To a greater extent than any modern politician, with the possible exception of her husband and the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and scandal are inseparable. While first lady, she was caught up in the Rose Law Firm file flap and the White House travel office firings, about which she denied knowing anything. At the State Department there was Benghazi, the lack of candor about Benghazi, the phony Accountability Review Board (which conveniently didn’t question her) and the apparent scapegoating of four State Department employees who seemed to have no real responsibility for the death of four Americans. Unlike her first-lady excuses, she couldn’t very well say she didn’t know what was going on in her own department. The stench of fundraising scandals and the prison sentences of some of Clinton’s donors almost get lost in the torrent of excuse-mongering. If she is not one of the most dishonest pols of our time, than she must be a perpetual victim (no doubt of the “vast right-wing conspiracy”) or the most unlucky woman on the planet.
Since Clinton left office, controversy has swirled about the management of the Clinton Foundation. Now, thanks to the new memoir from former secretary of defense Robert Gates, it spins even faster.
It is hard to quibble with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’s take on the Gates revelations, on CNN on Tuesday: “With all of the scandal around her I’m not sure it would be all that bad for the Republican Party, to tell you the truth. She wanders and scandal surrounds her. We talk about Benghazi. We talk about the health-care rollout in the early ’90s. Whitewater. I mean, you name it.” That sentiment — that Republicans wouldn’t mind running against Hillary in 2016 — is more than media spin. It is easy to see why.
As these issues mount Clinton must decide whether she will personally respond to the accusations of heinous irresponsibility for her own political gain, have one of her legions of aides do it or ignore the whole thing and hope it goes away. Meanwhile, she ducks questions about the fruits of her misguided actions, including the descent of Syria into a hellish bloodbath, the resurrection of al-Qaeda and the effort to engage Iran and ignore the Green Revolution. Can she explain her series of blunders, or does she hope everyone will forget about them by 2016?
Republicans would be smart to abide by three simple rules when it comes to Hillary.
First, stick to the facts (which are bad enough) and don’t overreach. Making her accusers seem unhinged is a favorite Clinton family ploy. Indeed, some of her excuses (e.g. she had no system in place to route key memos to her, such as the ones from U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens pleading for more security) are worse than the conspiratorial explanations for her behavior.
Second, because the public has a short memory, it’s important to remind voters and unenthusiastic media outlets when events like Gates’s book come along that, whatever the scandal du jour may be, it is part of a decades-long pattern. Recall that in 2008 Barack Obama ran against her and the Clinton culture of corruption and cronyism. (Obama, if nothing else, is a master at destroying opponents.)
Third, it is not an either/or proposition with Hillary. She can be both dishonest (e.g. in her post-attack spin on Benghazi) and incompetent (e.g. taking her eye off the ball in Libya). Let the facts concerning her motives guide Republican critics based on the particulars of each scandal.
Republicans are increasingly confident that the meltdown in the Obama second term, the flurry of foreign policy disasters Clinton left brewing for her successor and the constant swirl of scandal will make Hillary vulnerable to a reform-minded GOP opponent in 2016. At this point, running against Clinton instead of an unblemished fresh face suits them just fine.
But as Mitt Romney found out, they can’t win simply by pointing their fingers at the Obama-Clinton mess and saying, “See!” No, they will need a candidate with a forward-looking agenda that appeals to the center-right and one who knows how to land some hits without overdoing it. If they get the right opponent (Hillary) and the right standard-bearer (likely a governor or Rep. Paul Ryan), they’ll be in good shape in 2016.