Hillary Clinton has an honesty problem.
That point is driven home hard in the exit poll following Clinton's 22-point drubbing at the hands of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. More than one in three (34 percent) of all New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said that honesty was the most important trait in their decision on which candidate to support. Of that bloc, Sanders won 92 percent of their votes as compared to just 6 percent for Clinton.
Ninety-two to six. That is absolutely unbelievable — even given the size of Sanders's overall victory in the state. And it should be deeply concerning to a Clinton campaign that has been resistant to acknowledging the idea that the ongoing controversy over Clinton's private email server while at the State Department is a problem for her.
Clinton's standard response on questions about her honesty — or about her long-running polling problems on questions of whether she is honest and trustworthy — is that it has zero to do with her and how she has acted in and out of office but rather is the result of sustained decades of attack on her by Republicans.
"Read behavioral science, read psychology," Clinton told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow this week. "Even when all the attacks prove to be unfounded, untrue, it leaves a residue." She added: "There is a concerted effort to try to make partisan advantage by really trying to throw so much at me that even if little splotches of it stick, it will cloud peoples's judgment of me. That is a burden I carry."
Okay. So there's no doubt that Republicans have, are and will continue to bash Clinton on every issue under the sun. It's good politics for them — the GOP base, as you might guess, isn't a big fan of Clinton — and it helps candidates and the party raise money.
But the idea that Clinton herself bears no responsibility for the fact that a majority of all Americans repeatedly tell pollsters that words like "honest" and "trustworthy" don't apply to her is nonsensical. It was Clinton's decision to be the first secretary of state in history to exclusively use a private email server while in office. It was Clinton who said that server would never have to be turned over to an independent investigator. (It eventually was.) It is Clinton who, time and time again, has refused to see the political damage being done to her by the questions surrounding the FBI investigation into the server.
Did Republicans work to amplify each of those mistakes? Yes — although I could argue that the 11-hour questioning of Clinton by the House Select Committee on Benghazi did the former secretary of state a lot more good than harm, politically speaking.
Amplifying slip-ups by Clinton isn't the same thing, however, as making up the slip-ups in the first place. This isn't all the creation of Republicans. Heck, if that were true, Democrats would rally around Clinton under the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend theory of politics. They haven't. In fact, in New Hampshire, nine in 10 Democratic voters who said honesty was the most important thing for them in a candidate went for the other guy.
Look, I get that it is hard for anyone — particularly someone who has been in public life for as long as Clinton has — to own something as fundamental as people not really believing they can trust you.
"This is not anything I want to hear because I find it so absolutely contrary to who I am," Clinton told Maddow when asked about the perception that she is not honest.
But politics isn't about dealing with the world as you would like it to be. It's about dealing with the world as it is. And as New Hampshire made clear, there is a strain of concern/distrust within the Democratic base when it comes to Hillary Clinton. She needs to first acknowledge that it's a real feeling as opposed to simply a Republican talking point. Then she has to figure out a way to begin changing that perception in the minds of Democratic primary and caucus voters: A major speech directly taking the idea on? A series of ads that show her being as good as her word?
It won't be a quick process. But if Clinton wants to win, it's a necessary one.