Hillary Clinton's Email Scandal Feels All Too Familiar. That's Why It's Hurting Her So Much.

The Democratic frontrunner has handled the issue badly, and in the process has dredged up bad memories of Clinton scandals past.



When news broke earlier this year that Hillary Clinton had exclusively relied on a privately run email server during her time as Secretary of State, likely in violation of government guidelines, few thought the story would ultimately do much damage to Clinton's presidential campaign.

She was too strong, too widely known, too well-funded, too inevitable, for a complicated story about government email and classification procedures to make an impact. Yes, it would shadow her campaign with the hint of impropriety, but that's all. The email issue looked rather like every Clinton mini-scandal going back for decades. Those stories had always failed to do serious damage to the Clintons in the past; this time would be no different.

But as the months have dragged on, it's become clear that the email story is not going away, and that it has become a major liability. In multiple recent polls, Clinton's approval numbers have dropped—not just in line with what was generally expected as her campaign wore on, but to levels low enough that have to worry the campaign and its supporters.

As polling analyst Nate Cohn writes in a perceptive piece for The New York Times, "For the first time in Mrs. Clinton's two decades in national politics, more Americans see her unfavorably than favorably." That means her numbers are lower now than in the 2008 Democratic primary—which, obviously, she lost. Clinton, Cohn notes, is not just sinking amongst Republicans and independents, she's bleeding good will within her own party as well.

Cohn pins the sharpness of Clinton's drop on the email scandal, and there's good reason to believe that it is, at the very least, a major factor. As Chris Cilizza notes in The Washington Post, a recent Post/ABC News poll found that only about a third of voters think she's handled the issue well, followed government rules regarding email, or told the full truth about her email usage. A solid majority—54 percent—think she's tried to "cover up" facts about the story. Add this to the recent survey finding that the word most commonly associated with Clinton is "liar," and you have a picture of a candidate who is perceived as deeply untrustworthy. 

One thing this suggests, I think, is that Hillary's problem is not so much the email story itself, but how she's handled it.

Over and over again, she has made demonstrably untrue statements in response to the story—that she only wanted to carry one device, even though she admitted to carrying two; that the email server she kept in her New York home had private communications from Bill Clinton, even though he doesn't use email; that there was no classified email on her personal email account, even though, of course, there was.

And when Clinton has not been misleading people about details pertinent to the email story, she has responded with a combination of entitlement and dismissiveness, insisting that she had gone "above and beyond" the government's transparency requirements even though she was just barely following the law, and joking, awkwardly, about the story, as if it were all some lark, not something to be concerned about.

In the process, Clinton's flippant, misleading handling of the email issue has exacerbated the damage the email story has done to her campaign by highlighting what was supposed to make it another non-issue: the wearying sense of familiarity of the scandal and the Clintonian political dramas surrounding it. In addition to the evasions and arrogance, there's an FBI investigation, a parade of familiar Clinton-world hangers-on defending her operation (often badly), a seemingly endless GOP investigation in Congress, a technical aide who has pleaded the Fifth, the vague suggestion that there might be lawbreaking involved, somehow, if not by Clinton herself then by her aides.

Instead of fading away and leaving relatively little impact, then, it seems likely to me the email story is holding on, and continuing to do damage, in large part because it so perfectly resembles past Clinton scandals, and thus reinforces existing impressions of Clinton as a shady political operator while simultaneously serving as a warning that this sort of thing is more or less inevitable with a Clinton presidency. Maybe this particular story will eventually fade away too, or ultimately prove to be different in some substantial way, but for now it all seems very much the same—and that, I suspect, is why it's hurting her campaign so much.