May 28, 2016
This week, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee was essentially found guilty of what she claimed she hadn’t done by the State Department Inspector General. The majority of her assertions were knocked down. She doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It probably doesn’t matter.
For over a year, Hillary Clinton has maintained she had permission to set up a private server. She didn’t. The new argument is she made an error, but we should view this oversight through the larger arc of her career contributions. As the Trump campaign is reminding us on a daily basis, that lengthy career is studded with controversy.
Of course, when your opponent is looking forward to a fraud trial, these things are all relative. Way back in the 19th century, scurrilous things were said about presidential candidates on a regular basis. Before the Civil War, most newspapers were specifically linked to political parties. Whatever your take on the bias of MSNBC, Fox News, et al, it’s nothing compared to what you would have read a couple hundred years ago.
Some of what was said about Andrew Jackson and his contemporaries was true, some patently false. Voters didn’t have much way of knowing what was true, what was salacious gossip, and what was true and salacious. As a result, the public regularly elected people facing charges of extreme perfidy and having supposedly committed scandalous acts.
As the papers gradually became less partisan and we moved into the radio and then television age, attacks became more generally accurate, at least normally with some basis in fact. With greater odds a charge was true, voters began taking them more seriously. For quite some time, an understanding between journalists and politicians about what was eligible for public consumption and what wasn’t limited the distribution of various unpleasant facts.
This enabled JFK, among others, to get away with things their successors would not. Particularly after Watergate, the press began discarding their self-imposed duty to protect the officials they covered. This gave us a period of multiple decades where voters found out unsavory things about candidates and elected officials and were in a position to believe them and judge harshly.
That’s the environment we’re used to. One where there are limits to what a presidential candidate can overcome. As we celebrate Memorial Day Weekend, the campaigns are busily vetting possible VP candidates. Back in 1972, George McGovern picked Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton without doing enough research and wound up with a running mate who had taken electroshock therapy. That didn’t go over real well and Eagleton was quickly booted.
Understandably, current options are being carefully scrutinized. But they will join tickets headed by Trump and Clinton. One had more questionable activities surrounding the construction of Trump Tower than Mitt Romney’s entire business career, while the other’s email controversy is blocking out discussion of extreme conflict of interest over donations to the Clinton Foundation.
One won’t release his tax returns despite basing his credentials on his ability to make money and accumulate wealth, while the other released decades of tax returns, but wiped 32,000 emails from their personal server, conveniently vaporizing messages between the foundation and State Department.
It’s clear Clinton and Trump enable each other. Running against a candidate with a similar record of massaging the truth and combining business and political influence makes it easier. It’s not like either needs to confront a squeaky clean opponent. Whatever attack ads are run against one are easily turned against the other. Crooked Hillary is. But you could argue she’s the more honorable of the two. Argue. Who knows how to even score that contest.
Is this an aberration? Something only possible because Hillary locked up anyone and everyone who matters in the Democratic Party years ago and Trump hacked the GOP process? Will we return to normalcy (at least through the lens of the past 4-5 decades) for 2020? Does it still make sense to worry about the records of vice presidential nominees?
Perhaps voters will yearn for a clean shower in four years. The incumbent president will have a shaky history. Odds are extremely good they’ll have a scandal or six in their first term. It could create a great opportunity for a candidate with a relatively clean record. Or standards may have shifted. It’s hard to have a spotless resume.
Even the most honorable of politicians have to make tough decisions. Most businesspeople get sued. Many marriages crumble. People cheat. This isn’t to say the line belongs in a place where Clinton and Trump are safely eligible, but less scrutiny might get a wider range of qualified candidates running for office at various levels. There will be some trickle down effect.
In a world with a President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump, it will be harder to smear a candidate for State Assembly with some of the comparatively minor things “contrast” ads are made of. Letting more generally acceptable candidates in is at least a potential consolation prize for the choice before the voters in November.
It’s impossible to predict how this shakes out, but we will look at future candidates through a very different prism. At least for the next several cycles.