E-mail uproar: Is Hillary Clinton no longer inevitable?

If she officially runs for the White House and is not the Democratic standard-bearer, it will be the biggest nomination upset of modern times.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the State Department in Washington, Sept. 12, 2012.

Is Hillary Rodham Clinton no longer inevitable? Has her front-runner status been damaged in any way by the uproar over her amazing private e-mail system?

After all, she’s getting lots of negative coverage for conducting all her State Department electronic business via a personal account.

Republicans are almost gleeful that she never apparently signed in via “state.gov.” They’re hinting that she must be hiding dark secrets, perhaps about the attack on US buildings in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.

“You do not need a law degree to have an understanding of how troubling this is. There are chains of custody issues, there are preservation of material and documents issues,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the House committee investigating Benghazi, earlier this week.

Democrats aren’t exactly forming a phalanx around her. Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers find creative ways of saying “no comment” when the subject arises.

“I must admit I’ve been busy with other things around here like Prime Minister Netanyahu and things like that. So I haven’t looked at it yet,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland.

Even many in the mainstream punditocracy seem amazed. Veteran Washington hand Ron Fournier went nuts on Thursday after Mrs. Clinton called on the State Department to release her e-mails as soon as possible. He felt this request made her seem like an innocent bystander to a situation she had created.

“The actions of Hillary Clinton and her team raise the question: Is she trapped on the wrong side of the bridge to the 21st century?” writes Mr. Fournier today.

But look, this is all the working of Washington’s natural cycle of outrage. The e-mail problem isn’t positive for Clinton, obviously. But it’s the wind from a butterfly’s wings, politically speaking. It will have a small effect on her chances of sitting in the Oval Office.

For one thing, it’s early. Voters aren’t yet processing new information about the 2016 race. It’s so early that it’s possible that Clinton leaked this story herself to get it out of the way before election season truly begins.

(OK, that’s probably unlikely. It would require way too much advance strategic planning. Fun to think about though, isn’t it?)

Second, it’s the Clintons. They’ve gone through so many serious political crises that this hardly registers on their war room Defcon scale. Two words: “Monica” and “Lewinsky.”

“In Congress the consensus of many Democrats was that this was just the latest story in a running campaign to discredit a politician who had survived worse,” writes Bloomberg Politics’ Dave Weigel.

Most importantly, Clinton’s partisan standing is secure. Last June, a Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the former secretary of State. Ninety percent! That’s a big reason why she is so far ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination. Her lead over ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vice President Joe Biden is a chasm. It’s the Grand Canyon. If she officially runs for the White House and is not the Democratic standard-bearer, it will be the biggest nomination upset of modern times.

The general election is another matter. She’s far from a shoo-in to beat the eventual GOP pick, though she has single-digit leads over most top contenders at the moment.

Even there, the e-mail uproar won’t likely matter much. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein points out today, candidates and campaigns can matter a lot in primary campaigns, but in the general election the two-team nature of US politics takes over.

“At that point, party is the most important factor, with the economy and other ‘fundamentals’ such as war and peace having an important but secondary effect,” writes Mr. Bernstein.

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