One thing is for sure about the 2016 presidential election: The twin narratives of scandal and crisis management will be debated throughout Hillary Clinton's campaign. This is a clinical observation, not a partisan political one. So, let's look at how the Clintons -- and we must conjoin husband and wife, given the nature of their careers -- manage crises.
Short answer: Pretty well. After all, a quarter century after emerging on the national scene, Hillary Clinton has a fair shot at the presidency, which tells us almost everything we need to know.
There are any number of things that may tank Hillary's candidacy before November 2016, but let's dispense with the trope that her capacity to navigate scandal is her Achilles' heel when it's always been one of her strengths. In fact, one of the great paradoxes of Clintonalia is that the duo is always accused of botching their crisis management, yet they emerge from almost all their scrapes even stronger.
Hillary understands that the aim of crisis management is to knock attacks into remission, so that she can get back to business. Put differently, the goal is to endure -- not to convince talk show people -- and your enemies -- that you are good at crisis management. As I wrote in Glass Jaw, my new book on navigating scandal, endurance is the most unheralded form of genius.
The Clintons' crisis management acumen lies in some combination of having strong constitutions and improvisational flexibility. They understand that the only crisis management playbook is that there is no playbook. They are the masters of muddling through -- ducking, surveying the landscape, counterpunching, conveying vulnerability, revising, improvising and absorbing blows. Whatever works. And from a purely medicinal perspective, they are absolutely right.
They reject the canard that full disclosure or "getting it all out there" correlates with vindication. Privacy tends to work for the Clintons, as it does for many public and private figures. So they make their enemies earn their carcass, hoping that the media and public get bored or distracted in the process. And they often do: A number of Clinton scandals have collapsed, receded or eroded.
During the Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton first denied his relationship with the intern; then, he stonewalled; then, he pleaded for an end to "the politics of personal destruction"; then, his supporters rallied and the more enterprising ones dug into and exposed the sexual hypocrisy of leading Republicans; then, once his enemies had been defanged and it was clear he would remain in office, Clinton did his mea culpas. A messy process to be sure, but crisis management is inherently messy. Hardball is a bipartisan affair, and nobody plays harder than the Clintons. Bill Clinton left office with the highest approval rating of any president in recent history.
The Clinton modus operandi was at work in the recent private email/server flap. Hillary let the pundits yammer for a week in order to assess what the hostiles were saying, and then she composed her response. She held a news conference and offered up her answer: She had used a private domain for convenience, claimed to have broken no rules, pledged to turn over State Department-related emails to the proper parties, but refused to make public her private emails. She was predictably criticized for her defensive posture and incomplete answers, but, blah blah, the controversy went into remission.
Endurance served as the backbone of Hillary's Benghazi strategy as well. Her survival cocktail included accepting responsibility for a "systemic breakdown," denying having seen a request from diplomats for greater embassy security, tearing up, lashing out, table-pounding and letting inertia smother the flames of scandal in the media vortex.
There are also two external variables that play in Hillary's favor. First, Clinton scandals are no longer exotic. Hillary will benefit from a certain "controversy congestion" -- so many allegations of varying merits that either a certain numbness has set in or a new scandal knocks the present one out of the news. From Whitewater to Vince Foster to Benghazi, how does a bombarded voter begin to distinguish between the flash points that mean something, and those that don't signify anything at all?
Second, the Clintons benefit greatly from their enemies, who loathe them with such abandon that they inevitably resort to overkill. Overkill leaves Hillary looking like a victim, not a scandal-plagued predator. When she becomes a victim, the scandal du jour will be viewed with skepticism.
Further benefitting Hillary is that the same news media that is tasked with investigating her also likes attacking her enemies -- namely Republicans who they associate with singular meanness and dirty tricks. Accordingly, her enemies then become targets of investigation and attack themselves, which converts the narrative from a scandal-plagued politician to that of a victim of dirty tricks. While Republicans understandably scoffed when Hillary referred to the "vast right-wing conspiracy" during the Lewinsky mess, many reporters very much believe it exists in some form.
In what looms as the next Clinton crisis, Hillary will have to respond in some manner to the accusations in Peter Schweizer's book Clinton Cash that alleges that foreign entities who donated to the Clintons subsequently received preferential treatment from her State Department. A spokesperson has already called the book's assertions "absurd conspiracy theories" and "partisan-fueled fiction."
Any number of non-crisis factors may conspire against the Clinton campaign, including the unknown prospects of malfeasance and subpar campaign management that stalk every campaign. Hillary also lacks the personality of her husband and, yes, personality matters in crisis management. Bill purrs under attack while Hillary bleats, and these styles inevitably yield different dividends. Sexist double standards will surely creep into the campaign mosaic in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
As the political season heats up, don't look for brilliant judo moves from the Clinton campaign. It's just not how crisis management reliably works for the Clintons. Rather, look for a sloppy fight, loaded with a grab bag of tactics, none of which, by itself, needs to be brilliant to be effective.
Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this report.
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