Even if Clinton is more secure than she appeared in the race for the Democratic nomination, the events of recent months may still haunt her
In almost all presidential elections, moments arise when candidates of both parties say or do something that comes to define them for the worse.
In 2012, a video of Mitt Romney disparaging 47 per cent of American voters crystallised perceptions of him as an out-of-touch plutocrat. In 1976, a toe-curling interview with Playboy forever destroyed Jimmy Carter’s image as an honourable outsider. And as far back as 1932, a campaign pop at the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt signalled an epic battle with the judicial branch that would almost wreck his presidency.
For Hillary Clinton, the misstep that threatens to compromise her presidential bid was not made during the course of this campaign but well in advance of it. Revelations that the former secretary of state used a private email to conduct government business via a server run from her home have been a gift to Clinton’s enemies, corroborating views of her as secretive and willing to bend the law.
Clinton’s response to the scandal has meanwhile reawakened doubts about her ability to manage difficult situations and prevented her from reacting to a challenge from the left in the form of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
On Tuesday Mrs Clinton had the opportunity to get on the front foot when she and her rivals for the Democratic nomination held their first TV debate of the cycle. The tone of the bout was unusually substantive, something that allowed Clinton to play to her policy experience. However, it was what she did with it that counted.
Instead of casting herself above the fray, Clinton outflanked Sanders with detail, undercutting his rhetorical bombast on issues like inequality. In another departure from her 2008 campaign she also willingly embraced a liberal cause – gun control – to give Sanders discomfort on one of the few issues where he sits closer to the political centre.
The key moment in the debate came when Sanders declined to attack Clinton on the question of her emails, a pass for which the former secretary of state was grateful. The Vermont senator’s claim the country was ‘sick’ of the scandal gave his rival some much-needed breathing space, but may also have been a smart bit of politics.
Polls show many Democratic voters are in fact supportive of Clinton’s conduct, so Sanders may have viewed it wiser to appear above petty politics than to offend the voters he needs to win the nomination.
In the aftermath of the debate, some observers wondered whether talk of Clinton’s political vulnerability had been overdone. The frontrunner still has high favourability ratings among Democrats, and remains the firm choice of minority voters that are now an important constituency of her party.
Clinton has also been wooing liberal voters sceptical of her in subtle ways for some months, engaging in a battle of her own with the Supreme Court on voting rights and breaking with President Obama on arctic drilling and now the Trans-Pacific trade deal.
But if Clinton is more secure than she appeared in the race for the Democratic nomination, the events of recent months may still yet haunt her. The polls showing Democrats behind her on the email controversy also show ambivalence among Independent voters and full-throated hostility from Republicans. This and the crash in Clinton’s general approval ratings make her a much weaker contender in a general election.
They also recast her as a divisive figure that congressional Republicans veering ever further right would feel little pressure to co-operate with should she capture the White House. The long chain Mrs Clinton made for herself in a past life will take some time to throw off.
Larry Smith writes on US politics. He is a former parliamentary aide now working for a consultancy
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