Why Hillary Clinton may be her own worst enemy

Voters faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and someone else in 2016 may have to decide just how eager they are to return to the ethical questions and partisan warfare that marked the better part of the Clinton presidency.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Hillary Clinton reacts to applause from the crowd before speaking during the sixth annual Women in the World Summit on Thursday in New York.

Reacting in part to this week's latest revelations about donations to the Clinton Foundation from 2009 to 2013, Chris Cillizza argues that Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem going forward is likely to be Hillary Clinton herself:

The single biggest threat to Hillary Clinton’s chances of being elected president next November – more so than any one running against her in the Democratic primary or even her future Republican general election opponent – is a sense among the electorate that the bad of putting another Clinton in office outweighs the good.

What Clinton cannot have – if she wants to win – is lots of voters saying some variant of this: “I like her and I think she’d probably be a good president. But, I just don’t want to go through all of that stuff again.” Which is why today is a not-at-all-good day for Clinton’s presidential hopes.


In terms of raising the “I don’t know if I want to go through all of this again” sentiment among average people, this collection of stories is just terrible. It reminds them – or, if it doesn’t remind them yet, it will – of all the things in the 1990s that they didn’t like and certainly don’t want to go through again. Obviously the top of the mind issue there is Monica Lewinsky but there’s Whitewater, the travel office, the Buddhist monks – and so and so forth.

“It’s the Clinton way: raking in millions from foreign governments behind closed doors while making promises about transparency that they never intended to keep,” said Carly Fiorina, one of the 20 (or so) people likely to run for president on the Republican side. “Have we had enough of a ruling political class that doles out favors to the wealthy and well connected few?”

Republicans would be wise to follow Fiorina’s example as they strategize the best way to effectively attack Clinton in the campaign to come.  While hitting her on her resume or readiness for the office is a loser with the American public, raising questions about her honesty is far more fertile soil.

In support of his argument, Cillizza points to a poll released today from Quinnipiac University: (the same poll I referenced in the post earlier today about Marco Rubio):

More than six in ten (62 percent) of voters said Clinton has “strong leadership qualities.” In that same sample, however, less than four in ten (38 percent) said that Clinton was honest and trustworthy. A majority (54 percent) said she’s not honest and trustworthy, including 61 percent of independents [emphasis added].

That’s a remarkable set of findings – and speaks to the divided mind the public has about the Clintons broadly and Hillary Clinton specifically. There’s a widespread belief in her capability to do the job she is running for. There’s also widespread distrust in her personally.  People admire her but don’t know if she’s honest.

And that is the central problem for Clinton with this series of stories today. It affirms for people that there is always some piece – or pieces – of baggage that come with electing the Clintons to anything. It’s part of the deal. You don’t get one without the other.

This has been an issue for Clinton from the beginning, of course. Even in 2008, there were many who wondered whether voters would really be eager to return to the Clinton era, given that such a return is just as likely to mean a return of the ethical questions and partisan warfare that marked the better part of the 1990s as it is to mean a return to an economy that was booming largely for reasons unrelated to President Clinton’s policies. Additionally, to put it bluntly, Hillary Clinton has never seemed to be able to project the same sense of, well, warmth, that her husband did when he was running for and serving as president, and that we’ve come to know in his years since leaving office. Unlike Bill, Hillary tends to come across as far more taciturn and far less empathetic than her husband, and this plays into much of the reason that Mrs. Clinton does not poll well on questions regarding honesty and trustworthiness. In addition to that, though, the history of the Clinton administration itself, which Mrs. Clinton was heavily involved in from the beginning, includes many instances where the trustworthiness of the president, the first lady, or those speaking on their behalf was questionable at best. Voters faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and someone else in 2016 may have to decide just how eager they are to return to that era.

The other characteristic of American politics from the Clinton era, of course, was the never-ending stream of accusations and partisan attacks that were aimed at president and Mrs. Clinton from critics on the right virtually from the time he announced his candidacy for president. There were substantive political issues that were part of the attacks such as the administration’s push for gun control bills in Congress and the first lady’s aborted health-care reform initiative, and of course once the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 there were frequent battles over the federal budget and other issues that continued for several years until both the White House and Congress came to their senses and realized that they needed to work together to get anything done. In addition to those policy disputes, the Clinton years also saw a wide variety of fringe accusations and conspiracy theories become part of the mainstream political discussion. To a large degree, this was due to the rise of the Internet, talk radio, and cable news, but whatever the cause, it was the beginning of a political culture that has only gotten worse over the years. Given how much frustration they’ve expressed with the way Washington has worked in recent years, one wonder how eager voters may be to return to the era that gave birth to today’s political culture.

Just as Mrs. Clinton has baggage, of course, the Republican Party does as well. Both due to their party’s position on issues such as same-sex marriage and immigration and because of the gridlock that they have been responsible for during the Obama administration, the public reputation of Republicans is quite low, notwithstanding the outcome of the elections in 2010 and 2014. Additionally, the party has been hurt by things such as the inability of some of its politicians to keep quiet on an issue as seemingly radioactive as abortion and rape. Notwithstanding Clinton’s own problems, the GOP’s problems may be enough to give her an edge when the general election rolls around. Whatever the outcome, though, it seems pretty clear that American voters are going to be faced with two rather unpalatable choices in 2016. If that’s the case, then you can expect a lot of them to just decide to stay home on Election Day.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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