The Email Controversy

Whoever could have predicted that an issue as technical and nerdy as  Clinton’s email system would become so controversial? The scandal has dominated her candidacy and sucked much of the oxygen out of issues that cry out to be discussed in the current presidential campaign. Whatever valid questions it may raise about the candidate’s judgement, it needs to be put in perspective. Certainly Bernie was on the right track when he said “Enough about the emails. Let’s talk about real issues!”

The polarization that dominates our politics, of course, has made this a vain hope so far. Key political forces have pushed and continue to push the issue as far as it will go. The Republican Party naturally is the major instigator, believing it has found an issue with the momentum and robustness to cause maximum pain for the Democratic nominee. If something as flimsy as Benghazi could live on for years, why not email-gate? Republicans have raised expectations for months that a criminal indictment was inevitable, understanding that they would win either with a decision for prosecution, which would upend Clinton’s candidacy, or a decision against, which would offer new opportunities for conspiracy baiting and partisan outrage.

The media has also been a key force in the never-ending drama, giving far more credence to sensational interpretations of the scandal, such as expectations of impending indictment, than to sober ones.  The press largely ignored the less hyped observations of experts like William Weld, vice-presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket and former federal prosecutor, who pointed out that there was no criminal intent in Clinton’s case and hence no chance of indictment.

Moreover, the institutional forces tasked with bringing light to the matter did little to bring closure. In the current polarized climate, what was especially needed was a sense of balance and context. Instead, the FBI investigation focused narrowly on how many classified items in the emails it could find, without acknowledging the serious flaws of the classification system, which is overly broad and improperly applied, or taking into account similar, though less obvious, conduct by other past Secretaries of State. Comer’s condemnation of Clinton for sloppiness together with his decision not to seek an indictment will hardly put an end to the affair. Her opponents are still actively pushing the issue of perjury and seeking further depositions of the candidate. But in the absence of official action, non-indictment still offers them a great way to remind voters of how well people like Clinton fare under a “rigged” system.

Given all the tendencies for prolongation, how do we get beyond the private email issue, which now stands as the centerpiece of the Trump campaign and grist for claims of Clinton’s “corruptness” and “dishonesty”? In my opinion, Hillary’s best way to put it past her would be to make a direct apology to the American people for her “carelessness,” as Comer has put it, at the appropriate time, possibly during the debates when the issue comes up. Voters tend to be forgiving when candidates look them in the eye and admit their shortcomings.

Beyond that, given how the Comer announcement has removed almost all suspense and uncertainty, the email issue seems to have lost its worst sting. Like Benghazi, it has shifted from being something handled through institutional processes to one fanned almost solely by partisan forces. As such, it has the potential to be a reminder of how fixated and relentless the Trump candidacy is. Carried much further, the issue could easily backfire.


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