Until very recently, Democrats had some reason to congratulate themselves on a curious lack of curiosity about the 2016 presidential nomination among people not named Clinton. A number of Republicans have already jumped into the race, obviously if not officially.
Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had several of them on the main stage, taking questions on issues important to the grassroots activists and think-tank denizens who attend the annual gala. More are expected to enter the race over the spring, and the debate stage will look fairly crowded, at least for the first few events in the fall.
Comparatively speaking, Democrats had it easy. The difficulty would come in scheduling any debates at all, because no one appeared interested in challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination. While Republicans beat themselves up and opened up lines of attack that the general-election opponent could exploit, the lack of competition among Democrats meant that the former Secretary of State could lay low and raise money. By the time she entered the race in the summer, the media attention would be so fixed on the GOP that Clinton could skate to an easy and commanding popular lead.
Now, however, Democrats are having a collective sense of déjà vu, and a sinking feeling of disaster. Two scandals have rocked the Clinton campaign even before the campaign could start, providing an unpleasant reminder of Clinton-era shenanigans that the party thought had been left in the past. Suddenly, the lack of competition looks a lot less attractive than it did a few weeks ago.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Clinton Foundation had lifted what was supposed to be a ban on donations from foreign governments while Hillary was serving as Secretary of State. However, the foundation had taken millions of dollars from big corporations – the kind that Democrats love to demonize – during Hillary’s tenure at State, while she pushed trade deals on their behalf. Observers like National Journal’s Ron Fournier called the donations “a stupid and sleazy conflict of interest” at that stage, but worse was to come.
It turned out that those foreign governments had donated to the Clinton Foundation not just after Hillary’s departure from State, but also during her four years at its helm. The Washington Post reported on a $422,000 donation from Algeria that never was vetted by the State Department for conflicts of interest, but donors also included such bastions of progressive equality as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar, whose ties to Hamas and the Taliban are a sore point with their US ally.
The State Department initially claimed that they had vetted all but the Algerian donation, but then had to walk that back on Tuesday. The only transactions they vetted during Hillary’s tenure were “hundreds” of paid speaking fees for Bill Clinton, as well as a few consultancy contracts, from foreign governments. Bear in mind, this was the same Bill Clinton who argued in favor of campaign finance restrictions in 1997 because foreign countries could otherwise “funnel funds to one of our political parties.”
If Democrats needed another reminder that the Clintons don’t apply the same rules to themselves that they apply to others, The New York Times provided a timely reminder on Monday evening. Despite records-retention regulations in place since at least 2009, Hillary had never used official government systems for her e-mail while Secretary of State. Instead, she set up a private server and domain on the day of her Senate confirmation hearings to conduct official business.
Thanks to this subterfuge, Hillary avoided compliance with FOIA requests for years. Only through the previously maligned House Select Committee on Benghazi did this become known. Not only did this pervert the mechanisms in place for transparency and accountability, it bypassed the cybersecurity of government systems, and almost certainly made penetration of sensitive or classified communications much more likely.
As Chris Cillizza wrote at The Washington Post on Tuesday, the e-mail scandal “reinforces everything people don’t like about” Hillary Clinton.
This leaves Democrats in an awkward position. If they had credible candidates jumping into the race, or at least preparing to do so as Republicans have done for weeks now, they could have a debate over transparency and more than 20 years of Clinton baggage weighing down Democrats. Instead, their initial impulse was to circle the wagons.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) declared that there wasn’t “any ill will” in this,” while her colleague Benjamin Cardin said it’s just a different style of communicating. “I have a granddaughter who does nothing but text,” Cardin explained, neglecting to mention that (a) his granddaughter was not a Cabinet official, and (b) had no regulations requiring retention of her communications in any capacity. It’s a far cry from their attitude when Republican officials such as Gov. Sarah Palin and Karl Rove were found to have occasionally used private e-mail for their official duties.
Still, what choice do they have? At the moment, that’s literally the question. US News’ Jill Lawrence took Democrats to task this week for relying so completely on Hillary Clinton, but also acknowledged that several cycles of losses at the federal and state levels have left Democrats with a lot fewer options.
Even those legitimate options have yet to put themselves forward, perhaps worried about the powerful Clinton machine and interfering with the “it’s time for a woman President” argument. The only Democrats indicating any interest are former one-term Senator James Webb and self-identified socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. They are both older than Clinton, who will be 69 in 2016. Governors Martin O’Malley and Jack Markell can’t check off the diversity box that Hillary’s argument creates. Those who do all come from the Senate and have no executive experience – a situation that will remind voters of 2008, and not in a good way.
Hillary has made herself, as Lawrence writes, “the indispensable woman,” and Clinton nostalgia the unavoidable theme for Democrats in 2016. Unfortunately for them, they’re discovering the audacity of Clintonian opacity, which has a very long track record that extends to the present moment.
As long as the Clintons maintain their hold on the Democratic establishment, they will be stuck with a damaged and damaging party leader – and give Republicans a perfect opening for a young, engaging outsider to play the part of Bill Clinton in a mirror image of the 1992 election. That may end up being the worst kind of déjà vu in 2016.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: