Hillary Clinton Needs to Run a Squeaky Clean Presidency


Jon Chait argues that although Hillary Clinton obviously isn’t the monster that conservatives paint her as, she really does have some ethical problems that she needs to deal with:

The most enduring aftereffect of her extended primary fight with Sanders was to import Republican attacks on her character into liberal messaging. Sanders emphasized real issues like collecting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs rather than fake issues like the murder of Vince Foster, but the impact was the same — it reintroduced Clinton, to a generation that had never voted for her or her husband, as a shadowy, duplicitous insider. Endorsing all sorts of liberal programs Congress will never pass and letting Sanders’s supporters write the party platform hardly solves this problem.

The risk that Clinton’s tainted image will defeat her is small but real enough to merit concern. The much larger risk is that her lax approach to rule-following and ethical conflicts will sink her presidency.

A little appreciated facet of Obama’s presidency is that it was almost entirely scandal free. This didn’t stop Republicans from trying to invent scandals, of course, as the endless Benghazi witch hunt proves. But none of the Obama “scandals” ever caught on. There are two potential reasons for this:

  1. They were all ridiculous.
  2. Obama has such a clean reputation that they just didn’t stick.

If you think the answer is #1, then I admire your optimistic view of Washington and the political press corps and wish you the best of luck in your future political analysis.

The real answer, plainly, is #2. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been the target of dozens of equally invented scandals. In Clinton’s case, the press follows them endlessly. In Obama’s case they don’t. Why? Because in Obama’s case they don’t fit a narrative. Obama has a reputation as a wonky guy who runs a tight ship and doesn’t play games. Because of this, invented nonsense will get a few days or weeks of coverage, but that’s usually it.

Clinton, needless to say, has a reputation that’s just the opposite. Mostly this is undeserved, but not entirely. That doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that she has the reputation she does, and that means scandals fit the press narrative of who she is. So when Republicans launch attacks on her, it doesn’t much matter if there’s any substance to them. The press will play along endlessly.

This means that Chait is right: if Hillary wants to avoid a failed presidency, she needs to be squeaky clean. That won’t stop the attacks, but at least it will blunt them. Conversely, if there’s even one scandal that has some real truth to it, it will dog her for her entire presidency. I hope she gets this.