When it comes to dealing with political scandal, Bill and Hillary Clinton are past masters. The two have fought their way through more partisan attacks, media attention and public opprobrium than any ten politicians most people can think of. And always, when the smoke has cleared and the wounded been carted from the field, they’ve been left standing, bloodied but defiant.
Over the years, the Clintons have developed a signature defensive strategy perhaps best described as “deny and retreat.”
Confronted with a scandal, their first step is to dig in deep and deny that they have done anything wrong at all. It’s a natural stratagem, considering the large numbers of attacks on Bill, Hillary or both that have been woven from whole cloth. Think Vince Foster’s suicide or the Whitewater controversy.
The fallback is an admission of culpability in some minor breach of public trust or a failure of character, combined with adamant assertions that the larger complaints leveled against them are terribly overblown and politically motivated. The obvious examples here are the Gennifer Flowers scandal and, more recently, the controversy over donations to the Clinton Foundation by foreign governments.
When the Clintons get to the last ditch, it comes down to a question of attrition – can they hold out in the focus of the public eye until their attackers eventually make themselves look like wild-eyed zealots focused less on justice than on personal vengeance? The Lewinsky scandal and the Starr Report that followed are the textbook case here.
However, there’s a strong argument that the ongoing scandal over Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state and her subsequent resistance to handing over its contents after her use of a non-classified communications system was exposed is qualitatively different from previous Clinton scandals.
Many of those scandals involved assumptions of ill-intent the bordered on the absurd -- like the idea that the Clintons engineered a fake suicide to make it look as though Vince Foster took his own life. Or the still-current idea that Clinton somehow blocked rescuers from aiding U.S. diplomats under attack in Benghazi out of concern for political damage.
Others plainly took advantage of the lurid details of a messy and embarrassing personal life to stir up public disgust over personal behavior of which many disapproved, such as the Flowers and Lewinsky scandals.
When it comes to the email scandal, however, none of those motives are obviously in play. The bottom line is that Hillary Clinton, for reasons of personal convenience (some will attribute darker motives, but bad intent isn’t really necessary for the argument to be damaging in this case), put national security at risk by choosing to use a non-classified email account for State Department business.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Clinton’s original insistence that no classified material passed through the account is blatantly untrue. And her original resistance to third-party scrutiny of the server looks worse and worse with every revelation that the exchange of sensitive data through the account was more extensive than was originally reported.
She has since had to admit to the fact that the decision to rely on the server was a poor one.
At this point, Clinton has passed thorough the first two stages of the traditional Clinton defense system. Outright denial has failed, and the admission of minor culpability is wearing thin.
It’s not clear that the last line of defense will hold for Clinton in the way it has in the past. There is no vengeful Newt Gingrich or easily-caricatured Ken Starr waiting to implode in the public eye. The House Select Committee on Benghazi has the potential to be cast as a partisan witch-hunt, but much of the information the committee is looking at when it comes to the emails has originated not in the right-wing fever swamps but in executive branch inspectors general offices operating under a Democratic administration.
Both Clintons, however -- as evidenced by Hillary Clinton interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday morning and a second interview with Bill Clinton released over the weekend -- are sticking to the same old script.
"I actually am amazed that she's borne up under it as well as she has. But I have never seen so much expended on so little,” the former president told CNN over the weekend.
Hillary Clinton herself whacked Todd for asking questions derived from “conspiracy” theories.
The trouble for candidate Clinton is that the normal foils who have been in place in the past when things got really ugly -- moralizing hypocrites like Gingrich and outright fabulists like the Whitewater accusers -- aren’t available here.
The facts of Clinton’s decisions about how to handle sensitive emails are increasingly looking like just that: facts. And their old strategies weren’t really developed to fight those.