Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a town hall meeting Tuesday, August 18, 2015, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
If there's any constant in presidential campaigns, it's that at the first sign of difficulty, everyone who wants one particular candidate to win has an iron-clad critique of the candidate's decisions thus far, which goes something like, "If only they'd get their heads out of the sand and listen to what I have to tell them, they wouldn't be having these problems." You only have to get two or three partisans in a room (or an exchange on email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to quickly learn that the answers to what the candidate should have done before and ought to do now are as clear as a bright spring morning; it's just that the candidate and his or her advisers can't see the wisdom of the true path to victory.
The fact that this complaint is as predictable as the sunrise doesn't mean it's always wrong; candidates do screw up, and sometimes there was a better alternative to something they did, an alternative that really would have produced dramatically different results. And the ability to be an armchair strategist is part of what keeps campaigns interesting, just as the ability to second-guess coaches and players helps keep sports interesting.
Right now, Hillary Clinton is the target of lots of this advice, apparently because, 13 months before the actual voting will occur, she hasn't yet put this election to bed. Anxiety is creeping among the legions of politicians, advisers, insiders, and in-the-knowers (anonymous and otherwise) who will happily share their opinions with journalists looking to populate their "What's Wrong With the Clinton Campaign???" stories with the thoughts of worried Democrats, an amply populated species. And most of it revolves around the story of her State Department emails, a story that "won't go away," as everyone is saying.
"Clinton's standing has been eroded both by her own shaky handling of the e-mail controversy and by the populist energy fueling the challenge of Sen. Bernie Sanders," says The Washington Post. "Democratic leaders are increasingly frustrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton's failure to put to rest questions about her State Department email practices," says The New York Times, in an article for which they spoke to "more than 75 Democratic governors, lawmakers, candidates and party members." I've heard similar things from any number of liberals and Democrats myself.
But here's a piece of advice: If you find yourself starting a sentence on this topic with "If only she had…", stop and take a breath.
I say that not because Clinton didn't do anything wrong. It was plainly a mistake to set up her private email account in the first place, and if she used emails for communication that should have been confined to official cables, then we can criticize her for that. The most informative recent piece I've seen on this topic comes from David Ignatius, who notes that the fact that her server was private isn't actually relevant to the question of classified information passing through it, since employees aren't allowed to send such information through state.gov emails either. More importantly, multiple officials tell him that classified information passes through non-classified channels all the time; it shouldn't happen, but it does.
Nevertheless, the important thing to understand about the politics of what's happening now is this: There is nothing—nothing—that Hillary Clinton could have said or done differently since this became a public issue that could have made this go away, or that she could do now to "put it to rest."
That's not because it's such a dreadfully serious issue, or because the American people care so deeply about the question of State Department email security that they'd never elect anyone to the White House who exercised anything less than the greatest of care with their communications, adhering to not just the spirit but the letter of every regulation. If you asked most voters what this is all about, they'd probably say "Um ... something about emails?" No, it's because Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton, and because she's running for president.
That means that Republicans will never be satisfied with any answer she gives on this topic, or any other for that matter. She could read Trey Gowdy every email she ever wrote while giving him a foot massage, and it wouldn't change their conviction that there was still something nefarious hidden somewhere in something they hadn't seen. She could have personally delivered her server to Roger Ailes's office on the day the story broke, and it wouldn't change their determination to figure out what she's hiding.
Nor will the news media ever be satisfied. Bill and Hillary Clinton have always been treated by a different set of rules than other politicians, one that says that any allegation about them, no matter how little evidence there may be for it, must be presented as the leading edge of what will surely turn out to be a devastating scandal. The New York Times, which despite its reputation as a liberal newspaper has what can only be described as an unquenchable desire to find Clinton scandals whether they actually exist or not, can be counted on to run blaring front-page articles about alleged Clinton scandals without the barest hint of skepticism, no matter how many times their reporting turns out to be based on false tips or bogus interpretations of mundane facts (the phantom "criminal referral" of a month ago was only the latest).
Then once the Times puts out its story, the rest of the media are off to the races, and conservatives just about lose their minds with glee, because this time they've really got her. Then inevitably, the alleged wrongdoing turns out to be either nothing at all or too little to care much about. But we only figure that out after Republicans in Congress have launched investigation after investigation, each one the engine for story after story about the scandal that won't go away.
If you think that how Hillary Clinton responds to all this (Did she say she just "regrets" what she did, or did she actually apologize? Did she seem dismissive? Could she have used different words? Could she have framed the whole thing with this clever argument I just thought of?) would make any difference at all, then you must not have been around in the 1990s.
To repeat, I'm not defending everything Clinton did with regard to her emails, but that's just the point: This cycle will spin whether she did anything wrong or not, and no matter how she conducts herself once the story breaks.
Eventually, all the facts do come in, and it's at that point that we can really judge. For instance, multiple investigations of what occurred in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, have shown that it was a terrible tragedy, but there was no "stand-down order," there was no criminal negligence, and there was no impeachment-worthy malfeasance, no matter how fervently Republicans might wish it. Yet their investigations go on. In fact, at this point it's impossible to see how anything other than Clinton losing the 2016 election will ever stop them. If she becomes president, they'll go on investigating it for the length of her time in the Oval Office.