POLITICS

Clinton Email Controversy Gives 2016 Race Its First Dose Of High Anxiety

03/15/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2015
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Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall convene every Sunday and attempt to decode and defang in a way that will hopefully leave you feeling unharmed and less confused. We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

Since the beginning of March, the singular story of our long-running pseudo-event known as the "2016 presidential race" has been former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her emails. This week, it became a matter which Clinton herself finally got around to addressing at a press conference, in which she explained that her decision to commingle State Department and non-State Department emails on a single email domain of her choosing was a decision borne from desired convenience, which has ended in no small amount of regret.

As I noted earlier this week, one of the most interesting things about Clinton's sudden email problem is that it probably can't be solved to anyone's satisfaction. The underlying assumption is that there is some email, somewhere, that has managed to escape proper oversight. No matter how many emails Clinton discloses, if this imagined missive fails to materialize, it will always be thought of something that's being hidden, as opposed to something that does not exist. The only solution is for none of this to have happened in the first place -- and it's not as if this required some super-genius amount of foresight to prevent.

Rather than solve the problem, it must simply be endured -- and not just by Clinton herself. Whatever you think of this email micro-event -- be it the intimation of a larger disorder, or one more shiny object of diminishing value -- the fact is that it has altered the "invisible primary" in some measurable way for Clinton's allies, her opponents, and the media tasked with covering the story. Today, we'll put everyone under the microscope -- and on the couch -- to see where this story is going, how it might end, and how everyone copes along the way. As with anything in American politics, everyone is unhappy in their own way.

Democrats: Seller's anxiety, mixed with frustration

As with any super-popular public figure, Hillary Clinton enjoys the affections of devotees for whom the mere notion that this story constitutes something scandalous is preposterous, and who are quick to point out that other current political figures (most notably GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) have email sins of their own. Naturally, this is something of a contradictory position to take, but the underlying emotional rationale is one in which Clinton-philes feel that their candidate is uniquely persecuted.

As Harry Enten reported this week over at FiveThirtyEight, Democrats in general hold the opinion that the media reserves its sharpest elbows for the former first lady:

While Clinton was Secretary of State, from 2009 to early 2013, the view that the press was out to get her subsided. But since she left that office -- and its nonpartisan glow -- behind, the percentage of Democrats who see the press as being too harsh in covering Clinton has risen from 23 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in June 2014. Just 9 percent thought the media was easier on Clinton than on the average politician, according to that June poll. This 45 percentage point gap between “harder” and “easier” is similar to how Republicans felt about the press and Republican politicians, according to YouGov polls during the first half of 2014.

But trends do not prove monoliths, and if you examine the way party elites and activists have responded to the email flap, you don't see a blind "blame the press" strategy. Instead, you see a growing demand for Clinton to just get on with her campaign already. That marks a big change from the halcyon days of late January, when everyone seemed more or less resigned to the fact that Clinton was going to afford herself "the luxury of time" because, as one anonymous source put it, "She's better off as a non-candidate. Why not wait?"

But if Clinton wanted some sort of well-manicured campaign rollout, it's looking more like that won't be in the cards. As Politico's Gabriel DeBenedetti reported this week:

Democrats around the country had a clear and stern message for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday after she wrapped up her much-anticipated -- if hastily scheduled -- news conference on her use of a private email account as secretary of state: She shouldn’t expect this issue to go away in the coming months, and she’d better hurry up and announce her presidential campaign soon.

“The whole situation underscores the need for her to announce her candidacy, as an actual campaign would be the best way to deal with issues like this if they come up,” said Kathy Winter, chairwoman of Iowa’s Osceola County Democrats.

The value of jumping into the race with both feet just as the heat from this email flap is at its height is pretty simple: You get to change the subject. You get to outline and defend policy positions and priorities, and give the teeming masses in the political media something more esoteric to chew on for a while. In short, you start playing your game. As one anonymous Democratic strategist told DeBenedetti, “When she announces that she’s running, that’s when this will fade away.”

Or, so that person hopes. Let's face it, if it were a sure thing that this problem was so easily dissolved, that source would be known by name, instead of by "a national Democratic strategist familiar with the emerging campaign structure and plans."

Of course, there's a world of Democrats outside of the Clinton fan base, including a fairly significant number of people who have dedicated their lives to convincing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to ruin her life and run for president, presumably to Clinton's left. From that camp, we've seen a trickle of reactions to this email controversy that all basically amount to, "Why always Hillary?"

As H.A. Goodman writes in these pages, "However, there's an alternative to constantly defending Hillary Clinton from real or fabricated accusations and controversies. Her name is Senator Elizabeth Warren." The interesting thing to note is the way Goodman characterizes the act of righteously defending Clinton from "fabricated accusations and controversies" as something that's not worth the effort.

