Why no Clinton scandal can stop Hillary from crushing Trump

For just about any other candidate facing just about any other opponent, this email scandal would be hugely damaging. But Clinton has the great good fortune to be facing Trump.

Hillary Clinton campaigns on, the email scandal in her rearview.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Molly Riley)

No one familiar with the plot twists of the final season of The West Wing will be surprised by the outcome of the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server.

A decade ago, West Wing White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler had been fired, and was facing jail time for leaking classified information about the existence of a military space shuttle. But the federal prosecutor wanted more. How did Ziegler learn about the shuttle in the first place? To get him to talk, the prosecutor threatened to issue subpoenas, just days before a presidential election, for several high-ranking members of the Josiah Bartlett administration, including former White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, who also happened to be the Democratic nominee's running mate.

Then Ziegler called the prosecutor's bluff: "I don't think derailing a presidential election is part of your job description. And I don't believe you think it is either."

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Maybe FBI Director James Comey is right that "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Hillary Clinton. But it is almost certainly the case that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against her when she is just three weeks away from being named the Democratic nominee for president. Especially when indicting Clinton might well be the only thing that could hand the White House to Donald J. Trump.

If Clinton were set to face just about anyone else in the upcoming election, I could have imagined a very different outcome of the FBI investigation — just as I could have imagined very different political consequences of Comey's assertion that Clinton was "extremely careless" in setting up and using a private email address and server for sensitive information while she was secretary of state. After all, the FBI director just publicly declared that the presumptive Democratic nominee exercised very poor judgment while serving in her most recent and most important position in public life. This comes after her Senate vote in favor of the disastrous Iraq War, and her strong encouragement of the similarly bungled Libyan intervention, and her support for greater military involvement in the hopelessly tangled Syrian civil war. I have no doubt that at this very moment, the Republican National Committee and what passes for the Trump campaign are scrambling to produce a flood of ads combining Comey's language with Clinton's failed foreign policy record.

For just about any other candidate facing just about any other opponent, this would be hugely, perhaps catastrophically, damaging. But Clinton has the great good fortune to be facing Trump. An indictment may well have sunk her. But short of that? She's home free.

Criticism of Clinton is voluminous and well warranted. But Team Clinton has an unspoken, subliminal message to counter critiques of its candidate's lousy record: "Yes, but Trump is worse!"

This Clinton strategy is going to succeed because it's true. Clinton may have an impressively long record of bad judgment calls. She may be almost comically out of step with the populist mood of the moment. She may be widely disliked by an electorate that doesn't trust her. But at least she and her campaign aren't proudly ignorant of public policy. Or prone to spewing misogynistic, racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic insults. Or wildly and continuously flip-flopping on policy. Or promising to tear up the entire postwar international order. Or threatening to forcibly round up and deport millions of people and ban members of an entire world religion from entering the United States.

With an opponent like Donald Trump, Clinton needs do little more than convey the same simple message day after day: "You may not like me, but at least I'm vastly better, more competent, more knowledgeable, less hateful, less risky, and yes, less corrupt than he is."

Again, it will work because it's true.

Of course, Trump's die-hard fanboys and a subset of Republicans (those for whom every Clinton scandal that fails to land her or her husband in jail is an occasion to recommit to the project of bringing them down once and for all) will never be persuaded. But most voters will be. And that will be enough to get her over the finish line — maybe even by historic margins.

If it wasn't obvious before, it certainly is now: Hillary Clinton is an eminently beatable candidate. Just about any Republican could have brought her down — except for the one the party chose.

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