Hillary Clinton is suddenly a weaker presidential candidate.
While the former secretary of state remains a strong favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, she’s now more vulnerable to a party challenger – and, perhaps more ominously, more likely to give an already-alienated electorate new reasons to drop out of the political process.
The furor over foreign money and secret emails may be prodding Clinton to engage politically faster than she’d planned. She issued her first personal statement near midnight Wednesday night on the newest problem, that she’d used a private email account to conduct State Department business. She’s been added to the list of speakers alongside her husband and daughter at a Saturday meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. And she may be moving up the formal launch of her campaign.
Clinton strove to defuse the latest controversy with a late-night tweet that tried, likely without success, to turn the tide of the email stories and make it appear she was the one demanding transparency. “I want the public to see my email,” she said, and added that she’d asked the State Department to release it.
Clinton did turn over thousands of pages of emails to State, but she and her aides decided which one to give the officials. The department said early Thursday that it would review the emails, a process that could take several months.
Give us a break, Republicans protested.
“Hillary Clinton must think we’re all suckers,” said Michael Short, Republican Party spokesman. “The fact Hillary Clinton set up a ‘homebrewed’ email system in her house to skirt federal record-keeping regulations is a pretty good indicator of just how transparent she’s interested in being.”
Here we go again.
Big money that’s hard to account for? Forty percent of top donors over the past 10 years to the Clinton Foundation are based in foreign countries, McClatchy reported. Clinton was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, and she joined the foundation after leaving office. The flap is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s wooing big money by inviting well-heeled donors to attend fancy coffees or sleep over at the White House.
Secret, private emails? Could be an echo of the early Clinton administration, when first lady Hillary Clinton, in charge of overhauling the nation’s health care system, would not at first release the names of hundreds of people on her task force.
Transparency? “I think I’m the most transparent person in public life,” Clinton said in 2008. But would the public have learned of the email account if the Republican-led House committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi incident hadn’t uncovered it?
To voters, all this opens Clinton to more, sharper criticism about how she’d campaign and govern. Or who has her ear.
The Clinton Foundation said it had acted properly in its fundraising.
“Like other global charities, the Clinton Foundation receives support from individuals, organizations and governments from all over the world. Contributions are made because the foundation’s programs improve the lives of millions of people around the globe,” it said in a statement. “The Clinton Foundation has a record of transparency that goes above what is required of U.S. charities.”
The political world saw the foundation’s operations through a different prism, however.
“This has potential to have real legs. It feeds a sense of uneasiness about foreign money coming into this country,” said Wayne Lesperance, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at New England College in Henniker, N.H.
Clinton retains some huge political advantages. “People already think they know her,” said veteran political author Richard Reeves. “People who don’t like her already will like her less, and those who like her won’t change their minds.”
But she faces two threats. In the Democratic nomination race, the more she stumbles, the more a prominent candidate might decide to challenge her.
In South Carolina, former state Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian was livid about Clinton’s controversies. “It boggles the mind,” he said. “She should be exemplifying a standard of ethics and transparency far beyond the minimum requirements of the law.”
Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C., attorney, met recently with Vice President Joe Biden, who’s been visiting early primary and caucus states. “He didn’t say no” about a run, Harpootlian said.
On the left, the party’s liberal wing has long seen Clinton as too cozy with official Washington and corporate interests. The foreign-money flap reinforces that view.
So far, though, Clinton benefits from her stature and fundraising ability. Liberal favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., doesn’t want to run. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb might.
None so far has shown much ability to move blocs of voters away from Clinton, and they refrained from talking about Clinton this week. “I have nothing much to say about it,” Sanders said of Clinton’s troubles. “He hasn’t commented and doesn’t plan to,” said Lis Smith, O’Malley’s spokeswoman.
It’s all part of a narrative that seems to acquire new chapters all the time, and the newest flaps rob Clinton of any ability to become the juggernaut she wants to be.