After the New York primary, the betting websites are giving Hillary Clinton about a 94 percent chance of being the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump a 66 percent chance of ending up as the Republican nominee.
But Clinton’s big challenge is the trust issue: The share of voters who have negative feelings toward her has soared from 25 percent in early 2013 to 56 percent today, and a reason for that is that they distrust her. Only a bit more than one-third of American voters regard Clinton as “honest and trustworthy.”
Indeed, when Gallup asks Americans to say the first word that comes to mind when they hear “Hillary Clinton,” the most common response can be summed up as “dishonest/liar/don’t trust her/poor character.” Another common category is “criminal/crooked/thief/belongs in jail.”
All this is, I think, a mistaken narrative.
One of the perils of journalism is the human brain’s penchant for sorting information into narratives. Even false narratives can take on a life of their own because there is always information arriving that can confirm a narrative.
Thus once we in the news media had declared Gerald Ford a klutz (he was actually a graceful athlete), there were always new TV clips of him stumbling. Similarly, we unfairly turned Jimmy Carter into a hapless joke, and I fear that the “Crooked Hillary” narrative will drag on much more than the facts warrant.
This is a narrative that goes way back but I think this narrative goes way too far.
One basic test of a politician’s honesty is whether that person tells the truth when on the campaign trail, and by that standard Clinton does well. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site, calculates that of the Clinton statements it has examined, 50 percent are either true or mostly true.
That compares with 49 percent for Bernie Sanders, 9 percent for Trump, 22 percent for Ted Cruz and 52 percent for John Kasich. Here we have a rare metric of integrity among candidates, and it suggests that contrary to popular impressions, Clinton is relatively honest — by politician standards.
It’s true, of course, that Clinton is calculating — all politicians are, but she more than some. She has adjusted her positions on trade and the minimum wage to scrounge for votes, just as Sanders adjusted his position on guns.
Sanders’ positions seem less focus-group tested than Clinton’s, and she can be infuriatingly evasive. Partly that’s because she’s more hawkish than some Democrats, and partly that’s because she realizes she’s likely to face general election voters in November and is preserving wiggle room so she can veer back to the center then.
Does that make her scheming and unprincipled? Perhaps, but synonyms might be “pragmatic” and “electable.” That’s what presidential candidates do.
Then there’s the question of Clinton raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from speeches to Goldman Sachs and other companies. For a person planning to run for president, this was nuts. It also created potential conflicts of interest, — but there’s no sign of any quid pro quo (in a broader sense, companies write checks to buy access and influence, but if that’s corrupt then so is our entire campaign finance system). Bill Clinton, Colin Powell and other prominent figures were speaking for high fees, so she probably thought she could get away with it as well.
Jill Abramson, who spent decades as a journalist either investigating Hillary Clinton or overseeing investigations of her, and who certainly isn’t soft on the Clintons, concluded in The Guardian: “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”
Then there are the State Department emails, which are the subject of an FBI investigation. What was she thinking in using a private email server? Why on earth would she do such a stupid thing?
Clinton is thin-skinned, private, controlling, wounded by attacks on her and utterly distrustful of the news media. Where Bill Clinton charms, she stews. My bet is that she and her staff wanted to prevent her emails from becoming public through Freedom of Information Act requests.
All this is self-inflicted damage, which Hillary Clinton compounded with evasions and half-truths, coming across as lawyerly and shifty. A more gifted politician might have gotten away with it, but Clinton is not a natural politician. Her warmth can turn to remoteness on the television screen, her caution to slipperiness.
As for the fundamental question of whether Clinton risked American national security with her email server, I suspect the problem has been exaggerated. As President Barack Obama put it, “she has not jeopardized America’s national security.”
Clinton’s private email server may have been penetrated by the Russians, though we don’t know that. But we do know that the official State Department nonclassified email system was indeed penetrated by the Russians, along with the White House unclassified email system.
The bottom line: If she had followed the rules and used her official email address, Vladimir Putin might actually have had a leg up on reading her correspondence.
So as we head toward the general election showdown, by all means denounce Clinton’s judgment and policy positions, but let’s focus on the real issues. She’s not a saint but a politician, and to me this notion that she’s fundamentally dishonest is a bogus narrative.