Anatomy of a Hillary Clinton pseudo-scandal: How Republicans and their media lackeys are trying to manufacture her downfall

This past weekend, we got a very good look at how Clinton's enemies are trying to destroy her

Published August 24, 2015 8:42PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire  (AP/Jim Cole)
Hillary Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire (AP/Jim Cole)

Many years ago when political blogging was in its infancy, I coined the phrase "Cokie's Law," which referred to a specific comment by pundit Cokie Roberts about the Lewinsky scandal that illustrated the precise way the beltway media excused their propensity for cheap gossip and scandalmongering. In discussing whether or not Hillary Clinton had actually blamed her husband's childhood for his philandering, Roberts said:

"At this point it doesn't much matter whether she said it or not because it's become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about."

Cokie's Law is the axiom that says the press can  pass judgement about anything once it's "out there" regardless of whether or not what's "out there" is true. This allows them to skip doing boring rebuttals of the facts at hand and instead hold forth at length about how it bears on the subject's "judgement" and the "appearance" of wrongdoing without ever proving that what they did was wrong.

You see, if the person being discussed were "competent," it wouldn't be "out there" in the first place, so even if it is based upon entirely specious speculation, it's his or her own fault for inspiring people to speculate so speciously. It all goes back to their "character," which nobody is more equipped to analyze and dissect than celebrity political reporters and pundits.

And even if the charges are patently false, they are always far too complicated to rebut in detail; and, anyway, the other side says something different (aka "he said/she said), so who's really to say what's true and what isn't? It's still the responsibility of the target of those charges because he or she shouldn't have allowed him or herself to be in a position where someone could make false charges in the first place.

This is where we are with Clinton's email pseudo-scandal from yesterday morning's "Meet the Press":

CHUCK TODD: Let me bring in the panel. Jon Ralston, the "lawyerly" answer there from Howard Dean [who said that in Clinton's public responses to the email controversy she sounded too much like a lawyer]. I thought was an interesting way... Every defense they've sounded off, that's what it sounds like. A lawyer, not a political consultant.

JON RALSTON: I guess what I thought from the beginning on that, I thought that was terrible for her that Governor Dean said that. But Chuck, "it depends on what the definition of classified is," I think is what people out there in real America are thinking. Even if it wasn't classified, why did she have to do this? Was there sensitive information on there? Why did she have that on an insecure server? This is not, as Governor Dean said, a purely media-manufactured story. Sure, the media's been all over it. But it's her handling of it. You know, someone should've given her this advice before that appearance in, by the way, Nevada, where she's at-- Here's the first thing you shouldn't do Hillary, joke about it. Don't joke about it, because people, even if they don't understand all the nuances, they know it's serious. So don't say, "Wipe it with a cloth," because you know in this world now, it's going to go viral right away, which of course it did.

CHUCK TODD: Amy is there a competency thing about this? You know, I had somebody email me and they go, "You know what, I don't think it's a big deal, but jeez, if she can't handle this mess, what does it say about her managerial expertise as president?"

AMY WALTER: Well, it goes to the heart of what her campaign message is, is I'm one of you, and I'm going to fight for you. But the reality is, and this is where the campaign still has its biggest problem, is explaining why on earth she set up a separate server in the first place. Normal people don't do that. Normal people who work in the government know what they have to do. So that just distances her even more, and it sets up this sense that she is--

CHUCK TODD: Special. Elite.

AMY WALTER: --she's special, she's elite, she's--

CHUCK TODD: Doesn't play by the rules.

AMY WALTER: And that to me is the bigger problem here.

As for the "elite, special" charge, that's just cheap armchair psychoanalysis of both Clinton and the electorate. It's not political analysis; it's beltway parlor games, and it's not really worth discussing. Both Job Ralston and Amy Walter are excellent reporters and analysts but there's something about Clinton that turns all of them in to Cokie Roberts on the Sunday shows.

