Dear Secretary Clinton:
Watching the story of your State Department emails emerge last week, liberals were possessed by an old familiar feeling. It's the one that makes them say two things at once: "This seems ridiculously overblown," and "What the hell is wrong with her?" It was like reliving a trauma, one they got through in the end, but nevertheless left its emotional scars.
When I talk to liberals about the endless scandal wars of the 1990s, the word that comes up most often is "exhausting." It's true that it's been pretty exhausting arguing for six years about Barack Obama's birth certificate and whether he loves America. Every Democratic presidency will bring its own flavor of Republican obsession. But the Clinton years were something unique.
It wasn't just that Republicans went on a binge of hearings and conspiracy theorizing and faux outrage. It was that at the heart of every scandal, no matter how disproportionate or ridiculous the Republican response, there was a kernel of truth. Again and again, we suffered through a pseudo-scandal in which Republicans made grandiose charges for which there was little or no evidence. But every one started the same way: with some questionable decision on your part, your husband's, or both. You may not have broken the law, but you screwed up, in ways that gave your opponents enough material to crank up the calliope of scandal-mongering. Then you inevitably fought the release of information, which may have seemed like smart strategizing at the time but had the effect of dragging everything out interminably.
Liberals defended you and President Clinton not only against the false charges and the wildly exaggerated ones, but against claims that had some bit of merit, whether it was the White House sleepovers or the travel office or the cattle futures or any of a hundred other controversies. Even if your opponents made mountains out of molehills, liberals were the ones who found themselves again and again around watercoolers and dinner tables, arguing that the molehill itself was nothing to be concerned about, culminating with impeachment.
Yes, it was insane to impeach President Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but every liberal who defended him during that year felt like they were in some indirect way justifying the fact that the most powerful man in the world was screwing a White House intern 27 years his junior. It was not a good feeling.
You are not responsible for your husband's behavior, of course. But you played a key role in dealing with the fallout from it, just as you did on every other controversy. We can't rerun history, so we'll never know whether a different set of decisions could have prevented George W. Bush from becoming president in 2000, with all the catastrophic consequences that ensued. But even that possibility should have kept you up nights.
So as you begin your 2016 campaign, no one should appreciate more than you that this time, you owe your supporters better.
It may be absurdly facile to say, as so many journalists have, that this email story "plays into a narrative" and therefore deserves blanket coverage. But your propensity for secrecy is real, and it has gotten you into trouble before. Nowhere was this more clear than on Whitewater, where yours was the strongest voice urging your husband to fight the release of information. We all saw what happened: A story about a failed investment turned into the subject of an independent counsel investigation, which ultimately led to impeachment. All the inquiries eventually concluded that you did nothing wrong in the Whitewater investment. Does that give you any satisfaction? If it does, then you really haven't learned.
And don't tell us that other politicians have their own problems with private email accounts. It's true, but it's irrelevant. You have to be better, because of everything that's happened before.
If you're going to win, you have to get over your propensity for self-pity, particularly when it comes to the media. You don't trust reporters? You think they're out to get you? Well they are. The press loves nothing more than a Clinton story with a faint odor of scandal; give them the barest whiff and they'll be off on an adrenaline-fueled rush of speculation, whether the facts support it or not. The question is whether you let your resentment about that overwhelm your judgment, or find a way to deal with their antagonism rationally.
If you can't, you won't see your own mistakes when you make them. For instance, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman report in Politico, which states that "[b]oth Clintons still attribute [her 2008] defeat to fawning coverage of her rival." Oh, please—get over it. Did Barack Obama get good press coverage during the 2008 primaries? Yes, he did. Is that why he beat you? No, it isn't. He beat you because he was a better candidate than you were, and ran a campaign that was vastly superior to yours in every way. If you're going to correct everything you did wrong in 2008 (and there was so much), you have to be willing to acknowledge those facts.
You owe that kind of honesty to liberals, because you and Bill asked so much of them for so long. Follow us out onto this tightrope, you said; we'll make it to the other side, but not until we've all felt our hearts drop to our feet and thought the end was at hand a dozen times. And now you're asking them to take another walk out over another chasm.
You've come a long way to get here, and this time there is no hotshot young senator ready to take you out in the primaries. But for all the distance you have traveled, there are still things you need to prove. You need to prove that you can accept responsibility when it's necessary. You need to prove that you can learn from your mistakes and correct your shortcomings. Perhaps most of all, you need to prove that you're worthy of what you're asking of your supporters: their time, their money, their enthusiasm, but most importantly, their trust.
If they grant you those things, it won't be for your sake, it will be for the sake of the entire liberal project. When you court disaster and hand your enemies a blade to thrust at you, that's what you endanger. If you falter, the result would be a Republican presidency that expresses the will of the radicals who have taken over the GOP, with ramifications that could echo for decades.
So when you come to liberals asking for their help, it will not be enough to say, "Look how awful my enemies are." It will not be enough to say, "Think of the Supreme Court." It will not be enough to say, "Imagine how historic this presidency would be." Yes, those enemies are awful, and yes, the Court's future is ample reason to vote for any Democrat, and yes, a woman president is long overdue. But that isn't enough, not nearly.
No one asks for or expects perfection, but liberals need to know that you grasp the full depth of the responsibility you now carry. The fact that you have little primary opposition may seem like a relief, but it confers upon you a profound burden. You have to be better—not just better than the other side, but better than you've been before. The stakes are impossibly high. Liberals want to put their faith in you, but they still have reasons to doubt.