Now that Vice President Joe Biden has decided against running for president, everyone seems to think that Hillary Clinton has a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s probably true, but it represents nonetheless a truly remarkable development in American politics. No votes have been taken. No ordinary Democrat has trudged to a caucus or a primary to give vent to his or her sentiment on who should represent the party in the fall election campaign. In our new system, it seems, voters are superfluous. The winnowing begins long before those poor saps are invited into the process. In the meantime, the process belongs to pollsters, cable commentators, and money men—all operating on the basis of early debates.
And so, if conventional wisdom prevails, the Democrats will get a candidate considered by most Americans to be dishonest and untrustworthy, who is under investigation by the FBI, and whose favorability rating in polls invariably runs well below her unfavorability rating. What kind of a party elevates such a person to such a position?
The answer: a cynical one. Democrats across the country cheered at last week’s debate when Vermont senator Bernie Sanders declared that voters are “sick and tired” of Clinton’s email scandal and want instead discussion on major issues. Clinton herself laughed uproariously and shook her opponent’s hand in appreciative glee. The message: Democrats don’t care about such trivial matters; they will just ignore this scandal, and it will go away.
But will it? An August Quinnipiac University poll found that 61 percent of respondents didn’t think Clinton was honest and trustworthy. That number was 10 percentage points higher than a previous poll outcome just a month before. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the many misstatements she has uttered in the course of defending herself in the face of the email scandal.
Further, the Huffington Post reports that in nine separate October polls measuring Clinton’s favorable rating against her unfavorable one, she was “underwater” in all but one, meaning those with an unfavorable view of her outnumbered those with a favorable view. The gap in the one “above water” poll was 1 percentage point. The underwater gaps were as follows: 13 percentage points, 4, 7, 6, 2, 20, 11, and 20.
Then there is the matter of the FBI investigation of whether she broke any laws when she used a private email server during her days as secretary of state. Without prejudging that investigation, it does seem that she conducted herself in ways, with regard to handling sensitive classified information, that got previous top-level government officials indicted. If that should happen to her after she obtains her party’s nomination, what kind of political impact will it have?
Maybe none. Maybe the voters have become so jaded and cynical that they really don’t care about such things, as Sanders says. But that would represent a significant departure from voter behavior of past elections. Scandals have always mattered in American elections. We know from history that they can upend incumbents, stop challengers in their tracks, destroy careers. Maybe Hillary Clinton is different, but if so then this is a different country from what it used to be.
If Clinton can win the nomination before any votes are taken, then we have to consider how far America has traveled toward oligarchy. This aspect takes on more serious implications when we throw the Clinton Foundation into the discussion. Here is a massive nonprofit entity that, yes, performs some good works around the world, but fundamentally it serves as “a parking lot for Clinton campaign workers,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley A. Strassel has put it. Strassel catalogued in a recent column the names of persons who had commuted between government jobs obtained under Clinton auspices and cushy interim jobs at the Clinton Foundation. It’s a sobering list.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these people is Huma Abedin, longtime Clinton confidante, who worked for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign, then served her at State while living in New York with her husband and a newborn baby. Even as she served as a State Department employee with absentee privileges (but still a nice salary), she also worked at the Clinton Foundation and at a consulting firm called Teneo, run by a Clinton confidante named Doug Band. Now she’s back in the fold as Clinton’s fulltime campaign vice chair. Outside of the American oligarchy, who gets that kind of special treatment?
This campaign-in-waiting no doubt contributed to Clinton’s early campaign strength and the feeling among other candidates that there was no point in challenging her. That further attenuated the chance that voters would have some choices when it came time to vote.
Two significant observations emanate from all this. First, this is highly reckless politics on the part of the Democratic Party, allowing one potentially vulnerable candidate to emerge as not just the frontrunner but as the seemingly prohibitive favorite, largely unchallenged and unendorsed by voters. Second, this represents further evidence of America’s trend toward oligarchy, with its managerial elites grabbing more and more power from the populace at large.
What will the voters do once they finally get a voice in all this? The managerial elites assume they will do nothing, simply accepting what has been handed to them. Perhaps they’re right. But perhaps, given their underlying view of Clinton as reflected in polls, they will find some way to protest in the spirit of what has been, so far, a wild election cycle.
Robert W. Merry is a contributing editor at The National Interest and an author of books on American history and foreign policy.