinton did not express regret for any inaction herself. Rather, she said her efforts to raise alarms during her 2016 campaign went unheeded and were dismissed as “alarmist” by voters, politicians and members of her own party. In that race, she had talked about the threats to abortion rights on the campaign trail and most memorably in the third presidential debate, vowing to protect Roe when Mr. Trump promised to appoint judges who would overturn it.

But even then, internal campaign polling and focus groups showed that the issue did not resonate strongly with key groups of voters, because they did not believe Roe was truly at risk.

Now, as the country prepares to face its third referendum on Mr. Trump, she offered a stark warning about the 2024 election. A second Trump administration would go far beyond abortion rights to target women’s health care, gay rights, civil rights — and even the core tenets of American democracy itself, she said.

“This election is existential. I mean, if we don’t make the right decision in this election in our country, we may never have another actual election. I will put that out there because I believe it,” she said. “And if we no longer have another actual election, we will be governed by a small minority of right-wing forces that are well organized and well funded and are getting exactly what they want in terms of turning the clock back on women.”

Mrs. Clinton described those forces and her former opponent as part of a “global phenomena” restricting women’s rights, pointing to a push by Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, pressing women to focus on raising children; the violent policing of women who violate Iran’s conservative dress code; and what she described as the misogyny of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“Authoritarians, whether they be political or religious based, always go after women. It’s just written in the history. And that’s what will happen in this country,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton viewed her remarks as another attempt to ring an alarm before the 2024 election.

“More people have got to wake up, because this is the beginning,” she said. “They really want us to just shut up and go home. That’s their goal. And nobody should be in any way deluded. That’s what they will force upon us if they are given the chance.”

But she also seemed to expect that many would dismiss her concerns once again. “Oh, my God, there she goes again,” she said, describing what she anticipated would be the reaction to her interview. “I mean, she’s just so, you know, so out there.”

But she added: “I know history will prove me right. And I don’t take any comfort in that because that’s not the kind of country or world I want for my grandchildren.”

Nearly eight years after her final campaign, Mrs. Clinton remains one of the most prominent women in American politics, and the only woman in the country’s history to capture the presidential nomination of a major party.

Her life encapsulates what could be seen as the Roe era in American life. She embodies the professional and personal changes that swept the lives of American women over the past half-century. Roe was decided in 1973, the same year Mrs. Clinton graduated from law school. Its fall was accelerated in 2016 by her loss to Donald J. Trump, which set in motion a transformation of the Supreme Court.

Had Mrs. Clinton won the White House in 2016, history would have turned out very differently. She would most likely have appointed two or even three justices to the Supreme Court, securing an abortion-rights legal majority that probably would have not only upheld Roe but also delivered rulings that expanded access to the procedure.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton said Democrats neglected abortion rights from the ballot box to Congress to the Supreme Court.

Along with her prediction for the future, Mrs. Clinton offered a detailed assessment of the past. For her, the meaning of the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was clear — and devastating.

“It says that we are not equal citizens,” she said, referring to women. “It says that we don’t have autonomy, agency and privacy to make the most personal of decisions. It says that we should be rethinking our lives and our roles in the world.”

She blasted Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in the case, saying his decision was “terrible,” “poorly reasoned” and “historically inaccurate.”

Mrs. Clinton accused four justices — John G. Roberts Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — of being “teed up to do the bidding” of conservative political and religious organizations and leaders — though she believed many Democrats had not realized that during those justices’ confirmation hearings.

“It is really hard to believe that people are going to lie to you under oath, that even so-called conservative justices would upend precedents to arrive at ridiculous decisions on gun rights and campaign finance and abortion,” she said. “It’s really hard to accept that.”

Yet, she also had tough words for her former colleagues. In the Senate, she said, Democratic lawmakers did not push hard enough to block the confirmation of the justices who would go on to overturn federal abortion rights. When asked in confirmation hearings if they believed Roe was settled law, the nominees noted that Roe was precedent and largely avoided stating their opinion on the decision.

Those justices “all lied in their confirmation hearings,” she said, referring to Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett, all of whom were appointed by Mr. Trump. “They just flat-out lied. And Democrats did nothing in the Senate.”

She added: “If I’d still been in the Senate, and on the Judiciary Committee, I think, you know, I hope I would have tried to do more about what were just outright prevarications.”

