In the wake of FBI director James Comey’s blistering public condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of secure materials as Secretary of State, most of Clinton’s defenders—and even her critics—are treating this as a story about judgment, or, echoing Comey, “carelessness.” For Democrats, the story is that she was sloppy, she apologized, and it’s time to move on. For Republicans, it’s that she showed such reckless disregard for the rules that she is unfit to serve as President. The debate over her transgressions is one of degree, not kind.
But this narrow focus on the extent of Clinton’s carelessness in handling classified information—and whether classified materials were properly marked, and whether they should have been classified in the first place—obscures what is surely a more important question: Why did she go to such great lengths to set up a private email server in the first place—and then, once it became public, order her attorneys to wipe the server before turning it over to the FBI?
One reason may be that a level of secrecy and deceit is necessary to grease the wheels of the sophisticated enterprise Walter Russell Mead has called the Clinton Machine—the international, multimillion dollar operation that dispenses patronage, rewards loyalists, and sustains the ultimate power couple’s permanent campaign. In Politico, Peter Schweizer points to circumstantial evidence to this effect:
What could explain this lack of emails on the Russian Nuclear Agency? … Remember that a major deal involving Rosatom that was of vital concern to Clinton Foundation donors went down in 2009 and 2010. Rosatom bought a small Canadian uranium company owned by nine investors who were or became major Clinton Foundation donors, sending $145 million in contributions. The Rosatom deal required approval from several departments, including the State Department. […]
According to her memoir, “by coincidence” Bill was in Bogota, Colombia, apparently for Clinton Foundation work, at the same time she was in the country. Also there with Bill was Frank Giustra, one of the Clinton Foundation’s largest contributors. Bill, Hillary and Giustra reportedly had dinner together, and the next morning, Bill met with Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, followed immediately by Hillary’s meeting with Uribe. In the weeks that follow, Giustra’s companies scored concessions from the Colombian government on matters ranging from oil to timber.
The stench of this kind of influence peddling—whether or not it is technically lawful—is degrading to Americans’ trust in their political institutions. The Clinton Machine’s variety of “honest graft” conducted through elite social networks doesn’t exactly conjure up voters’ highest ideals or bring out the best of American democracy. Clinton is the second most unpopular major party nominee in recent history for a reason.
Machine-style politics is often ugly, but the fault for this goes deeper than the Clintons. At a time when party organizations are weaker than ever before—the Democratic establishment did not have a single candidate who could compete with Clinton in the primaries, and the Republican establishment simply collapsed before Trump like a house of cards—our political system increasingly rewards candidates who have access to independent networks of fundraising power and celebrity influence. In both parties, “bosses” have lost the ability to structure politics. On the Democratic side, the unsavory Clinton operation stepped in to fill the void.
The Clinton scandal, and the damage it will inflict on the public trust whether or not she makes it to the White House, is about more than careless email management, or the questionable judgment of one individual. It is about how our political institutions are structured, and how they will be structured going forward. And the verdict is not hopeful on either of those fronts.