In her public appearances over the past year or more, Hillary Rodham Clinton has often talked about her desire to break through the partisanship of today’s politics. As she put it at a Silicon Valley forum last month, “I’d like to bring people from right, left, red, blue, get them into a nice, warm, purple space.”
That is a laudable goal. But the uproar over Clinton’s use of a private, personal e-mail account as secretary of state — and particularly her handling of it — is a textbook example of the opposite.
Clinton has repeatedly suggested that she hopes to make the coming presidential campaign, at least in part, about moving toward a more cooperative political climate. The question is what steps she is prepared to take, on her own, to do so.
Almost everything that has happened since the revelation that she conducted her e-mail business on a private server reinforces bad habits. Instead of openness, there has been silence from the former secretary, save for a late-night tweet.
The apparatus that is Clinton World has responded in predictable ways: aggressively and unresponsively, seemingly looking to blame others rather than answer questions. That Clinton could go this long without offering an explanation — given that she has known for many months that this would probably be revealed — is baffling. Unless she truly has something to hide.
There is, of course, another way to look at all this. Step back for a minute and think about this from the perspective of Clinton and her team. She and her husband bear the scars of a quarter-century of combat with their political opponents, what she once called a vast right-wing conspiracy, who have been trying to bring them down without success since Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992.
As the Clintons no doubt see things, the smallest of transgressions — or actions that aren’t transgressions at all — balloon instantly into major controversies, fueled by an insatiable thirst in the media for anything remotely Clinton. They see this whether the issue is Hillary Clinton’s e-mails or contributions by foreign governments to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Through all those battles, people in the Clintons’ world have developed reflexes that kick in at any sign of trouble. The Clinton machinery clanks into gear almost without prompting or clear direction, seeking to defend and deflect. From that perspective, there is nothing indefensible about being defensive.
After all, these practices are not unique to the Clintons. They are commonplace in today’s world of divided and divisive politics — behaviors that are hard to break after so many years of conflict. They’re seen in everything from the use of attack ads to prodigious fundraising, much of which cancels itself out. As in the arms race, no one is willing to disarm unilaterally. Or so goes the explanation.
Yet Clinton says she believes in something different. In September 2013, she said the world looks to the United States to offer a model for democracy. “When we let partisanship override citizenship, when we fail to make progress on the challenges facing our people here at home, our standing in the world suffers,” she said at the National Constitution Center.
A New York magazine article that same month quoted Clinton as saying there is a hunger among many Americans for “an adult conversation” about the problems that need addressing, rather than a focus on conflict, personalities, caricatures and stereotypes.
“I have a lot of reason to believe, as we saw in the 2012 election, most Americans don’t agree with the extremists on any side of an issue,” she said. “But there needs to continue to be an effort to find common ground or even take it to higher ground on behalf of the future.”
Instead of getting to higher ground, Clinton and her allies have dug in over the latest controversy. So far, she has not addressed multiple questions about her use of personal e-mail while doing official business, in apparent violation of federal guidelines.
There have been few outright defenders of the way Clinton has handled the e-mail issue since the New York Times first reported the story. President Obama, while trying not to criticize Clinton directly, told CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante that “the policy of my administration is to encourage transparency.” He added that he was glad Clinton had called for disclosure of the e-mails.
Kathleen Sebelius, former secretary of health and human services, offered Clinton no cover when she was asked if she used a personal e-mail account while in office. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, she said she never did.
“We were told specifically, in our department at least, that we needed to use government e-mails, and even if you receive something on your private e-mail that was professional, you needed to transfer it over to your government e-mail and respond that way,” she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — whose residence was used by Obama and Clinton for their first conversation after their bruising presidential primary battle in 2008 — went much further on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. It’s time, she said, for Clinton “to step up” and explain all. She added that, from here on, “silence is going to hurt her.”
All the words Clinton has offered about moving politics into a different space sound rather disingenuous when she reinforces past practices of secrecy rather than transparency, and when her allies seek to explain away something that on its face was inappropriate.
She can’t change the fact that she has opponents looking to prevent her from becoming president. But if one of her goals really is to change politics, she will have to lead by example.