Guest Editorial: Clinton struggles to recover
For months, Democrats have been watching the GOP presidential primaries with a mixture of amazement and glee, as Republicans went through the process of chaining themselves to an egotistical bully with a disdain for facts and a penchant for statements seemingly designed to alienate major voting blocs. Victory was assured. Democrats only had to ponder how big their triumph over the unelectable Donald Trump would be: Big enough to capture states that have been Republican strongholds, such as Arizona and Georgia? Big enough to deliver Democratic control of the Senate — or even the House? Big enough to cause a fatal splintering of the Republican Party?
Now, Democrats are waking up to the possibility that they are the ones flirting madly with disaster. Hillary Clinton’s flaws, once considered politically inconsequential, have been steadily magnified by campaign scrutiny and official investigations. Those flaws now loom bigger than Mount Rushmore. Last week’s report by the inspector general of the State Department made clear that in relying exclusively on a private email server as secretary of state, she violated department policy, put security in danger and lied about what she had done.
It is a thoroughly damning document — all the more so because the inspector general who submitted it, Steve Linick, was appointed by President Barack Obama. Anyone groping to excuse Clinton’s conduct eventually has to face the stark, infuriating fact: What she did served no purpose beyond letting her selfishly evade the rules and accountability demanded of everyone else. Her failure to cooperate with the inspector general’s inquiry, at the department she led, iced the cupcake.
The gravity of Clinton’s predicament, and its political implications, prompted campaign manager John Podesta to send a letter that attempts to placate her top supporters. While acknowledging that using a private server was a “mistake,” he downplayed its significance. “We are confident that voters will look at the full picture of everything she has done throughout her career,” Podesta wrote. What he didn’t mention is that this episode only reinforces her reputation for evading transparency.
From the start of her campaign, Clinton’s supporters insisted that her shortcomings had been fully absorbed by voters who long ago made their peace with her record. But many Americans — including not a few Democrats — are now thinking: Maybe she’s even more flawed a potential president than everyone thought before the IG report.
What everyone thought before the IG report was bad enough: Polls had some 56 percent of voters taking an unfavorable view of her, with 38 percent expressing a favorable opinion. Those are only slightly less awful than the numbers for Trump — who, after trailing her for months, has moved ahead of her in some recent polls. The IG findings won’t help her against Trump — or against Bernie Sanders.
In politics, timing can be everything. Clinton can be grateful this blow didn’t come a couple of months ago, when it might well have assured Sanders of the Democratic nomination. As it is, she has locked up enough delegates to prevail. Democrats worried about November can be glad this happened last week instead of late in the race. As is, she still has time to try to overcome the growing mistrust among many voters.
For the party, though, this report could hardly have come at a worse time — too late to open the door to a credible alternative nominee (Joe Biden? John Kerry?) but plenty early for Trump to exploit. Much of what he says at his rallies is transparently false, but his nickname for her, “Crooked Hillary,” has enough basis that it might stick.
Democrats have something else that wakes them up screaming in the middle of the night: the prospect that the FBI will recommend charges against Clinton or her aides when it completes its own probe. If Clinton loses the FBI primary, Trump could have an unimpeded path to the White House.
For most of the past year, Democrats have been happily distracted by the GOP’s apparent urge to blow itself up. They failed to notice they were walking into their own minefield without a map.