It is unclear how Democrats could have stopped those justices from reaching the bench given that they did not control the Senate during their confirmation hearings. When Mr. Trump took office, Republicans also had unified control of 24 state legislatures, making it all but impossible for Democrats to stop conservatives from pushing through increasingly restrictive laws.

For years, she said, Democrats failed to “invest in the kind of parallel institutions” to the conservative legal establishment. Efforts to start the American Constitution Society, she said, never quite grew as large as the better established Federalist Society, a network of conservative lawyers, officials and justices that includes members of the Supreme Court.

“I just think that most of us who support the rights of women and privacy and the right to make these difficult decisions yourself, you know, we just couldn’t believe what was happening. And as a result, they slowly, surely and very effectively got what they wanted,” she said. “Our side was complacent and kind of taking it for granted and thinking it would never go away.”

Mrs. Clinton was born in 1947, when abortion was criminalized and contraception was banned or restricted in more than two dozen states. In Arkansas, where she practiced law while her husband served as governor, she watched the rise of the religious right and the anti-abortion movement.

From the time she arrived in Washington as first lady, Mrs. Clinton fought openly for abortion rights. She famously declared that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” in a 1995 speech at the World Conference on Women in Beijing. When she became a senator, Mrs. Clinton voted against the partial-birth abortion ban, unlike more than a dozen of her fellow Democrats. As Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she made a mission of expanding women’s reproductive health across the globe.

In 2016, Planned Parenthood endorsed her candidacy, the first time the organization waded into a presidential primary. In her campaign, Mrs. Clinton promised to appoint judges who would preserve Roe, opposed efforts in Congress to pass a 20-week abortion ban and pushed for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which banned the federal funding of abortions.

Even her language was updated. For years, when it came to abortion, she championed her belief in a phrase popularized by her husband during his 1992 presidential campaign: “safe, legal and rare.”

In a private, previously unreported meeting recounted in the book, campaign aides told Mrs. Clinton to drop the phrase during her 2016 run. Her staff explained that increasingly progressive abortion-rights activists thought calling for the procedure to be “rare” would offer a political concession to the anti-abortion movement. And with so many new restrictions being passed in conservative-controlled states, abortion was increasingly difficult to obtain, particularly for poorer women, making “rare” the wrong focus for their message. Abortion should be “safe, legal, accessible and affordable,” they told her.

“Well, that doesn’t make any sense,” she said in response at the time. “That’s stupid.”

In the interview, Mrs. Clinton said she quickly came to embrace the shift in language. What she and other Democrats had tried to do in 1992 with “safe, legal and rare” was “send a signal that we understand Roe v. Wade has a certain theory of the case about trimesters,” she explained. But by 2016, the world had changed.

“Too many women, particularly too many young women did not understand the effort that went into creating the underlying theory of Roe v. Wade. And the young women on my campaign made a very compelling argument that making it safe and legal was really the goal,” she said. “I kind of just pocketed the framework of Roe.”

Still, Mrs. Clinton felt like many of her warnings over the issue were ignored by much of the country.

When she delivered a speech in Wisconsin in March 2016, arguing that Supreme Court justices selected by Mr. Trump could “demolish pillars of the progressive movement,” Mrs. Clinton said that “people kind of rolled their eyes at me.”

Mrs. Clinton said she saw her defeat in that election as inextricable from her gender. As she has in the past, she blamed the former F.B.I. director James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the investigation of her private email server for her immediate defeat. Mr. Comey had raised questions about her judgment and called her “extremely careless” but recommended no criminal charges. Other political strategists have faulted her message, strategy and various missteps by her campaign for her loss in 2016.

“But once he did that to me, the people, the voters who left me, were women,” she said. “They left me because they just couldn’t take a risk on me, because as a woman, I’m supposed to be perfect. They were willing to take a risk on Trump — who had a long list of, let’s call them flaws, to illustrate his imperfection — because he was a man, and they could envision a man as president and commander in chief.”

Mrs. Clinton said she was shocked by how little the reports of Mr. Trump’s sexual misconduct and assault seemed to affect the race. They did not disqualify him from the presidency, at least not among most Republicans and conservative Christians. But his promises to appoint justices that would reverse Roe helped him win, she said.

“Politically, he threw his lot in with the right on abortion and was richly rewarded,” she said.

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