“Would you say that – Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy or not?”
Question in August 20 Quinnipiac Poll of voters in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Only one in three voters in these key “swing” state said “yes” that Clinton was honest and trustworthy.
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The Democratic frontrunner and heir apparent has essentially squandered a long summer than might have been spent creating feel good moments of connection with voters from Portsmouth to Portland. Instead she – and we – have endured the steady drip, drip, drip of detail about her still unfathomable and still unexplained decision to use a private, non-governmental email server while she served as secretary of state.
“Whether out of pride, stubbornness or something else, Clinton has misread legitimate concerns about her private e-mail server and what they say about her,” Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post. “As a result, she has badly mishandled the issue. She has treated it almost solely as a legal problem (which it could be) rather than a political problem — just as she seemed to approach the promotion of her memoir of her tenure as secretary of state as a book tour rather than the start of her presidential campaign.”
The drip, drip, drip – it’s like a faucet that makes a noise in the night keeping you awake – is going to continue into the fall and beyond. Hillary has seen to that.
I try to spend as little of my time as possible thinking about email servers. I prefer to think about the baseball season, the next book I’m reading or red wine from Burgundy, but nonetheless I’ve been doing my share of server maintenance, thank you very much. I’ve concluded I’m less troubled by the allegations that some obscure, but classified State Department memo from our embassy in Djibouti ended up unprotected on Clinton’s server than I am about what the entire tiresome episode says about Hillary’s judgment. It speaks volumes.
When Americans eventually get around to entering the privacy of the voting booth more than a year from now they’ll face a stark choice for president between two inevitably flawed human beings. Elections almost always come down to two less-than-perfect choices. Hillary Clinton may well be one of the choices and in the privacy of that polling place we’ll do the mental math on whether we are more comfortable with her, her history, her experience, her positions and, yes, her judgment than we are with this guy Jeb or Walker, Carson or, urgh Trump, or maybe someone else.
In the private deliberations that constitute the most personal aspects of the democratic process, we’ll decide which of the candidates we will be most comfortable with for the next four years. It’s always a bit of crapshoot. I think most of us make these decisions based on fundamental questions that we regularly apply to people we encounter in our daily lives. When we pull the lever or punch the ticket we want a sense that we can trust the president of the United States not to be stupid, or rash, or so removed from us and our lives that the most powerful person in the world simply can’t relate. In other words, we really want a president we can trust.
Which brings me back to that private email server. The fundamental questions about the Summer of the Server still hang in the air, including most importantly why? Why did she do it? Why go to all the trouble to circumvent the State Department’s own email system? Why hire your own people to manage that decision and then purge the emails not deemed “official.” Why? Why? Why?
And why, when it all began blowing up, why not deal with it forthrightly and candidly? Clinton’s belated explanation – really more a discussion than an explanation – of the computer decision was that she wished she would have done it differently. Really? Why differently? Because the entire episode has become a hassle that threatens to mess with your presidential campaign? Or was the decision just faulty judgment? Was the decision to go outside the regular email system just another decision like what to wear to the office or what to have for lunch? Clinton seems to suggest the decision received about that much consideration. But her explanation – or her expression of regret in doing it the way she did – doesn’t wash.
“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions,” Clinton told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in one of her very rare sit down interviews. “And I take responsibility and it wasn’t the best choice.” Clinton added that she used a private email set up when serving as a United States senator and just didn’t give the matter much thought. She should have and on that point judgment turns.
The only really plausible explanation for the private email is that Clinton did not want prying eyes to see her electronic communication. She can’t – or won’t say it – but that is the only reason for doing what she did and for creating one of the greatest self-inflicted political wounds in modern presidential history.
In the whole wide scheme of things, Clinton’s email issue may turn out to be a tempest in a crock pot – we still haven’t seen all the emails and probably never will – but as a glimpse into how a possible president of the United States makes decisions and evaluates issues it’s a picture window. Secrecy, legal arguments attempting to cover political problems and a raging sense of entitlement explain much of Clinton’s 40-plus years in public life. The email server is just the latest Exhibit A.
Consider what Clinton might have done and chose not to do when she left the State Department. She might have joined a prestigious university and lectured on international relations. She might have landed at a think tank where she could have penned her memoir and readied for another campaign for the White House. She might have emulated Jimmy Carter and humbly undertaken something like his global work for democracy and human health. The Clinton family foundation is certainly doing some impressive work, but Hillary is most directly connected to the foundation’s frequently questionable fundraising. Not three people in a hundred could tell you what the Clinton Foundation has actually done other than raise money enrich the principals.
The questions that surround the foundation’s money raising, particularly when that fundraising involved a once and future presidential candidate, were as predictable as the continuing questions about her emails ands servers. Clinton either missed the likelihood of scrutiny and scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation or she simply decided the millions she collected in speaking fees and foundation contributions were a price to be paid to enjoy a personal income that permitted her and the former president to recently plunk down $100,000 for a two week vacation rental in the Hamptons.
Whatever you make of the high dollar talks and foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, it’s clear the candidate chose the one path in her post-State Department career that was absolutely certain to bring her grief and scrutiny as she pursued the White House. Clinton chose to parlay her celebrity and contacts in order to cash in, when good taste, ethics and better political judgment might have counseled a much different approach.
It’s the Judgment Stupid…
Arguably the biggest, most consequential vote Clinton cast in her single term as a senator from New York was to authorize George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq in 2002. That vote went a long way to costing her the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama brought up the subject time and again. It was then and remains today a judgment call that Clinton got wrong.
“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton said in May while campaigning Iowa. But in fact she persistently avoiding calling her vote a mistake until after she had lost to Obama and only admitted the error in judgment when, one suspects, she was again thinking about another bid for the White House.
Judgment is a funny thing. You know it when you see it. Lyndon Johnson pushing for voting rights legislation in the face of bitter opposition from southerners in his own party was not just a display of political courage, but an example of practiced political judgment. Escalating the Vietnam War was just the opposite. Ronald Reagan confounding conservatives in his own party on arms control, Harry Truman recognizing the State of Israel at the first possible moment and John Kennedy overruling his generals during the Cuban missile crisis are examples of judgment exercised in critical and enduring ways. It is what president’s do and what we hire them to do.
Hillary Clinton has a resume and history going for her. Her recent and enhanced appeal to woman voters still constitutes the real rationale for her candidacy. She may make it all the way, particularly given the opposition. Questions about her judgment may give way to loftier things, like whether the nation, at long last, is ready to embrace first woman in the Oval Office. But as summer turns to fall and the interminable campaign stumbles forward, Clinton stumbles right along limited in her ability to talk about real issues, while she deals with he judgment calls from the past.
Clinton’s most talked about television commercial from her 2008 campaign now strikes a sharp note with those of us who think she has a judgment problem. You may recall that commercial – a ringing telephone at 3:00 am with a voice over ominously suggesting that the person who answers a middle of the night call in the White House must be sober and experienced. The message, of course, was the Clinton was and Obama wasn’t.
Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe deftly responded a little over seven years ago to that commercial: “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002,” Mr. Plouffe said. “It was on the Iraq war – she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”
Plouffe added, “This is about what you say when you answer the phone, what kind of judgment you demonstrate.”
That really is the point and also why Clinton will continue to struggle to convince voters that her judgment is up to the job she seeks. Ironically, all of Clinton’s big problems – the email mess, her post-State Department speaking career and her vote on war with Iraq – are not issues manufactured by her legion of opponents. These are unforced errors, the worst kind in politics and almost always the product of a lack of judgment.