The blockbuster New York Times story detailing the enrichment of Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation at the hands of Canadians, Ukrainians, and Russians with specific business before Hillary Clinton’s State Department is a political wake-up call for Democrats—but not the one you might think.
The issue isn’t how they will respond to this one story, which may or may not have legs, or the next batch of stories due to emerge from Peter Schweizer’s soon-to-be-released Clinton Cash. The issue is whether they are going to accede, as a party, to Mrs. Clinton walking into the nomination not only because there is an ethical cloud hovering over her from today’s stories and the destruction of her private email server but because they really can have no idea what is going to come out about her between now and November 2016. This is why a coronation process is bad news for any party—not only because candidates want to be president but because parties as a whole need to be able to change things up when things go wrong.
One thing about these stories is that they demonstrate the mainstream media have spent the Obama years resolutely not doing their jobs—which means that Hillary Clinton has not actually been vetted the way, say, every major Republican in the race has been. (Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have been the subject of intense scrutiny from Florida media, Scott Walker from Wisconsin media, Chris Christie from New York-area media, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz from Texas media, Bobby Jindal by Louisiana media, and so on.) This story—the story of the Clinton Foundation overall— has been hiding in plain sight from 2010 onward. Thus, Democratic voters who like her and believe she is the best person for them are operating on the basis of incomplete information owing to a systematic lack of scrutiny by a media largely unwilling (consciously and unconsciously) to do the deep digging into Obama administration troubles—especially during the first term, when such digging might have served the interests of Republicans in 2012.
But here we are. These stories and more are unavoidable now, and the classic Clinton dodges (which I detail today in a New York Post column) aren’t going to work very well in response to them.
Which brings up the Democratic party, its voters, and its overall health. The condition of the party is a complex one. At the presidential level, the results of the past five elections suggest Democrats go into 2016 with a mild structural advantage; it would seem that, all things being equal, they can depend on a nationwide floor around 48 percent, while the GOP floor is probably a point or a point and half below that. Brilliant get-out-the-vote innovations from 2008 and 2012 will doubtless be added to as we head into the coming year.
On the other hand, the national condition of the Democratic Party outside the presidential realm is terrible. Since 2009, Democrats are down 60 seats in the House and 14 seats in the Senate. Republicans held 22 governor’s mansions in 2009; now they hold 31. Democrats have an astounding 910 fewer state legislators than they did when Barack Obama took office. The GOP has majorities in 67 of the 99 state legislative bodies in the United States, more than at any time since the 1920s.
So Democrats go into 2016 in good structural shape for a presidential bid but in horrendous overall shape as a political party when it comes to holding the levers of power everywhere else.
Hillary Clinton’s ability so far to clear the field—with the exception of a former governor of Maryland who ended office wildly unpopular in his own state—is a mark of the party’s sclerosis. Even when George H.W. Bush was running as Ronald Reagan’s successor in 1987-88, there were six other serious contenders, five of them figures of note in the party: Senate GOP leader and one-time vice-presidential candidate Bob Dole, the wildly popular Rep. Jack Kemp, former secretary of state Alexander Haig, former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, and Pat Robertson. If Bush had stumbled badly, or if scandal had surrounded him, Dole in particular was right there to pick up the slack.
That was the mark of a party that had been strengthened rather than weakened by its years in the White House.
The biggest polling news today—from a Quinnipiac survey completed before the blockbuster story—indicates that 61 percent of self-described independents find Hillary Clinton “untrustworthy.” That is a dangerous number for her and her party. If everything that has happened and is happening and will probably continue to happen to Hillary Clinton does not surface a challenger or two more threatening to her than Martin O’Malley, the party she will lead in 2016 will be more the wounded animal than the national force.