The only problem, of course, is that Warren is not running, and Democrats do not have a particularly deep bench. That's why the "crap or get off the pot" faction is likely to get their way, pushing Clinton into proper campaign mode by April. At which point, she'll welcome the delicate knives of her rivals in the GOP.

Republicans: Guarded optimism, but worried they'll blow it

Obviously, all of this attendant controversy has been good news for the GOP, because this story weaves well with many pre-existing media narratives (the Clintons are, by nature, secretive) and oppositional talking points (the Clintons will do anything to win). And with Clinton looming large as a near-untouchable primary contender, Republicans will take no small amount of satisfaction in the fact that she won't get through the pre-primary season unbuffeted.

Nevertheless, it would appear that some sort of natural anxiety has seeped in on the Republican side, as the mouth of this irresistible gift horse clamors for gaze. As GOP strategist Ed Rogers writes in The Washington Post, "Meanwhile, Republicans have reacted in a somewhat bipolar fashion. They’ve sloshed from, 'Oh no, Hillary Clinton is invincible' to 'Oh no, Hillary Clinton might not be the Democratic nominee in 2016.'”

Is it possible that after all of this, Republicans would rather run against Hillary Clinton than someone else? That would evince far more confidence in the Democrats' second string than even the Democrats have mustered at this point. And yet, you can find people sharing these sentiments. Over at American Thinker, J. Robert Smith says that the question, "Would our party nominee be better off with Hillary or another Democrat?" is "more than an arm-chair debate":

RINO election strategies failed in 2008 and 2012. What critical constituencies do the McConnell-Boehner led GOP congressional majorities persuade or excite? Where are congressional Republicans advancing better approaches to the nation’s challenges? Boehner and McConnell capitulations on critical issues don’t exactly motive base conservatives or make Republicans standout.

An establishment Republican nominee has dim chances of winning the White House in 2016 unless Hillary manages to gain the Democratic nomination. Hillary won’t be the Democratic nominee; the left is making sure of it.

Obviously, most of that is predicated on a broad critique of "establishment Republicans" and some ostentatious assumptions about "the left" being engaged in a process to ensure Hillary doesn't run, but there is a danger, at least in theory, in the "candidate to be named later." And with current opinion polls telling our media that the people are hot for change, there's something reassuring about fighting Hillary Clinton in a general election when you presume she won't be able to embody something "new" in fitting enough fashion.

Elsewhere, there is the notion that somehow, the GOP will blow this. Clinton's "foes," writes Time magazine's David Von Drehle, "almost always overplay their hand":

Though members of Congress are calling for her to turn over the email server for forensic examination, they would be wise to proceed cautiously. A key page in the Clinton rule book is the one that reads: When in doubt, drive your enemies crazy -- then sit back and watch them implode.

The whole notion of the GOP always shooting themselves in the foot when they've got a clear sight at the target naturally comes in for some mockery in some circles. And yet, over in Politico Magazine, feisty GOP flack Rick Wilson makes it clear that this is one of his chief worries, urging Republicans to "stay out of the way of [Clinton's] email fiasco":

Let’s try something new: maintain message discipline, hold focus and keep an eye on a bigger objective than your daily press release, social media hits or email fundraising drops. This is about her, not us, so unless GOP elected and opinion leaders are smart and subtle, and execute with the right timing and tone, she wins. Try for once to play the long game and help Hillary Clinton take on water.

Of course, "never interrupt your opponent when they're making a mistake" is, in American politics, advice that is offered almost as often as it goes unheeded. But it goes to show that old GOP hands know this "overplay the hand" tendency well enough.

Of course, the main target of Wilson's piece may not be Republicans at all, but rather the media.

The Media: One nation under a backlash

"While the media’s passive 'attention span' excuse du jour is real," Wilson writes, "many in the press are possessed of a boundless ideological desire to change the subject right now."

There's scant evidence that this notion is true. The political press seems rather united on the notion that Clinton's press conference failed to end the story and continued to raise concerns. As of now, The Associated Press and Gawker have filed separate lawsuits against the State Department to gain access to Clinton's missing emails. Every indication is that this story shall persist for some time.

Still, it's a pretty nifty bit of "working the refs" from Wilson, and it neatly encapsulates the delicate position the press is in. If media outlets run at the story with the willy-nilly spirit of their typical foolishness, they could end up resembling the very creatures that Harry Enten's poll respondents imagine -- wild-eyed gaffe patrols eternally chasing after the shiny object. Give up on the story too soon, and they'll become another caricature: the in-the-tank liberal media. (And even though this story wouldn't exist without determined reporting, you can bet that if the flap ends up not hurting Clinton, the press will be accused of "burying the story.") Either way you turn, backlash looms.

