Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Should Dems panic over Hillary's polling, investigations?

"Dems near Clinton panic mode," reads the headline from The Hill. The story then goes on to describe a situation in which the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email setup as secretary of state, combined with faltering poll numbers, has Democrats "nearing full-on panic mode" about the future of the party's frontrunner for the 2016 nomination.

I don't buy it. Not for a minute.

Yes, there may be deep concern among some who fear that Clinton's once unassailable position is eroding, but if so it is unfounded. Her institutional strengths and advantages are far too significant to be overcome by any Democrat now in the race or likely to join the race, and that includes Vice President Joe Biden.  If that weren't true, Biden would be in the race already.

That also includes Bernie Sanders, who is attracting both big crowds and lots of attention. I'm encouraged by the passion that he's stirring, because the issues that he's highlighting need to be discussed. He is changing the conversation and saying things that need to be said. But polling not withstanding, he simply is not a well-rounded, serious threat to win the nomination.

As to the email:

From the beginning, that controversy has been an unforced error of the type that has become a Clinton specialty and that drives their supporters crazy at times. Her decision as secretary of state to set up an independent email server outside government channels might have been understandable in some ways as a product of her desire to keep her business under her control and out of the hands of those whom she is convinced are out to get her, and who in fact are.

But the decision was still pretty dumb, not least because it compounds the sense that the Clintons live by another set of rules than other people. In fact, by trying to evade the scrutiny of her enemies, she has handed them exactly what they wanted, both in terms of a controversy and in terms of an excuse to now go mining into her private email correspondence to see what embarrassments they might find.

Clinton hasn't forgotten -- and neither have her opponents -- that the investigation into the unfounded Whitewater "scandal" turned up nothing, yet somehow led to the very real, unrelated and highly destructive Lewinsky scandal. She doesn't want that happening again, and that fear makes her deeply reluctant to cooperate in this latest round of investigations and particularly those launched by the GOP Congress. But that reluctance, understandable as it might be, compounds the aura of arrogance and lack of transparency that is her greatest political handicap.

To date, though, nothing that has been publicly revealed in the multiple investigations rises to the level of a threat to Clinton's candidacy.  Certainly, nothing justifies the accusations of "criminal behavior" on her part emanating from her Republican opponents. She also benefits from a weird sort of political insulation in the sense that for the past quarter century, Republicans have been accusing her of all sorts of bizarre, over-the-top misdeeds, from TravelGate and the "murder" of Vince Foster to the Benghazi tragedy. All have proved to be without foundation. So when she dismisses this as just the latest in that string of exaggerations, it strikes a familiar chord.

The hypocrisy in this case is also pretty rich, because the use of outside email accounts is a pretty standard and open secret in government at almost all levels, from local to national.  The former and current Republican governors now attacking Clinton -- Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal -- have all dealt with similar controversies, as did Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

And during the George W. Bush administration, some 88 senior officials in the Bush White House were discovered to have used non-governmental email accounts to conduct government business and evade transparency requirements; email from more than 50 of those officials -- amounting to somewhere between 5 million and 20 million emails -- somehow disappeared and most were never recovered. Nobody was prosecuted for it.

One more point: There's no evidence that Clinton's email system was ever compromised, and as we've seen from recent hacks, keeping her emails on a "protected" government server would not exactly have been a guarantee of secrecy from prying foreign eyes. That doesn't excuse her decision, but it's nonetheless true.

Last week, we learned that the Pentagon's unclassified email system for the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been compromised, allegedly by the Russians, and had to be shut down. In June, we learned that applications from tens of thousands of persons seeking security clearances for government work had been stolen from a supposedly secure server by the Chinese. Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said that he considers it "very likely" that the Chinese or Russians are reading his emails, "and I certainly write things with that awareness." (Kerry didn't mention the fact that we are almost certainly doing the same to other countries, both friend and foe.)

In short, Clinton made a mistake in her handling of State Department emails, but it is not by any means a mistake of the gravity claimed by her opponents. If they weren't making a mountain out of this relative molehill, they would be working some other molehill. And I very much doubt that we'll be hearing much about this issue by the time the general election campaign begins between Hillary and her friend The Donald (ok, jk).



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.