But let's dispense with the rest of this right now, because it's not hard to do. First of all, the issue does depend on what the definition of classified is. If that's what the American people are thinking, then bravo, because the fact is that none of the emails that have been flagged were classified when she handled them. Various departments are looking at them now and reportedly deciding that maybe they should have been. That's really it, as far as the "classified documents" issue is concerned, and the press shouldn't be dismissive of that fact.

As for whether she should have had a separate email server, well -- she did and that's that. They'll be arguing about whether that was a good decision forever, but it no more speaks to her competence than it speaks to the competence of Colin Powell, who also used a personal email for his official correspondence and deleted all of them when he left. Or Jeb Bush, for that matter, who also had a personal server. It was obviously considered an innocuous procedure at the time, but if Clinton had been clairvoyant, as they apparently believe she should have been, she would have seen into the future, known that congressional Republicans would hold nine separate investigations into a bogus scandal called "Benghazi," and would have seen that they would throw everything at the wall -- and the one thing that would stick was her use of a private email server. It's fair to assume that, had she known all that, she would have done something differently to avoid the "appearance" of wrongdoing.

But what's important to note in all this that nothing that happened on that email server appears to have been corrupt, unethical, illegal or dangerous. It's all smoke, no fire. And that's the point. The smoke obscures the truth and makes everything vague and formless, leaving only an impression of being under siege.

One of the major effects of the patented "Clinton Scandal" that's become a fixture of political conversation over the past two decades is the helplessness in engenders in Democrats who feel like they are swimming in quicksand trying to make sense of the whole thing. They know it's not a real scandal, and yet the press is blatantly aroused by the opportunity to speculate wildly about "what it all means" while the Republicans smugly repeat their talking points with robotic military precision. But again, that's the point. It's even got a name: "Clinton Fatigue," which Charles Krauthammer, among others, declared was already in full effect many months ago:

Hillary Clinton is running on two things: gender and name. Gender is not to be underestimated. It will make her the Democratic nominee. The name is equally valuable. It evokes the warm memory of the golden 1990s, a decade of peace and prosperity during our holiday from history.

Now breaking through, however, is a stark reminder of the underside of that Clinton decade: the chicanery, the sleaze, the dodging, the parsing, the wordplay. It’s a dual legacy that Hillary Clinton cannot escape and that will be a permanent drag on her candidacy.

You can feel it. It’s a recurrence of an old ailment. It was bound to set in, but not this soon. What you’re feeling now is Early Onset Clinton Fatigue. The CDC is recommending elaborate precautions. Forget it. The only known cure is Elizabeth Warren.

You know that Charles Krauthammer only has the best interests of the Democratic party at heart, right? You can almost hear him laughing maniacally as he wrote that.

I know many Democrats, would have loved to see Elizabeth Warren run, and many women, including yours truly, especially would have been thrilled to see two such formidable women leaders go head to head on the campaign trail. And Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are welcome to join in too, as is any other Democrats who wants to try his or her hand. This is democracy and nobody's automatically entitled to be president.

But there are millions of Democrats who also really don't like the idea that Republicans are manipulating the system to choose their own rival and neither do they care for the media deciding who should be running on a Democratic ticket. And that's very much what's going on here. The Benghazi investigations are a joke, but they are providing the GOP with a excuse to go nosing around in Clinton's business in a way that gives them access to information they can dribble out over time to create the atmosphere I describe. The political press is, as usual, helping to do their dirty work for them. They are Ahab's obsessively chasing their white whale with visions of pulitzers dancing in their heads.

The pundits all assumed that President Clinton would have to resign in 1998, but they underestimated the people they were dealing with. I'm not talking about the Clintons. I'm talking about the American people -- who, unlike the beltway elites who get nervous at the sound of a loud noise, tend to respond to this political gambit with a stubborn insistence that they should be the ones to make these judgements and choose their own leaders.

Democratic primary voters may very well decide they don't want Clinton as the nominee for president. But it's highly doubtful they want a bunch of beltway elites and Republicans telling them they can't have her. Indeed, unlike the establishment, it tends to energize them to do the opposite. Just ask Newt Gingrich who lost his Speakership when he bet the House in 1998 on Clinton being vanquished by Ken Starr.


By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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