Will voters care that Hillary tried to hide her e-mails?

Not just tried to hide them, mind you, but planned to do so from the start. Remember, the clintonemail.com domain was registered a few days before she was confirmed as Secretary of State. She never even activated an official State Department address. She wasn’t “confused about the rules”; unaccountability was the idea from before the beginning. If she was worried about leaving a paper trail, she could have avoided e-mail altogether and transacted business by phone. But she didn’t. Why would someone who knew she’d be the prohibitive favorite for her party’s nomination in 2016 do something as obviously shady as setting up her own “homebrew” e-mail server to evade public recordkeeping, knowing that it would probably be exposed eventually?

The going theory is that she did it for the same reason the Clintons engage in any corrupt activity, because they think they’re above the law and know that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. But underlying that is a more basic reality: She did it because she knew people outside the political class wouldn’t care. Brendan Nyhan:

The actual public response to the controversy is likely to be a combination of apathy and partisanship. Few Americans are paying attention to any aspect of the campaign at this point. Those who do notice will most likely divide largely along partisan lines, with Democrats interpreting her actions more charitably, especially once they see Republicans attacking Mrs. Clinton on the issue.

Any significant political costs are also likely to be fleeting because the revelations came so early in the campaign cycle. It is hard to believe that a lack of transparency in Mrs. Clinton’s use of email will have a significant effect on a general election that will be held some 20 months from now. As the political scientist John Sides wrote on Twitter, “In October 2016, no persuadable voter will be thinking about Hillary Clinton’s email account.” It’s equally implausible that this revelation will draw a second top-tier candidate into the race for the Democratic nomination given the advantages Mrs. Clinton retains over possible rivals like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

The point about how early it is in the campaign and consequently how little people will remember about this by election day 2016 is right on. A few righties on Twitter yesterday were kicking around the theory that Team Hillary exposed the private e-mail account themselves, just so that they could get this out there now, take their beating for a week, and then let the media forget about it. I doubt that’s right — if they wanted to leak this, they wouldn’t have handed the credit for it to Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi committee — but they would have leaked it eventually, likely sooner than later, knowing that voters have short memories about most scandals. That’s especially true for Bill and Hillary, whose brand already has plenty of scandal built in. If you vote for Her Majesty in 2016, you do so with absolute assurance that her administration will be one ethical clusterfark after another because that’s who the Clintons are and that’s how they roll. If you’re okay with that then by definition you’re okay with her conducting America’s diplomacy off the books. If you’re not okay with that, and you shouldn’t be, then you probably gave up on the Clintons sometime around 1995. The only reason there’s a bipartisan flavor to the current outrage over her e-mail corruption rather than unified wagon-circling on the left is because there’s still hope among progressives that Elizabeth Warren can be convinced to run. They’ll add some blood in the water if they think it might attract Warren. Once she’s definitely out, though, they’re out of the Clinton ethics-watching business too.

The plain fact, as Nyhan notes, is that truly game-changing developments in national elections are rare. The only one I can think of off the top of my head in the last three presidential cycles was in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. McCain was competitive before then but faded afterward, although it’s hard to believe that a weak Bush-like candidate like him would have held off Obama and won a third straight GOP term if it hadn’t happened. The financial crisis probably influenced the margin of victory, not the outcome, which means even the looming collapse of the world’s financial system isn’t necessarily a strong enough gust to blow a presidential election off course. And yet, and yet, political media (me included, unfortunately) will spend the next 20 months hyperventilating over every bit of dirt to emerge in the campaign, knowing deep down that even legit corruption like this e-mail scandal are basically farts in the wind to the wider electorate. Go read this tongue-in-cheek list of supposed campaign “game-changers” that didn’t really change anything compiled by Mother Jones after the 2012 election. Or go read John Sides a few months before the 2012 vote tracking how the polls changed, or rather didn’t change at all, after supposedly major gaffes like “you didn’t build that.” Political websites are filled with columns today wondering whether Hillary might not run after all, which shows you how much better the Clintons understand voters than the people who cover them.

The most ominous thing about the e-mail scandal to me is that it demonstrates the same sort of approach to law and politics as Obama’s more dubious executive actions do. Delaying ObamaCare’s employer mandate when the law says it has to take effect on a certain day and granting legal status and work permits to illegals when the law makes no provision for that each reflect Obama’s belief that the real limits on his power at this point are political, not legal. So long as the policies he’s enacting are kinda sorta popular with the public (or at least not so unpopular that it’ll cost his party anything), he’s full speed ahead. That’s a bad precedent to bequeath to any president but a really bad one to hand to someone like Hillary Clinton, who was looking for ways to skirt proper procedure at State before she took the oath of office. In the end, if voters don’t care about Obama seizing lawmaking power from Congress to advance his immigration agenda, why would they care about small potatoes like Hillary using a private e-mail account instead of a public one to hide correspondence from the State Department archives?

What I wonder is, would voters 50 years ago have cared about something like this or has the public always been basically indifferent about procedural niceties (even at the level of separation of powers)? You could theorize that as government has gotten bigger, more complex, more opaque and therefore less accountable, that the public’s desire and even ability to tell what’s legal and what’s not has deteriorated, making power plays large and small by government agents more likely, but that’s just speculating. Would the equivalent of this e-mail scandal have been a big deal in the 1950s, say, or was stuff like this always shrugworthy in America?

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David Strom 8:41 PM on March 20, 2023