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Hold the alarmism on Hillary

Despite email troubles, she is by far the most recognizable 2016 contender – and public opinion is on her side

March 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

Hillary Clinton’s graceless march toward a 2016 presidential campaign underscores a great paradox of her political standing at this juncture: She is a powerhouse contender with wide appeal, even as she inspires mistrust, investigations, negative press coverage and jitters among some Democrats.

The split between public opinion and what you might call political-class opinion is striking. Clinton has been the country’s most admired woman for 19 of the last 22 years — a run interrupted only by Mother Teresa in 1995 and 1996 and Laura Bush in 2001. A Gallup poll in early March showed that 89 percent of Americans know enough about Clinton to have an opinion of her, and half of them viewed her favorably, compared with 39 percent who didn’t. An even more recent CNN poll, conducted after her strained press conference about her exclusive use of a personal email address when she was secretary of state, has even better news for her: 57 percent said she’s someone they would be proud to have as president.

It will be months before the full impact of Clinton’s email troubles is apparent. She can expect to be called to testify more than once as congressional Republicans investigate the private email account, the fatal 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and other aspects of her tenure. Republicans considering White House races are already using the new material on the campaign trail. But for Democrats trying to remain calm, there are several reasons to hold the alarmism.

Glass houses

For one, the GOP could attack too vigorously and trigger sympathy for Clinton. There’s precedent: In November 1998, as the House prepared to impeach Bill Clinton in connection with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Republicans managed to lose House seats in the sixth year of an opposing party’s presidency — something that almost never happens. In December 1998, the month the House voted to impeach him, Bill Clinton notched a career-high 73 percent approval rating. He stayed in the enviable 60 percent vicinity for the rest of his presidency. Overreach regarding the Clinton family, in other words, is a known risk.

Furthermore, the email affair may yield less dramatic results than conservatives hope and expect. For now, it’s certainly true that Hillary Clinton is taking heat over her private email server, her lack of an official State Department email account and her complete control over which emails she saved and which she deemed personal and appears to have deleted. In part that’s because of the high level and delicate nature of her job. But some of the furor is rooted in generalized wariness about the Clintons. The email fiasco is another log on a fire fueled not just by old scandals and pseudo-scandals but also by current conflict-of-interest questions about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation while and after she was secretary of state.

Yet Clinton is not the only presidential prospect to run afoul of evolving rules and laws on email. When he was the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush had a private server and controlled which emails were archived. The New York Times reported recently that thousands of his emails were not turned over to the state until last year, seven years after he left office. The Washington Post says he used his private account to discuss troop movements and nuclear protection after the 9/11 attacks. Emails and texts were central elements of investigations involving Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio used a private email account to correspond with reporters in 2008 when he was leader of the state House — and then, as The Wall Street Journal reported, deleted them.

Clinton’s rough start has tempted some Democrats to break out the smelling salts. But it is far too soon for them to panic.

Given all the glass-house implications, Eric Boehlert, a writer for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, predicted that “zero” GOP hopefuls would be talking about email on the campaign trail. Howard Kurtz, a Fox News media analyst, wondered meanwhile about the relevance of the furor, asking on Twitter, “Has the Hillary email controversy become an important story or just a media obsession?”

Republican vulnerability

The other aspect of the landscape that could work in Clinton’s favor is the relative lack of name recognition among the Republican hopefuls. Five of the 11 — Rubio, Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and neurosurgeon Ben Carson — were familiar to fewer than half those polled. The best known were Bush and Christie, who polled in the 60s, followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, all in the 50s.

The relative unfamiliarity of the prospective candidates, even those with the highest profiles, means they have room to grow more popular, but they also have the potential to turn some people off as they become better known. The rockiest part of the process has already started: a primary campaign season that will yield a valuable nomination. With no incumbent in the race and victory a real possibility after two terms of a Democratic president, expect to see a large, combative field trying mightily to impress a conservative electorate.

The results weren’t pretty in 2012, when Republicans viewed President Barack Obama as vulnerable and the race as winnable. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney made right turns on issues such as gay rights, gun control and abortion, earning him a reputation as a flip-flopper. He sharpened his rhetoric on immigration and distanced himself from the Massachusetts health law he signed that became the template for “Obamacare.” He also came under withering fire from fellow Republican Newt Gingrich and his allies, whose attacks on his business career foreshadowed those mounted later by Democrats.

Several 2016 prospects have already changed course and adopted more conservative positions in preparation for the primary electorate: Rubio and Walker on immigration, Jindal on the Common Core education standards and Paul on aid to Israel. The shifts may help these politicians navigate the primaries but are likely to increase their vulnerability later in the game.

Bush is the best-known among the GOP prospects, with 68 percent saying they are familiar with him. Of those, 35 percent viewed him favorably, 33 percent unfavorably. There are myriad reasons to wonder if he’ll win the nomination, starting with his decision to continue his longtime support for Common Core and immigration reform that includes legal status for undocumented immigrants. Then there’s his name and his age, 62. Walker is already drawing a contrast by talking about his humble roots as the small-town son of a pastor and his party’s need to move beyond the past. 

The race to come

If Bush and Clinton win their respective parties’ nominations, that would immediately level the field on the past-versus-future argument, the dynasty issue and — to some extent — the pesky email question. Both would carry baggage, and neither would represent a fresh start.

Clinton’s fate will rest in part on her campaign skills and platform — and to a degree on how many women feel strongly about electing a woman. The race will also turn on who is nominated to run against Clinton and what shape that person is in after what looks poised to be a brutal primary season. Clinton’s rough start has, understandably, tempted some Democrats to break out the smelling salts. But with so many uncertainties ahead, it is far too soon for them to panic.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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