(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
In the closing weeks of the seemingly interminable 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney suddenly changed the narrative. When I say suddenly, I mean that he miraculously turned everyone’s view of him and his electoral prospects on their head in a single night. Up until the first debate between Romney and President Barack Obama, the challenger was considered not much of a challenge at all by those who followed the stats closely. Romney had run an anemic campaign and he’d been plagued by his status as an obscenely wealthy corporate raider — exactly the kind of greed-is-good hyper-capitalist who’d torpedoed the U.S. economy a few years earlier — his strangely off-putting personality, and what seemed to be his inability to go for more than a couple of days without lying his ass off about something. But during that first debate he came out swinging, walloping the typically composed Obama with one punch after another. Granted, it’s easy to stun your opponent when every single thing you’re saying seems to be a 180 from every single thing you’ve said before, but the content of Romney’s rhetoric wasn’t what mattered. What mattered is how he delivered it. On that night, for the first time, Romney met the insanely stupid but necessary American standard of “appearing Presidential.”
It took one night to change the media narrative in his favor.
I tend to analyze politics through the prism of media, but at no point does that perspective matter more than in a presidential race. As I said immediately following the Romney “victory” in October of 2012, the rapid-fire nature of the way we’re inundated with information these days has turned our entire culture into a 10-year-old boy with ADD. Our media, whether traditional or social — the latter fueled by the white noise chatter of each and every one of us — have become like a school of fish that can turn on a dime and head in an entirely new direction simultaneously and seemingly in defiance of physics. It’s the media that drive the conversation these days and that give the conversation an outlet that in turn drives the media, creating one big Möbius strip. Stories come and go in an instant. News cycles barely last a day. Celebrities are spawned, become massive successes and fall from grace in the span of a week or two. Because of this new reality, any tight presidential race, by virtue of how closely it’s followed by every form of media, has the potential to become a game of musical chairs: whoever happens to be riding the wave of a positive narrative come election day can win.
It’s for this reason that very little that happens right now matters all that much. The campaign hasn’t even started in earnest which means that, unless a kind of scandal emerges that just levels a potential candidate like a 50-megaton airburst and stops that person before he or she even starts, any development right now may as well be happening in 1986.
Hillary Clinton is currently embroiled in a controversy surrounding her use of a private e-mail address rather than an official federal account during her time as secretary of state. At first blush, it sounds damning and very “Clinton-like” — fitting the stereotype of the Clintons as slippery political reptiles — but there are questions about whether Hillary explicitly violated any laws or federal regulations that were in place when she held her position. Our own Bob Cesca has highlighted some of those questions and has also meticulously picked apart some of the less-than-airtight reporting on the matter — and he’s not alone. Among the arguments against Clinton’s actions being somehow nefarious is that she’s not the first to use private e-mail; Colin Powell also had a private account during his time at State, although he didn’t solely use it as it seems Clinton did. And while the Clinton story certainly deserves to be explored, as of now it doesn’t appear to be harming her too badly in the overall polls for 2016.
Now that said, the Republicans are already pouncing on Clinton, hoping to be able to suffix the ubiquitous and requisite “-gate” to this and use it to torpedo Clinton’s campaign before it even starts. But that’s the thing here: If Hillary Clinton decided tomorrow morning that she doesn’t want to run for president, then it’s one thing. But if she chooses to push on and there’s no proof she broke the law, it’s almost a sure thing that this mini-scandal will have no lasting impact on her. There’s simply too much time until the election for this to screw her. There are too many news cycles between this and election day for it to stick in the public’s mind, setting aside those who are predisposed to hate Hillary. The only way the Republicans can make this stick throughout the hundreds of news cycles and the deafening white noise of the upcoming campaign is to try to keep it alive — and that’s a trap for them. The Republicans leading up the House Committee on Benghazi have already subpoenaed Clinton’s e-mails looking not only for something that can keep Benghazi alive but for something to turn those e-mails into a living, breathing ongoing scandal. But they already overreached on Benghazi to the point where no one other than Fox News continues to see it as a scandal — most just see it as the tragedy it was — and make no mistake: they’re going to do the same thing with “E-mailgate.”
But unless someone actually finds something more substantive on this than what we have right now, it’s probably not going to derail the Clinton train. There are just too many other “scandals,” gaffes and outbursts of righteous indignation to come in the downward spiral into Lovecraftian insanity we’re all about to go through. And the media will be there to report or inflate every single second of it all. The narrative we see right now simply won’t last until election day. Jesus, it probably won’t even survive the next few weeks. I’m not saying this is a good thing, because it really isn’t since even the most legitimately damning of scandals don’t have the kind of destructive power they used to. Even if the Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy hurt her right now, she’d still have more than enough of time to change the narrative into one of redemption. But remember, the narrative can turn against Clinton as well. It did in 2008, when she went from being the presumptive nominee in the very early months to being shocked and upended by a relative newcomer.
Anything can happen between now and November of 2016. Maybe that benefits Clinton now, but it could be her demise later on. We probably won’t know a damn thing until the music finally stops on election day.