WASHINGTON – Joe Biden almost certainly isn’t going to challenge Hillary Clinton, and that’s too bad – for Clinton.
I say that only half in jest. Surely, nobody at Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn is eager for a primary bloodbath with the vice president. But the absence of a credible challenge to Clinton has created a damaging dynamic for her.
Clinton, lacking a sparring partner other than the socialist Bernie Sanders, has reverted to her instincts for secrecy and a distrust of the media that borders on paranoia. And the media, in the absence of the back-and-forth of a competitive primary, have taken on the role of opposition. Clinton’s insularity and the media’s prosecutorial zeal feed each other – as they have for nearly a quarter-century.
“It feels sometimes like the primary is Hillary against the media,” a top Clinton aide told me Tuesday, one of several in Clinton’s orbit who said the candidate would be better off with a viable primary opponent.
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Tensions came to a head last week when The New York Times incorrectly reported that the Justice Department had been asked to launch a “criminal investigation” into whether Clinton “mishandled sensitive government information” in her private email account. As the Times gradually cleaned up that mess, columnist Maureen Dowd published a piece comparing Clinton to quarterback Tom Brady (“destroying digital messages and thwarting official investigations while acting all innocent”) and reporting that Biden was talking about challenging Clinton.
Those I talked to in Biden world say this is only a theoretical possibility. Therefore, in the absence of a plausible Democratic foe, Clinton will have to wait months for Republicans to settle on a nominee with whom she can contrast herself. That’s regrettable, because a free-wheeling competition would draw Clinton from her ruinous secrecy, overshadow interest in her emails and sharpen her message.
Five months ago, I and others warned that Clinton was making a big mistake by refusing to release her private email server to the National Archives or to otherwise get the damaging information out. Had she done that, the story would likely be over by now. Instead, there are monthly releases of emails by the State Department, and Rep. Trey Gowdy’s, R-S.C., House committee has exploited the slow drip of disclosure.
This reflexive secrecy has been Clinton’s modus operandi going back at least to 1993, when she refused to release the Whitewater records – thereby giving the world the Ken Starr investigation. Clinton, improving on her 2008 experience, has hired a well-regarded communications team that includes Jennifer Palmieri, Karen Finney, Brian Fallon and Nick Merrill. The trouble is an inner circle of confidants – Philippe Reines, David Brock, Sid Blumenthal, Doug Band – who reinforce her circle-the-wagons tendencies.
She began her campaign by refusing to give interviews or even to take questions for several weeks, and her campaign drew mockery for putting even routine bits of information off the record. “She wanted to start slow,” said one adviser. “Maybe we didn’t hit the mark right.”
Now she gives more interviews and news conferences, but reporters on the Clinton beat complain that they’re kept in the dark about travel, that the campaign restricts coverage of Clinton events even when space is plentiful, and that only one of Clinton’s fundraisers has been open to coverage – by one reporter. Reporters have learned about fundraisers from the Hollywood Reporter, and at a July 4 parade in New Hampshire they were corralled with rope to keep them away from the candidate (a technique used on reporters by the Chinese government).
This treatment has made for an antagonistic press corps.
Clinton aides say they saw this in the July interview she granted to CNN’s Brianna Keilar. Keilar, noting that six in 10 Americans don’t believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy, asked a series of questions: “Do you understand why they feel that way? … Do you bear any responsibility for that? … Do you see any role that you’ve had in the sentiment that we’ve seen, where people are questioning whether you’re trustworthy? … Would you vote for someone that you don’t trust?”
They say they saw it, too, in the erroneous Times report about a “criminal” probe. Palmieri complained bitterly to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet about the lack of “adequate opportunity to respond” to the allegation.
This destructive dynamic – a hunkered-down candidate and a bored and hostile press corps desperate for a sliver of news – probably has only one cure. As a Clinton hand put it: “You need a true competition.”
Alas, she’ll have to wait for the Republicans to give her one.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.