It’s been a long, winding road for Hillary Clinton since her personal email server was discovered during a congressional investigation of the Benghazi affair. The one-time New York senator’s defense has changed with the seasons, it has involved everything from neglect and humor to contrition and scapegoating. The recent refusal by FBI Director James Comey to seek criminal charges brought an appropriately low-key response from her campaign; spokesman Brian Fallon offered gratitude when he said “we are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate.” The email probe’s end does not close the book on this Wellesley graduate’s troubles — a decision not to spike the football after what had to be a cherished victory is a sign she knows what is waiting when the campaign season gets underway. After Clinton is nominated, she will be facing a more fickle court with lower standards for conviction: public opinion.
The FBI director’s decision overemphasized that elusive proof of intent, but it’s hardly an exoneration. In his 15 minute presentation James Comey described the former secretary of state’s email practices as “extremely careless.” The erstwhile federal prosecutor countered her assertion that none of the thousands of emails that traveled through multiple servers during Secretary Clinton’s time in office were marked classified, and later noted that a current government employee would face disciplinary action under similar circumstances. In testimony to a House committee Director Comey pointed out that “thousands” of work-related emails could not be recovered and that their contents remain unknown. It’s been difficult to maintain interest in the story of these “damn emails” because of its tedious nature, but the turns this tale has taken are poking holes in a key selling point of the Clinton campaign. At a joint rally in North Carolina President Obama emphasized it when he praised the candidate as uniquely qualified to hold the office, more so than “any man or woman ever…and that’s the truth.”
If the president’s assessment is on-target, his potential heir could not have mishandled classified materials out of simple negligence; such a flop would be expected of the “unqualified loose cannon” battling Secretary Clinton for the presidency. So she had to be ignorant. In further testimony to a House committee, Director Comey seemed to doubt the former first lady’s ability to recognize a classified email. “It’s an interesting question,” the FBI chief went on, “whether she…was actually sophisticated enough” to identify one. Beyond any partisan battle lines drawn around the email server another problem remains, the publicity surrounding it is dredging up a key problem for the Clinton campaign. Trust. A survey conducted in May found only 31 percent of all voters describe the would-be nominee as honest — one-third of Democrats and 80 percent of independents continue to doubt her. It’s likely there will be an effort to bury the email investigation by reintroducing the candidate…again.
At this point the greatest threat to Secretary Clinton’s presidential ambition is not a lack of familiarity with her record, and it’s not a flamboyant real estate mogul. The Democrat nominee-in-waiting is well-known after more than 20 years in public life, and another May survey found over 50 percent of respondents still don’t like her. This is a candidate who had trouble luring women and millennials during the primary campaign, then took months to secure the nod with hundreds of superdelegates already onboard. The simplest way to win over disaffected Bernie-backers and lure the needed percentage of independents is to go negative by regularly reminding uncommitted voters of the would-be GOP nominee’s failings. The Vermont senator is heading that way when he shows more interest in defeating Donald Trump than helping his former foe. If Hillary Clinton were confronted by a rival who could magnify her faults by being everything she isn’t the aspiring president would be facing a different kind of Waterloo.