Yeah, I know.
Those of us who have been watching politics for the last quarter of a century have asked this question time and again, as the Clintons wriggled out of a dozen different kinds of shady behavior. And each time we think something’s finally going to take them down, they skate. It’s kind of like being a Cubs fan: maybe next year.
But there are five reasons why Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal could finally be the one.
1) It’s not about Bill.
People like Bill Clinton. I don’t really know why; he’s always struck me as a smarmy used car salesmen. But people actually do buy used cars from questionable characters, and the general public somehow likes Bill Clinton and wants to cut him some slack. Sometimes there’s just no accounting for these things.
But Hillary is not Bill. She can’t do that thing where he responds to a scandal with finger-wagging outrage at the unjust accusations one moment, and humble, lip-biting contrition the next, and people buy it. She seems cold and distant, and her lame attempts to laugh off the scandal as a non-issue don’t make her seem buoyantly confident. They just make her seem contemptuous and out of touch.
There are plenty of people—Democratic Party activists, mostly—who have a vested interest in making excuses for Hillary. But she doesn’t have the kind of mysterious charisma that gets her a free pass with the general public.
2) It’s about a real issue.
There were some real issues behind the previous scandals, as we wasted a lot of time explaining to anyone who would listen, which wasn’t many people. But the most famous issue on which the Clintons skated—Bill’s dalliance with a White House intern—seemed like it was all about his personal sex life, not matters of state. So who cared, really?
This scandal is about national security. It’s about Hillary Clinton casually, recklessly mishandling something that was central to her job as Secretary of State: protecting the secrets of the United States. That’s why the latest revelation is so important: that her unsecure homebrew e-mail server was not merely the passive recipient of classified information sent to her by others, but that she used it to originate messages containing classified material.
3) It’s about something concrete.
The biggest Clinton scandal by far is the way the family cashed in after Bill left office, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in speaking fees and consultancies, far beyond the actual value of any work they provided—money that is obviously being laid down in an attempt to secure access and favors from the Clinton family. And all of that money has been washing around between Bill and Hillary and their foundation, which seems to operate mostly as a family slush fund.
But the thing about influence peddling is that it’s vague and hard to pin down. That’s why people do it. Everybody knows the rules of the game: give money and you get access, you get an ear eager to hear your concerns—but there is never any explicit quid pro quo, no smoking gun that can send anybody to jail. So critics are left pointing to overall patterns that seem suspicious, but it can all just be brushed off as coincidence.
The e-mail scandal is specific and concrete. It’s about a server and a hard drive. It’s about a specific classified message sent at a particular time from a particular e-mail account. It’s a lot harder to explain away.
4) It’s something people have been prosecuted for.
It’s hard to turn back once you’ve made a witch hunt out of mishandling classified information. Too many people have been prosecuted for that under this administration. Most famously, prosecutors went after General David Petraeus for keeping physical notebooks with classified information in his home—which is actually more difficult for our enemies to steal than the contents of a server, which can be hacked remotely. While you might be able to get someone to construct an argument about how that case is totally different from this one, it’s a distinction that isn’t going to hold up.
5) It turns Hillary’s big accomplishment into a big liability.
Secretary of State is the only executive office Hillary Clinton has ever held. When she lost the Democratic primary in 2008, this was the position she wanted as her stepping stone back to the presidency. It was an office in which she could rack up experience doing something that seems presidential—dealing with foreign policy—without having to take responsibility for whatever Obama messed up in domestic policy.
This scandal takes the one big thing Hillary Clinton has done in the past ten years to demonstrate her credentials to run for president, and it turns that one big asset into a big liability. It turns her tenure at the State Department into something she cannot mention without raising questions about all the classified information she potentially laid bare to Russian and Chinese hackers.
When it comes to actual prosecution, the Clintons are masters at getting off on a technicality, claiming that they didn’t really violate the strict letter of the law because it all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. And you know they can afford flesh-eating lawyers who will work every angle for them if this goes to court.
But we also know just how ambitious the Clintons are. We know that the real punishment for them isn’t prosecution or prison. It is being denied access to power. All this scandal really has to do is to make Hillary Clinton look unfit to be commander-in-chief.
After all, nobody can keep getting away with this stuff. It’s all got to catch up with them some time.