Every Clinton political scandal seems to pass through a number of phases before finally subsiding – or metastasizing.
In Phase 1 the Clintons try to stay quietly in the background while trotting out high-profile surrogates to attack their critics as “right-wing extremists” with a narrow “political agenda.” Two staunch Clinton defenders, both long-time allies of the former president and his wife, David Brock and Lanny Davis, have filled this surrogate role for Hillary Clinton during the ongoing email scandal. Both have appeared on numerous talk shows and have published opinion pieces defending the former first lady and casting doubt on the motives and integrity of her accusers.
Their basic role is to blunt the initial force of the controversy and to keep it from overwhelming Hillary and possibly driving her from the race. Surrogates try to muddy the waters; they also try to convince reporters and their editors that the story is no longer sufficiently newsworthy to be pursued in such an aggressive fashion.
Phase 2 of the Clinton scandal playbook begins when Clinton issues a routine denial of wrongdoing, which she did two weeks ago, then steps back and hopes for media interest to dwindle. In this phase, supposedly credible and “independent” political experts often step forward to offer what appears like “objective” analysis of the scandal, typically suggesting that its impact is exaggerated.
Witness the new opinion piece just penned by noted polling expert Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia, who has emerged in recent years as a leading go-to guy for the national news media when it comes to analyzing election patterns. Sabato, writing in Politico this week, has the temerity to suggest that national election scandals “simply don’t last” and rarely damage prospective presidential candidates. The reason, he says, is that the public, in the end, wants to know what candidates think about the economy or war and peace, and rarely judges them on their behavior, however reprehensible.
On its face, Sabato’s claim is absurd, and simply ignores the historical record. For example, two prominent Democratic presidential candidates, Gary Hart in 1988 and John Edwards in 2008, suffered catastrophic collapses of their political fortunes once their sexual affairs became known. Hart was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination before he was caught cavorting with model Donna Rice. Hart denied rumors of their relationships and dared the press to follow his movements, which some intrepid reporters promptly did.
In the case of Edwards, the candidate was openly carrying on with a self-employed “videographer” whom he’d met in the hotel lobby during a campaign stop. By all accounts, Rielle Hunter seduced Edwards in the space of a single conversation and managed to gain unusual entrée to Edwards, eventually becoming a paid member of his staff.
Edwards was never seriously in the running but he was forceful enough of a presence early on that he helped Obama tilt the balance against Clinton, especially in Iowa, which very nearly drove Clinton from the race. The cases of Hart and Edwards both dealt with outrageous sexual behavior but the issues involved went far beyond sexual morality. Hart’s affair flew in the face of his own repeated disavowals of the affair and exposed his dishonesty, arrogance, lack of transparency, and poor personal judgment. The scandal also fed a narrative that Hart, while endowed with a sophisticated intellect and genuine vision, was emotionally disconnected, glib and insincere. He could lie, behave recklessly, and selfishly expose others to harm, all the while thinking that he could float above criticism and public scrutiny. None of these qualities struck the public as those of a steadfast or trustworthy leader.
Edwards largely suffered the same fate. Before the scandal, he was praised as the most compelling speaker in the 2008 race, in part through his ability to connect with political audiences in the same way he so often swayed juries while litigating high-profile civil suits. He also had an evocative family story — a son who had died in a car accident and a wife diagnosed with inoperable cancer. But once the scandal broke, and the full details of his reckless affair emerged, Edwards’ entire campaign collapsed virtually overnight. From a populist hero, his image became that of an impressionable narcissist, a selfish pretty boy, and a cad.
Which brings us to Hillary Clinton. Sabato insists that most people – 90 percent, he estimates – have already made up their mind one way or the other about Clinton, which leaves precious few to be influenced, and those are too few to make a real difference, he insists. But a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, largely ignored by the news media, has found Clinton’s favorability rating has plummeted among Democrats and independents as a result of the email scandal, raising the prospect of another nominee. Moreover, even if Hillary is able to consulate her hold on the nomination, she will face a hotly contested race with a GOP candidate in which a small sliver of votes, especially among independents, could well make the difference in key districts that typically decide a presidential election.
The larger issue, though, is that this scandal is far from over. Far from focusing simply on Clinton’s emails, more issues are likely to be raised about foreign government contributions to the Clinton Foundation and to the Clinton Global Initiative. These issues are not simply about Clinton’s truthfulness or transparency. They raise questions about the entire pattern of Clinton’s global activities in and out of office and their collective impact on American foreign policy and national security.
These are precisely the larger issues that Sabato insists ultimately determine the outcome of presidential elections. Unless Clinton can find a away to aggressively put these same issues to rest – and she has failed miserably thus far — the slow drip-drip of revelations coupled with the seeming anomalies in Clinton’s positions on women’s rights, American oil independence, and an American politics free of undue foreign influence are likely to dog her bid for the presidency from now until the election. And GOP candidates could well have a field day with these same issues, gaining new leverage with independent voters.
Why does Sabato insist on offering such a tendentious analysis of the current scandal? Perhaps he’s still bucking for a job as one of Hillary’s in-house pollsters. In any event, it’s far too early to tell if Clinton will survive this powerful early blow to her campaign fortunes. But even if she does, it could well stigmatize her entire candidacy and tarnish her chances of winning.