THE BLOG
08/24/2016 07:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Clinton Emails

ASSOCIATED PRESS

That headline is Hillary Clinton's biggest current problem. At this point, it has become akin to how Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign used to be described: "a noun, a verb, 9/11." Clinton has entered similar linguistic territory, because any headline using the word "Clinton" and the word "emails" now triggers a consistent reaction from the public. Details, even fresh new ones, don't even really matter all that much at this point -- all people are really hearing now is: "Clinton, a verb, emails."

The anti-Clinton forces consider it a victory to see yet another round of email stories written, of course. But in all the investigating and document dumps, they have never uncovered any sort of bonfire-sized scandal to inflame public passions -- it's all been pretty small-scale stuff. More on the order of a damp match being lit in a rainstorm than a bonfire, really. A brief burst of light and energy and then (...pffffft...) it fizzles out into nothingness. Because of the lack of truly scandalous revelations, it has instead become a campaign of attrition, with those opposed to Clinton hoping mightily that the sheer volume of "Clinton Emails" headlines will eventually wear her down in the public eye.

Hillary Clinton has had this drag on her campaign for over a year now, and I don't expect it to go away any time soon. Even long after she is elected president (assuming she wins), it's a pretty safe prediction that late-night comics will still be doing endless email jokes about her. Indeed, it has now become one of the defining factors of how the public sees Clinton.

But even having said all of that, it hasn't appeared to do her much damage politically. Her trustworthiness ratings are historically low, but they might have been that low even without the whole email mess (it's impossible to tell, really, but it's worth pointing out that people had other problems with trusting Hillary, long before the emails became a problem). Even so, she's still up in all the polls. About the worst thing you can say about her political position versus Donald Trump is that if the Democrats had chosen a different nominee (Joe Biden, say), he might now be doing a lot better against Trump in the polls. While this might be true, the difference between winning by eight points and crushing Trump by 20 points is rather immaterial. In both cases, Trump loses.

Of course, if the F.B.I. had urged the Justice Department to indict Clinton over her use of a private email server, things would be different. But they didn't. Once she got past that hurdle, it's hard to see the public really changing their minds before the election, at this point. Bernie Sanders was rather prophetic, because most of the public are now "tired of hearing about her damn emails."

The electorate has a short attention span for scandals. Especially damp-match-sized scandals. At some point, the candidate can realistically claim: "You're just bringing up old stuff that has already been endlessly hashed out," and then move on. It worked for Barack Obama over the Reverend Wright scandal, remember. The story broke, much ink was spilled over it, Obama gave a speech, and then he moved on. By the time the election happened, it was old news. Clinton's email story seems to be travelling a similar arc, although with her there's a constant drip, drip, drip of new emails being released. So far, though, they've shown nothing more than the shocking truth that wealthy individuals get access to the government -- which is not exactly a big revelation. It's likewise not a big revelation that the Clintons (both of them) have been in the midst of this atmosphere for decades now. Using Rumsfeldian language, this is a "known known."

Most people have already made up their minds about Clinton's emails, one way or the other. Absent any bonfire-sized new revelations, these attitudes are probably set in concrete and won't be changing before November. Those who already think Clinton is too sleazy to vote for won't be voting for her. Those who think Clinton is indeed sleazy but also far better than the alternative will probably be voting for her (unless they have something better to do on Election Day). Those who think the whole thing is a manufactured witchhunt straight out of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy playbook will be enthusiastically voting for Hillary, no matter how many more "Clinton Emails" headlines appear.

Call it email fatigue or just boredom at the lack of any fresher and more interesting scandals, but the public seems to have largely made up its mind on the question of Clinton's emails. Oh, sure, Donald Trump will get as much mileage out of it as possible (I'd bet he'll bring it up within the first ten minutes of the first debate, personally), but other than further enthusing his already-enthusiastic supporters, he's not likely to get a whole lot of traction from such attacks.

So the problem will persist for Hillary Clinton, for a long time to come. However, the problem is relatively small at this point, because it hasn't disqualified her in most voters' opinion. She has largely weathered the scandal because people are so tired of hearing about it over and over again. If she had never set up a personal server she would doubtlessly now be in a stronger political position, but the one she currently occupies is probably strong enough.

Republicans (and the media) have cried "Wolf!" on the email story so many times now -- with so little to show for it -- that the public seems on the verge of not paying much attention to any such cries in the future. Every time a supposed smoking gun is spotlighted, it never lives up to its billing. At some point, the frantic spotlighting ceases to draw a whole lot of attention. We seem to have reached that point. So while Hillary's problem has been pared down to two trigger words, seeing "Clinton Emails" headlines elicits no more than a shrug from most voters. The Republicans have, once again, overplayed the political hand they were dealt.

 

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