Will the stock Clinton scandal response be enough to weather this storm?
By Kimberley A. Strassel
April 23, 2015 7:29 p.m. ET
Say this about Bill and Hillary Clinton: They are predictable. Some politicians dare to change, even to evolve, but not the former first couple. In these uncertain political times, Team Clinton’s lack of ethics—and its stock response when caught—is our one constant.
The details change, of course. In 1978 it was lucrative cattle futures; in 2014 it was lucrative speeches. In the 1990s it was missing Whitewater and Rose Law firm records; today it is missing emails. In 2000 it was cash for pardons; now it’s cash for Russian uranium mines. In Little Rock, it was Bill’s presidential campaign vehicle; in New York, it’s Hillary’s—and now known as the Clinton Foundation. Details.
The standard operating procedure never changes, however. It is as if the Clintons have—filed within easy reach on a shelf—a book titled “Clinton Scandals for Dummies.”
Chapter One: “Pick Your Spots.” The Clintons flourish in that hazy interface between legal and lawless. Their dealings always stink, but are rarely blatantly or provably (or traceably) corrupt. Consider this week’s news. Yes, tons of donor cash flowed to the Clinton Foundation at the same time Mrs. Clinton’s State Department was greenlighting deals helping those donors. But prove there was a quid pro quo! The Clintons dare you.
They know you likely can’t, since Chapter Two is “Limit Those Paper Trails.” Remember those “misplaced” 1990s documents, but also reread the 2000 report from the House Committee on Government Reform titled “The Failure to Produce [Clinton] White House E-Mails: Threats, Obstruction and Unanswered Questions.” The Clintons learned it took effort to keep documents secret. These days, they make sure there are no documents at all. (Mrs. Clinton, which emails would you like us to delete? Just search for key words “yoga,” “wedding” and “uranium.”)
Chapter Three: “Remember, the Press Has ADD.” Pixar’s “Up” features Dug, a cute dog with a serious attention problem (“squirrel!!!”). This is how the Clintons view the media. Pettable. Unfocused. When caught, the Clinton communications team will issue lofty dismissals—calling charges baseless or old news—and wait for the press to believe it. If it doesn’t, Team Clinton will hold one press conference—a la Mrs. Clinton’s email event—and wait for the media to call the case closed. If it doesn’t, they will change the subject (Hillary is running for president! Squirrel!!!) and wait for the press to lose interest. It often does.
Still, if all else fails, there is Chapter Four: “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”—or VRWC. Mrs. Clinton’s conspiracy shtick is today a bit of a joke, but it doesn’t make it any less effective. It works to cast any serious investigation of Clinton behavior as a partisan witch hunt, and therefore illegitimate. And it does work. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is going to jail on dubious claims of trading favors for money. Could an enterprising prosecutor cobble together a similar case against Hillary? Undoubtedly. But no one will for fear of being accused of doing a Republican hit job on the Clintons.
The rest of the book falls under the heading “Stockholm Syndrome,” and consists of tactics for convincing fellow Democrats that the Clinton machine is inevitable. The Democratic Party has for so long been held psychologically hostage to the Clinton scandal factory, a part of it—albeit an aging part—has forgotten there is happy, normal life. So (for now at least) it sticks with its captors.
The question is whether this model, perfected in an earlier age, can hold—especially under the cascade of scandals. Times have changed. There’s more competition in the media these days (blogs, cable, podcasts) and that’s kept pressure on traditional outlets to keep digging into the Clinton Foundation money story. So much so that this week Mrs. Clinton had to escalate to VRWC.
The Democratic Party has changed. It’s now more Obama than Clinton, its left dominated by progressives who didn’t grow up under Hillary, and don’t much like her. They want Elizabeth Warren, and what surely terrifies the Clintons is the potential party explosion were the Massachusetts senator to jump in at this moment of vulnerability. Would it take much to send the party bolting to a fresher female firebrand—without the baggage?
Maybe not, because Mrs. Clinton isn’t putting on the best show. She never had Bill’s political charm, and her years out of elected politics are showing. She looks grim. She looks cautious—hedging her bets, refusing to take positions. She looks out of touch, in the Scooby-Doo van. Mrs. Warren doesn’t have any of these problems.
The most likely scenario is still that the Clintons prevail—the media lets go the stories, the party sticks with the $2.5 billion woman. But as the Clintons replay the scandal script, and keep adding liabilities to Hillary’s campaign, you have to imagine a growing number of Democrats are wondering: what if? The Clintons might, at the very least, want to consider updating that manual.
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