WASHINGTON – When the Clinton campaign stirs and moves, it is the sound of a thousand focus groups buzzing, a thousand memos fluttering, a thousand consultants consulting, a thousand talking points repeated in singsong unison. It advances like a big push at the Second Battle of the Somme – idealism long gone, but grim duty remaining. The whistles blow along a vast line. Boots churn in mud. Over the top, boys. Over the top.
Hillary Clinton’s approach to politics has recently been on full display. After one of the worst campaign launches in recent history, many Democrats have been hoping for some type of reset from their front-runner – some hint of recognition that the current strategy might be a tad flawed. Instead, at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding Dinner, Clinton refused readjustment and launched a spirited attack on her Republican critics for engaging in “partisan games” and playing “politics with national security.” Minions fanned out to dismiss the whole email business as “nonsense.”
How can we fault Hillary Clinton for adopting a strategy that has always worked for the Clintons before? On Whitewater. On suspicious commodity windfalls (involving a 10,000 percent profit in 9 months). On bimbo eruptions. On the Lewinsky matter. Outfight them. Out-parse them. Out-brazen them. Outlast them.
But it turns out to be difficult to run a presidential campaign drained of idealism. Bill Clinton was the “man from Hope.” Hillary Clinton’s team is hoping that it fully erased a server to prevent FBI scrutiny. Such a novel and useful political lesson: Those who have their data professionally wiped have nothing to hide because there is nothing left to find. More than half of Americans do not describe Clinton as honest and trustworthy. The rest are not paying attention.
At least partially as a result, Clinton’s campaign is foundering without a serious opponent. And her unserious opponent – an actual, real-live socialist – is leading her in some New Hampshire polls. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is all idealism, of the Norman Thomas variety. If Clinton is offering ideological aspirin, Sanders is handing out crystal meth. The high for Democrats is incredible, and temporary.
The real source of nightmares for Clinton and her supporters must be the figure of 10 percent. Of the sample of 40 emails initially reviewed by the intelligence community’s inspector general, four were found to contain classified data. In the universe of 30,000 emails sent and received over four years by a secretary of state, hundreds or thousands of emails might attract scrutiny. And it only takes negligence in one case to violate some rather serious laws concerning the possession and transfer of classified materials.
The claim of a Republican political conspiracy involving the FBI and various inspectors general is not minimally credible. Everything that results from this scandal can be traced to one decision made by Clinton herself: to conduct most of her highly sensitive public business through a personal email on a private Internet server. What lawyer – and Clinton is surrounded by sharp lawyers – would recommend such an arrangement? Wouldn’t legal alarm bells immediately begin ringing on compliance with the Federal Records Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Espionage Act? And why, just as a matter of common sense, would an American secretary of state trust the defense of sensitive information against Chinese and Russian hackers to Platte River Networks?
This is a choice that reveals a mindset. Having suffered through decades of investigations, Clinton apparently wanted to take complete, personal control over her communications records, which she could release or destroy at her own discretion. But the method was so blinking obvious that it has invited scrutiny. Clinton apparently overlearned the lesson of Whitewater; as God is her witness, she would never be subpoenaed again. In trying too hard to control events, Clinton has lost control of events. Her political future may lie, once again, in the hands of investigators and prosecutors.
Nothing approaching criminal conduct has, at this point, been demonstrated. But Clinton stands accused of poor judgment, playing close to ethical lines and showing a streak of paranoia. Her actions raise comparisons to Richard Nixon – and not the skillful diplomacy part.
The Clintons have always come as a package deal for Democrats: massive, intuitive political talent, accompanied by scandal and drama. So far, with Hillary Clinton, there is scandal and drama.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.