This morning, November 12th, 2015, the headline on Fox News’ website announced, “FBI Expands Clinton Probe: Email investigation looks at possible violation of ‘false statements’ law.” The beginning of the story, written by Catherine Herridge and Pamela Browne, read as follows:
“The FBI has expanded its probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails, with agents exploring whether multiple statements violate a federal false statements statute, according to intelligence sources familiar with the ongoing case.
Fox News is told agents are looking at U.S. Code 18, Section 1001, which pertains to ‘materially false’ statements given either in writing, orally, or through a third party. Violations also include pressuring a third party to conspire in a cover-up. Each felony violation is subject to five years in prison.”
At the time of the article’s publication, RealClearPolitics’ Poll Average had Clinton polling more than twenty-one points above her closest rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. Three weeks ago, she shared the stage with four other Democratic presidential contenders, and two of them—former Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee—have since dropped from the race. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor who began his candidacy as a one-issue crusader for election reform before trying to go legitimate, was denied entry into the Democratic debates subject to a convenient, last minute rule change by the DNC. The final hanger-on, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley—a young, handsome, charismatic candidate who would be undoubtedly sought after in any other election year—is scraping by at 5% and appears to be banking on the off chance that a formal indictment of Clinton pushes her out of the race, allowing him to seize the middle ground against Sanders.
In a more rational time, an uninformed observer might think that the announcement of the FBI’s expanded investigation would doom Mrs. Clinton; perhaps in the face of multiple criminal charges she would be forced to drop from the race; perhaps this could be the end of her political career, as it would be for nearly any politician in such a bind. Such a distant observer would likely have thought the same when numerous allegations of misconduct and dereliction of duty emerged over the last few months and when Mrs. Clinton was repeatedly caught lying to the American people on a range of issues from her handling of the Benghazi attack to her solicitation of donations from foreign governments and her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Nonetheless, three months out from Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton dominates the field, and the DNC has yet to blink in its continued support for her.
Such a strange conspiracy of circumstances seems unimaginable for any candidate but Mrs. Clinton. No one in American politics—perhaps no one since Bill Clinton—has so commanded the support of both a major party and the American media. The lingering question is: why? With such an endless barrage of scandals and repeated revelations of Mrs. Clinton as a liar and a cheat, why does the Democratic establishment remain so steadfast in its support of her? The answer, it seems, lies not so much in what Mrs. Clinton offers Democrats but in what the party has lost over the past decade: moral integrity and a healthy pool of talent from which it can draw.
The standard of judgment in Democratic politics today has become not ‘what do we believe from our politicians?’ but rather ‘what is the absolute minimum amount of reasonable doubt that they can provide to give us cover in choosing to believe what we want?’ It is a lawyerly standard, not of reason but of rationalization. It aspires not to the recognition of truth but to escape from truths, and it is the epistemology of a man who thinks not in service to himself but to the collective. The White House press office has, throughout the Obama years, abandoned the tenor of public servants accountable to the American people and adopted that of a defense team, always willing to make the most absurd claims with the implied sneer: ‘Don’t believe us? Prove it!’
The same has become true of Clinton’s campaign. The most absurd and self-abasing positions are taken, to the extent of willfully sounding incompetent. A private cell phone is discovered? ‘I don’t know how cell phones work.’ A private email server? ‘I’m bad with technology.’ A high-ranking member of her staff lied on her employment records to be paid twice for the same job? ‘I only signed the papers; I know nothing.’ When called upon to account for it, Democratic pundits and party leaders mirror this ‘know-nothing’ line in support of their pre-selected candidate, always with the line that ‘That’s politics!’—implying that both sides are equally engaged in lying and cover-ups to support their own side.
Therein lies the wrinkle with their story: Republicans today have no scandals on the scale of Clinton, and it is unimaginable that any candidate in the Republican field could continue—let alone lead the field—if they were the subject of an active criminal investigation. Out of a much larger field of candidates, none on the Republican side face the kind of questions about their personal and professional integrity as the former secretary of state. Is this due to some morally superior cultural forces on the right? Not necessarily. The left has certainly lowered the bar at a prodigious speed, but it is hard to contend that the whole Republican Party and its politicians are all morally irreproachable. So what is the difference?
I contend that it is a matter of competition. The Republican primary field in 2015 has seen no fewer than seventeen candidates toss their hats into the ring, and its numbers remain strong going into primary season. Commentators and pundits have variously deplored the field as too big and counterproductive to Republicans coalescing around a viable choice, but it is still far too early for such concerns. Iowa and New Hampshire will narrow the field, and the long schedule of debates will continue to separate wheat from chaff. In the meantime, a fiercely competitive primary provides ample incentive for Republican candidates to challenge their opponents and strike at every weakness they can find. Not only does this prevent potential candidates with personal baggage to stay out of the race and weed out those primary candidates who would likely underperform in a general election; it makes those very same criticisms old news by the time Republicans make their nomination next summer. Through the constant back-and-forth, the Republican nominee—whoever he or she may be—will be stronger for having weathered the battle.
Not so for the Democrats’ anointed one, Hillary Clinton. Through months of coddling and protection from any serious challengers, Mrs. Clinton will likely get the nomination without having faced any serious challenge except from Bernie Sanders, who appeals mainly to the left-most members of the party. A brief glance at the stage during the first Democratic debate revealed a party tent-poled around one candidate, with just enough competition for the DNC to claim competitiveness. And the conspicuous concentration by pollsters on the Republican field, often to the total neglect of discussing Democrats, only confirms this observation. With the Republican debates still requiring two stages to hold their many contenders, the two parties seem to have diverged greatly since 2008—not only in their beliefs and ideals but in the size and diversity of their talent pools. The Republican field has flourished in developing a healthy level of internal debate while the Democratic Party has become a monolith beholden to the Obama and Clinton cults of personality. The Clinton-Sanders contest is merely the Democratic equivalent of another Bush family nominee versus the Democratic equivalent of Ron Paul—perhaps acceptable, but hardly exciting to the median voter.
Thus, Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy appears a fait accompli. The Democratic Party has become so concentrated on nominating her that it appears to be doing so at the expense of even seriously considering another viable candidate. It remains to be seen whether it is doing so at the expense of winning 2016. Joe Biden’s strikingly higher poll numbers among both Democratic voters and the general public were not enough to assure his entry into the field. In 2008, the Democratic Party nominated a charismatic and beloved candidate despite his total lack of experience, with greater regard for the man than the country he was to lead. Today, we must ask if it is possible that the same party has become so bound by Clinton’s name, her web of party allies, and her pool of favors that it will choose to nominate her even over the prospect of victory. Is there nothing—not even winning—that is more valuable to the DNC than a Clinton candidacy? As the party forges on in the face of criminal charges against the chosen one, only time will tell.