If a scandal happens to a non-candidate with no opponents does it impact her status as front-runner for her party’s nomination? This is the question facing Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party right now. The most likely answer, at least in the short run, is no. This is also an example of why Ms. Clinton’s strategy of ensuring no opposition for the nomination in 2016 is so important. A decently funded somewhat competitive primary opponent could begin to make inroads into Ms. Clinton’s lead because of the latest revelations of how, during her time as Secretary of State, the Clinton Foundation raised money.
These latest revelations should be put in some perspective. It is not as if Ms. Clinton was found to have been associating with extreme radicals or covering up some crime. Rather, these revelations are, in a very real sense, just a case of the Clintons being the Clintons, navigating conflicts between their public and private live, and behaving in ways that push ethnical standards.
Bill, Hillary and even Chelsea Clinton could meaningfully and decisively distance themselves from the Clinton Foundation. This would not be easy and would deprive Bill and Chelsea of something meaningful in their lives, but it would also be the best thing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and potential presidency.
While Bill Clinton is often understood to be a gifted politician and great campaigner still capable of giving an excellent stump speech, but many have also pointed out that he brings both positives and negatives to his wife’s presidential aspirations. Mr. Clinton has already been influential in ensuring that no strong Democratic candidates have entered the race to threaten his wife’s path to the nomination. However, his work with the Clinton Foundation, and the way he has raised money for that organization, were always going to be campaign issues, even if that fundraising had been handled perfectly.
While Ms. Clinton’s non-campaign team has sought to rebut some of the accusations of ethical lapses, emphasizing that the Clinton Foundation disclosed more than was necessary and stressing the nonprofit organization’s good works, a troubling issue remains: the extent to which donors to the Foundation gained access or influence in the State Department. The controversy reminds middle aged and older Americans of the drama that often surrounded Bill Clinton’s presidency, and sends a signal to younger voters that Clintonism is more than just the strong economic growth and brilliant US foreign policy that they have been told about by Clinton supporters during the last decade and a half.
There is, of course, a simple, obvious and implausible solution to this problem for the Clintons. Bill, Hillary and even Chelsea Clinton could meaningfully and decisively distance themselves from the Clinton Foundation. This would not be easy and would deprive Bill and Chelsea of something meaningful in their lives, but it would also be the best thing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and potential presidency. Not least, it would also be best for the country, as there would be no easy avenue for foreign or domestic actors to send money in the hopes of access to the President. The Clintons will not, however, give up their roles in the Clinton Foundation; and the issue will continue to pop up throughout the campaign.
Hillary Clinton is able to speak fluently and knowledgeably on a very broad range of domestic and foreign policy topics. No Republican nominee will flummox Ms. Clinton by asking her about trade policy with China, charter schools, financial regulations or any other policy question. But Bill Clinton’s ethics or questionable donations to the Clinton Foundation are not topics about which Ms. Clinton will want to talk about.
The contretemps over contributions to the Clinton Foundation cannot have come to a surprise to Bill Clinton. The former President is too smart, sophisticated and experienced to think such an easy target was going to be ignored by his wife’s opponents. Nonetheless, for reasons that may never entirely be understood, he continued to behave this way; and Ms. Clinton continued to give him cover.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.