If it were anyone else, it would just be another one of those arcane, inside-the-Beltway sagas, of consuming interest to the obsessives that populate Washington but to few others: a cabinet member who used her private email rather than that of her department to conduct official business, and who may have violated security rules.
But we’re not talking about anyone else. The subject is Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most speculated-about woman on the planet. And the question automatically arises. Could the controversy (I prefer for the time being to avoid the word “scandal”) that erupted last week mess up her presumed plans to run for the White House in 2016? So far she has announced nothing, but everything she’s done in the past few months makes it a racing certainty she will.
One’s immediate reaction is: no – the brouhaha will make little difference. Whether Clinton, in her time as Secretary of State, chose to operate by private email through a server set up in her home in New York state is a debate of little relevance, indeed scarcely comprehensible, to people in the rest of the country. A few weeks, and all will be swept aside by a new Washington drama. But on second thoughts, one wonders.
For one thing, the Republicans who control Congress have a heaven-sent opportunity of harassment-by-hearing of the one Democrat who right now stands between them and recapturing the presidency. The email rumpus emerged in part because of continuing investigation into the CIA and State Department’s response to the terrorist attack on the US mission in Benghazi in September 2012, when four Americans, including the ambassador, died. Though Clinton was cleared, the incident remains the biggest shadow on her four years at State – a shadow that might yet grow darker.
And for another, little things matter. Back in 2007, when she was overwhelming favourite for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, she tripped up in a candidates’ debate over a question about whether illegal immigrants could apply for a driving licence. The flap seemed harmless. Instead it was the moment when her aura of invincibility was destroyed. A few days later, Obama, still the outsider, gave a dazzling speech at a political dinner in Iowa, and the Democratic campaign was turned on its head.
Most dangerous of all, the email affair feeds into a perception about the Clintons in general, and Hillary in particular, that they are over-secretive and prone to act as if rules applied to other people, not them. The same might be said of another recent Clinton controversy, of large foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, no model of transparency, when she was at the State Department. Nothing for a politician is more dangerous than a misstep or gaffe that seems to confirm what people already suspect.
There are, of course, differences between now and 2007, most notably that Barack Obama Mark II is nowhere to be seen. This time, Hillary Clinton towers over the putative Democratic field as no non-incumbent party candidate has in recent memory, leading every rival by 40 points or more.
In 1988, Bob Dole was available for Republicans who didn’t fancy George Bush Snr. And if they didn’t want George Jnr in 2000, there was John McCain. Ditto on the Democratic side. Al Gore from the outset was heavy favourite, but Bill Bradley, senator from New Jersey, gave him a decent run for his money. But in 2016, it’s Hillary or nothing for Democrats – and that’s why the fuss over the emails sends shivers down their spine.
Never has a party been so invested in a single candidate. It’s not just at the presidential level. On Capitol Hill and the states too, she alone seems to stand between the party and wipeout. Democrats have lost both houses of Congress. Less remarked upon, but equally important, were the losses of governors’ mansions in 2014, even in strongholds such as Maryland and Illinois. If not Hillary, in other words, le déluge.
Not surprisingly, then, many Democrats pine for an alternative – if not to defeat Clinton, then at least to generate a genuine debate about where the party should go, and how to restore its fortunes. Here, too, she arouses doubts. Can a Clinton, lavishly funded by Wall Street, centrist and cautious to the bone, credibly make the case for redistribution to narrow America’s ever more obscene inequalities of wealth? Then there’s a sense that she’s on the wrong side of the generational divide. Should she win, at 69 she’d be the second-oldest president to be inaugurated, after Ronald Reagan. Presidential elections are about competing visions of the future. Clinton, proudly vaunting her grandmotherhood, all too easily appears a creature of the past.
But the alternatives are desperately thin on the ground. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a true populist and heroine of the left, is adamant she is not running. Maryland’s former governor Martin O’Malley, a new and younger face, is doing the rounds of the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but has yet to make an impact. Former and present senators James Webb of Virginia and Bernie Sanders of Vermont might run, but neither is taken seriously. Which leaves Vice-President Joe Biden. Despite an engaging knack of putting his foot in his mouth, he’s more than qualified. But at 72, he’s surely too old.
In the meantime, all is frozen. The Clinton fundraising machine scoops up pledges of cash, while potential rivals are forced to wait, unable to make firm decisions until they know for sure whether she’s in or out. Her party, convinced that it sinks or swims with Clinton, rallies reflexively to her side. But stasis is not a healthy state of affairs, for Democrats or anyone else. Probably – though by no means certainly – the email affair will not be Clinton’s undoing. But at the very least it should force her into declaring her candidacy quickly. Not this summer, which reportedly had been her preference. But now.
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