At the very first Democratic primary debate in October 2015, Bernie Sanders confidently assured Hillary Clinton that voters were “sick and tired of hearing about” her “damn emails.” Clearly, he was mistaken. As election day dawned some 13 months later, Clinton’s damn emails remained the defining so-called scandal of a presidential race in which her opponent was accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women.
The controversy over the Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State was her campaign’s Kryptonite. It was emblematic of a personal defect: her reputation for Nixonian paranoia and secrecy. But it also represented the success of a decades-long Republican campaign to discredit Clinton and her husband with any accusation that seemed sufficiently schmeary to stick.
A candidate with a more natural feel for political optics might have dodged some of the potholes that periodically juddered the Democrat’s campaign. Clinton maintains she used her home server for convenience. Many sane observers surmised it was a ploy to avoid future FOI requests for her private correspondence. Both narratives are plausible, but, if she planned to run for President, then perhaps she should have been more circumspect about her email arrangements.
She should have known how her Goldman Sachs speeches would look to an electorate suspicious of the financial establishment, particularly in a primary race against a more progressive candidate like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. She should have been more careful about perceived conflicts of interest between her State Department work and the Clinton Foundation, which emit the whiff of entitlement and arrogance, if not of corruption.
So Clinton was an imperfect nominee – but when history records her defeat to such a manifestly unfit opponent, the footnotes must also show she was not facing Donald Trump alone. At times during this unedifying election, it seemed she was also running against Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Rudy Giuliani’s pro-Trump poker buddies at the FBI, ingrained sexism and a media that routinely mistook balance for objectivity.
And then there was the Republican party establishment, which spent the years leading up to 2016 doing its absolute darndest to disqualify the likely Democratic front-runner. The House Select Committee on Benghazi was established only after seven other Congressional investigations regarding the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya had uncovered precisely zero culpability on the part of the then-Secretary of State.
Nevertheless, the committee spent over two years and $7m producing an 800-page report that also failed to find any evidence of Clinton's supposed wrongdoing, but that succeeding in generating an ancillary flap by publicising her use of the private email server. Mainstream Republicans had shaped an alternate reality in which Clinton was a brazen criminal who just hadn’t been caught yet. Trump convinced his supporters to take up residence in that reality.
By the time they came to cast their ballots, even many Democratic voters had accepted the premise that their preferred candidate was the lesser of two evils. After FBI Director James Comey announced in July that “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue an indictment against Clinton for her sloppy handling of some classified material – “not a close call,” he added – polls found that more than half of all Americans still believed she had broken the law.
Media monitor the Tyndall Report recently calculated that, over the course of the 2016 campaign, America’s broadcast news channels had devoted more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s email than to all policy issues combined. Little wonder, then, that when Comey clumsily made public the discovery of new, potentially Clinton-related emails less than a fortnight before the election, her gaping poll lead narrowed to within the margin of error.
She had also suffered a blip in September, when forced to admit to a previously undisclosed bout of pneumonia. That gaffe played into the same preconception of Clinton as cagey and unforthcoming. In fact, hers has been the most transparent presidential campaign in history, courtesy of the Russian hackers who likely stole its chairman John Podesta’s emails – and of Wikileaks, which published them. Yet somehow Trump, a compulsive liar who refused even to release his tax returns, trounced her in the honesty polls.
For good or ill (but mostly for ill), Trump dominated coverage of the 2016 election. So it is notable that whenever Clinton took centre stage on her own terms, her fortunes waxed: her poll numbers soared after the Democratic convention, and again after each of the three televised debates, which demonstrated that she was competent, smart, wily, highly prepared and unruffled by her opponent and his increasingly brutish attacks.
Clinton and Trump are said to be the two most unpopular candidates ever to battle it out for the US presidency. It seems inconceivable now, but when she exited her last government job in January 2013, Clinton had approval ratings in the mid- to high-60s, making her one of the most admired political figures in the country. That was before the damn emails. She might well have won back the doubters in the White House, if she had made it there.
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