Conducting government business via private e-mail was a mistake, Hillary Clinton has conceded. She’s sorry, albeit belatedly, grudgingly and rather unspecifically. The FBI will continue to investigate whether, and how badly, national security was compromised by transmitting classified information on the private server; the e-mails, redacted but still full of tidbits about everything from gefilte fish to TV’s “The Good Wife,” will continue to be released.
So this seems like an appropriate time to make what will seem like a naive suggestion: Could we possibly talk about something else? Like what, exactly, Clinton proposes to do about some of the challenges the country faces, and that she would confront as president?
I am not intimating that the e-mail issue doesn’t matter. It does, not only on its own terms but also because of what it suggests about Clinton’s instincts for secrecy and defensiveness and her seeming inability to learn from past mistakes. For six months, this has been like watching a political car crash in slow motion. Clinton and her team are guilty of political malpractice and chronic tone-deafness.
And yet, some perspective is called for here. We have been consumed, since March, by an episode that demonstrates bad judgment, not corruption or immorality, much less criminality.
A good deal of this is the candidate’s own fault — her decision to wipe the server, her prolonged insistence that she did nothing wrong — and could have been mitigated had she adopted a different tone and strategy at the start.
But much of it is the product of a 24/7 political and media culture that, once it gets itself spun up over something, has a hard time distinguishing degrees of culpability.
The irony here — the hypocrisy, if you’re feeling less charitable — is that throughout the Summer of E-mail, Clinton has been churning out the kind of serious policy proposals, on everything from college affordability to substance abuse to renewable energy, that we in the media purport to want from candidates.
So let me try, on two topics last week that were eclipsed by the e-mail furor: the Iran nuclear deal and campaign-finance reform.
Clinton’s Iran speech, at the Brookings Institution, focused the debate where it needs to go from here: not whether the deal is good or bad (either way, it’s happening) but how to make certain it is implemented in a way most likely to protect the United States and Israel.
In contrast to Republican huffing and puffing about tearing up the agreement on Day One, Clinton described how she would police its enforcement and mitigate its risks, including applying “penalties even for small violations,” increasing military support for Israel and Gulf allies, and cracking down on Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.
Where E-mail Hillary comes off as prickly and defensive, Brookings Hillary projected toughness, intelligence and command of nuance. She was hardheaded not just about Iran (“This is not the start of some larger diplomatic opening”) but also about Russia (“I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilizing of Ukraine”) and Saudi Arabia (“Much of the extremism in the world today is a direct result of policies and funding undertaken by the Saudi government and individuals”). She came off as, well, presidential.
On the subject of money and politics, I’m a tad less swept away. Clinton’s proposals are smart and necessary: legislation to ensure disclosure of money spent to influence elections and a new system that would provide presidential and congressional candidates the opportunity to obtain matching funds for small donations in exchange for agreeing to lower individual contribution limits.
Pardon my cynicism here. I’ve seen too many Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) promise to fight for campaign-finance reform when running and abandon the issue in office.
And Clinton’s commitment to the issue has the distinct odor of convenience in a populist primary season. I can’t help but recall the weeks of editorial browbeating it took in 2007, when other candidates, Democrats and Republicans, had agreed to disclose the names of their big campaign bundlers, to persuade the Clinton campaign to go along.
Nonetheless, it’s an important topic. And I’ve gone 349 words without mentioning the e-mail controversy. See? That wasn’t so hard.