Hillary Clinton held a news conference to stop a story from turning into a full-blown scandal. She had set up and used a secret email account as secretary of state, violating rules to archive and protect e-correspondence.
But she just added fuel to the firestorm, raising many more questions than she answered.
Some of those questions will trigger legal and congressional inquiries. For example, when she defended the deleting of “personal” emails, would that include emails to the Clinton Foundation? If so, did those emails indicate anything about the foreign governments that gave money to the Clinton Foundation — money that raised suspicions of improper influence?
But many of the questions were political…
Was her presser the start of the 2016 presidential race? If so, it was not the kind of launch Hillary fans wanted. For Democrats eager to unite behind the presumed nominee, it was discouraging to have to explain yet another Clinton scandal. Old Clinton spokesmen did their best in interviews: Jim Carville fulminated, and Lanny Davis tried finessing. But few Democratic leaders were prepared or willing to defend Hillary’s arguments for non-transparency.
For the media, it was time to pull out the email puns. The New York Post headlined: “Deleter of the Free World.” To improve her relations with the press, Clinton hired a new communications director for the presumptive campaign, but it’s her own widely reported disdain for political reporters that is problematic.
A Republican strategist counseled the GOP faithful to curb their enthusiasm. Writing for Politico magazine, Rick Wilson was blunt: “Let’s try something new: maintain message discipline, hold focus and keep an eye on a bigger objective than your daily press release, social media hits or email fundraising drops. This is about her, not us, so unless GOP elected and opinion leaders are smart and subtle, and execute with the right timing and tone, she wins. Try for once to play the long game and help Hillary Clinton take on water.”
Is this a scandal that gets worse? If so, what can Hillary do about it? Some argue she is now in free fall in this scandal because she can’t disclose information that would make things worse. Prof. Charles Lipson, writing in Real Clear Politics, compared her quandary to Richard Nixon’s in trying to prevent the release of the Watergate tapes. “When politicians hide things — their tax records, their college records, whatever — they do it for very good reasons. The stronger the pressures for disclosure, the better the reasons must be for hiding the documents.”
Does Hillary need competition to get better? Before the email scandal broke, HRC seemed like such a dominant frontrunner — with 50-point leads over possible Democratic opponents in primary states like New Hampshire — most Democratic officials were content with the prospect of a Hillary coronation. It would allow an early unifying of the party, and a conserving of resources needed for the general election. Now, some hope she has competition. They feel that Hillary is rusty as a candidate and might need to sharpen her communication skills by having to face the media more often and taking equally pointed questions from skeptical voters.
There are already two credible opponents for the Democratic nomination: Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland (who wouldn't criticize Hillary on the email scandal, thus prompting some to think he’s really positioning himself as a possible running mate for her) and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (who is widely considered too conservative for today’s Democratic Party). As I noted in an earlier commentary, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and others are not likely to enter the fray.
But if Hillary implodes in the coming weeks? Perhaps Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could excite progressives — after all, many of them think Hillary is too hawkish and too friendly to Wall Street. And it’s possible someone like California Gov. (and former presidential candidate) Jerry Brown might run.
It would be hard for another Democrat — at this late stage of the early stage — to catch fire the way Barack Obama did against Hillary in 2008. It takes a lot of time, connections, personality and a compelling message to raise the money and build the organization to overtake someone as formidable and popular as Hillary. It’s possible, theoretically. But it would be a long, long shot. Still, it’s safe to say that Hillary is not one of those who want to see a spirited primary contest. After her last press conference, she’s surely hoping for less debate, not more.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.