Meanwhile, it's anybody's guess as to whether the people pursuing this story are doing so with any mind to what they should even be looking for, exactly. Time's Von Drehle pinpoints one area of interest, the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Per Von Drehle:

The risk that foreign governments and superrich foreign citizens might donate to the foundation as a way of currying favor with the Secretary of State worried both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Hillary Clinton was first named Obama’s top diplomat. And while the White House forced the foundation to sign a point-by-point agreement in 2008 about what it could and could not do while Hillary Clinton ran the State Department, there really is no separating the globe-trotting Clintons from the heady atmosphere of money and influence.

Still, it's not clear that everyone's wading into this story with a solid game plan. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says that he's "stuck on" the number of emails deemed private, and indeed, he offers no indication as to whether he's considered the distinction between quality and quantity. CNN's Laura Koran made a game attempt to illustrate what a pending release of Clinton emails might "look like," but never really gets past what's likely to be excluded from such a release to reckon with what might be there.

And the answer, of course, is that there may be nothing extraordinary in those emails at all. Of course, there could also be any number of embarrassments -- intemperate remarks, unexpected criticism, blunt analysis -- that might be dredged from Clinton's emails, as might be dredged from our own. So the story could just as easily end up in "What about your gaffes?" territory as it might end up exposing some dodgy synergy between Clinton's State Department office and her family's foundation.

Of course, there's something to this whole story that does speak to the public interest. As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opinion columnist Ernst-Ulrich Franzen notes, there's a wider, better debate to be had:

The fact of the matter is that operating in secret is the preferred method of operation for too many elected officials on both aides of the aisle. The Obama administration has become notorious for its foot-dragging and reluctance to operate under public scrutiny. And while Walker has been better than many when it comes to openness and in responding to the media, the secret email system and his unwillingness in recent weeks to directly answer some questions, still leaves a bad taste. Just as Clinton's practice does.

So, come 2016, I really would like to see a debate on openness in government between whoever wins the nominations. I'd like to hear about their commitment to the concept and what they would do to achieve more openness. And why secret email systems hurt democracy.

Cheers to Franzen for making the effort to elevate the conversation. Also, please accept these commiserations when this substantive conversation fails to materialize.

Hillary Clinton: Is it all really worth it?

And what of Clinton herself? The events of the last two weeks have raised a slew of old questions. Frank Rich took to his regular New York Magazine Q&A column to lament, "But the more important question is why the Clintons, who more than anyone in American politics understand the high risks of perceived improprieties, have left Hillary’s campaign so vulnerable even before it is officially out of the gate."

But the stupidest person in all of this whole mess is Hillary Clinton, who –- when she set up her private email address in 2009, just after leaving the Senate and just before heading into her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State -– had already weathered approximately 20 years and infinite variations on this exact stupidity about her supposedly letter-but-not spirit-of-the-law behavior and public transparency and yet set up a private email address and used it for work email anyway.

Meanwhile, Rich's New York Magazine colleague Jonathan Chait says that the "larger problem for Clinton, though, is not the likelihood that her emails will turn up incriminating evidence." Rather it is "what this episode reveals about her political judgment and managerial acumen."

All of which may be overcomplicating the problem. A more fitting question might be: "Does Hillary Clinton actually want to do this for the next year and a half?" Based upon how little she enjoyed her first tilt with a skeptical press, you have to think that going on for hundreds of days more will require a stouter resolve than most masochists are prepared to offer.

The pundit class, at the moment, is hung up on the public's desire for novelty and change, because it looks like there's a better-than-even chance that both parties' nominees might end up being dynastic throwbacks. But all of that may be a mere placeholder for public opinion, until the sparring begins and the public gains a firmer foothold into what the big ideas of the 2016 race might end up being.

Nevertheless, even if a lack of dynamic newness isn't a barrier to competing for the White House, a lack of optimism almost certainly is. And that's what's missing from Hillary Clinton's outward-facing campaign, such as it is at the moment: any sign of brightness or buoyancy, or the notion that there is something hopeful, energizing the Clinton candidacy with purpose. Inevitability -- that quality that Clinton is said to have in abundance -- doesn't mean much when it seems as if what's inevitable isn't any fun.

Somehow, some way, Hillary Clinton is going to have to find some way of proceeding on this path with something that resembles cheerfulness, and which presents a Clinton candidacy as an exuberant, positive thing in which to play a part. It can't look like a constant slog of pessimism and recriminations, otherwise the feeling expressed by H.A. Goodman, in which defending Clinton is a drudge even when the cause is right, will become widespread.

Clinton's been at this for a long while now, and while during that time, she's come to be thought of as having presidential timber, she's also managed to acquire a few decades of resentments, which she seems to keep too close at hand for her own good. Now, she's got to find a way to legitimately enjoy running for president. That probably means that she's got to somehow put these ancient grievances out of her mind, lest she be consumed by them. If only she could delete them as easily as an email.

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