Clinton Defenders Advance an Unpersuasive Argument

Michael Barone
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Posted: May 05, 2015 12:01 AM
Clinton Defenders Advance an Unpersuasive Argument
Some of Hillary Clinton's defenders have taken to saying that voters shouldn't pay attention to the latest Clinton scandals -- the gushing of often undisclosed millions to the Clintons and their organizations by characters seeking official favors -- because the charges are just one more in a long series: Whitewater, the Rose law firm billing records, the Buddhist temple fundraising, the Lippo Group.

So, the theory goes, because the Clintons have been accused of so many scandalous doings before, people shouldn't be concerned now about Secretary Clinton's actions that helped certain donors turn over 20 percent of U.S. uranium reserves to a state-run Russian company.

Common sense might tend to make you more suspicious of those who attract many accusations. But the Clintons' defenders expect and hope in their case that you will instead be suspicious of those who make so many accusations. After all, they're always saying nasty things! In this view, even charges advanced and amplified by the New York Times may be summarily dismissed as the products of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Of course, for some voters, the just-one-more-scandal argument may cut the other way. They may decide that they've endured enough Clinton scandals.

Still, Clinton defenders have some basis for thinking that the just-one-more-scandal argument has worked for the Clintons before. Bill Clinton may have been interrogated and impeached, but he wasn't removed from office. Instead, Newt Gingrich was knocked off the speaker's chair days after Republicans lost seats in the midterm election.

But there's a big difference between then and now. Bill Clinton was the incumbent president when he was impeached. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen who is running for president.

Most voters wanted Clinton to remain in office. He was re-elected in 1996 by an eight-point margin over Bob Dole. Before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, his job approval was in the high 50s. Once he was threatened with removal, that bounced up to 70 percent.

In effect, a crucial number of Americans were saying not to boot him from office. He's been elected to two terms; he's been performing tolerably well -- so what if he lies under oath about conduct that is personal and outside his official duties?

(That doesn't mean that Clinton's conduct didn't have political consequences. The Lewinsky revelations put an end to negotiations between Clinton and Gingrich on serious entitlement reforms. They've been delayed now going on 20 years.)

But that doesn't mean voters were necessarily buying the Clintons' defenses. Even as his job approval rose, Clinton's favorable/unfavorable ratings declined. People thought less of him personally, but they also couldn't accept the idea of pushing him aside.

Hillary Clinton is in a different position. She is a candidate, not an incumbent. Candidates are easily dispensed with, as former Sen. Gary Hart learned when the photos of him sailing on the "Monkey Business" appeared in May 1987 when he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. His staffers vowed he would hold onto his support, but it wasn't his to hold on to. He quickly withdrew and faded from view.

Hart's position in 1987 was weaker than Clinton's position today. His lead in Democratic primary polls was not overwhelming, and there were other serious active or potential candidates in the field or just over the horizon. That's because even in Ronald Reagan's 1980s, Democrats of varying ideological stripes were winning major offices around the country. Democrats had reason to think they had a good chance of nominating a strong ticket without Hart.

Today's Democrats fear they are not in this comfortable position. They've been losing most elections lately in constituencies beyond those where their core constituencies -- blacks, some Hispanics, gentry liberals -- are clustered. They don't have many prominent plausible alternative candidates.

Absent Hillary Clinton, they would be faced with a choice of tax-raiser Martin O'Malley, socialist Bernie Sanders, Reagan appointee Jim Webb, former Republican scion Lincoln Chafee or the gaffe-prone Joe Biden. None run as well as Clinton in general election polls.

But how strong is Clinton? Her numbers have been declining, and she runs under 50 percent against lesser-known Republicans in most national and target-state polls. All voters know her, and most don't favor her. She runs stronger in polls of all adults, not just registered voters. That gap suggests she could have a hard time inspiring maximizing turnout.

The argument that the Clintons have always faced scandal charges is intended to shore up her support. But it may have the opposite effect.