Political scandals that matter tend to have clear allegation. Even if the charges prove baseless, controversies of consequence are built on a foundational question. Did Nixon order the break-in? Did Reagan sell weapons to Iran to finance an illegal war? Did Clinton have sexual relations with that woman?
The clarity adds definition. Scandals can grow and expand, but legitimate controversies still have an accusation at their root that people can either confirm or deny, believe or not believe, prove or disprove.
The Hillary Clinton email “scandal” isn’t nearly as … clean. Ask the typical person what the former Secretary of State is accused of, specifically, and you’ll probably hear a mishmash of the words “emails” and “servers.” Republicans seem excited – some GOP presidential candidates are talking publicly about Clinton going to jail – and quite a bit of the media is heavily engaged — Bob Woodward compared the story to Watergate this week – but nailing down the root allegation is proving to be surprisingly difficult.
Politico reported yesterday that there are “accusations swirling that the former Secretary of State put national security secrets at risk by using a private email server.” Oh. So the “scandal” is about proper email server management? That’s what the political world is worked up about?
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum had a good take on this that rings true.
I’m perfectly willing to believe that Clinton’s use of a private server was unwise. It probably was, something that I think even she’s acknowledged. And Clinton has certainly provided some dodgy answers about what she did, which naturally raises suspicions that she might have something to hide. […]That said, even when I do my best to take off my tribal hat and look at this affair dispassionately, I just don’t see anything…. [W]hat exactly is being investigated at this point? If you just want to argue that Clinton showed bad judgment, then go to town. That’s a legitimate knock on a presidential candidate. But actual malfeasance? Where is it?
That need not be a rhetorical question. I’m eager to know, too. After months of coverage, the fact that the allegations themselves are ambiguous isn’t a good sign about the merits of the “scandal.”
If the State Department allowed private-server use – and it did – and the questions are effectively limited to materials that were classified after they were sent, the emerging picture is one of yet another misplaced Clinton-related frenzy, of which there have been a few too many.
Maybe the political world has collectively decided that email server protocols really are important in a presidential campaign. Fine. It’s odd, but fine. It’s at that point, however, that political players will have to explain why Hillary Clinton’s emails are a “scandal,” but the incredibly similar story surrounding Jeb Bush’s emails is trivial.
The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman explained very well yesterday that we’re “reaching the point where a circular logic is taking over: the story is a story because it’s a story, and therefore we need to keep talking about it because it’s a story.”
Republicans are no doubt hoping that lurking somewhere in Clinton’s emails is evidence of a terrible crime she committed whose revelation will destroy her career forever and deliver the White House to the GOP for a generation. But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that no such horror will be revealed. What do we have then? Well, we have the plainly foolish decision to use a private server for work email, which we’ve known about for months. Maybe you think that a person who would do such a thing is unfit for the presidency, or maybe you don’t (though that would disqualify Jeb Bush).
If we’re going to have a conversation about over-classification in government, great. If we’re going to cover a bureaucratic turf war between the State Department and intelligence agencies, terrific.
But vague question and ambiguous allegations about a leading candidate do not a “scandal” make.