If you’d forgotten about Whitewater, you’ve certainly remembered by now: It was all over the news yesterday in the wake of Politico’s publication of a series of opposition research emails. The scandal dogged the Clinton White House throughout the 1990s, and now, it’s back, with teeth. Savvily, the Trump campaign ensured that it would get reams of free publicity with its latest stunt, adding ammunition to the candidate’s juvenile “Crooked Hillary” campaign.
Whitewater was a tangled morass of federal investigations, indictments, fines, jail time, and a whole lot more, starting with a real estate deal gone south in the 1980s. When the New York Times began probing into the story in 1992, it broke a piece in March of that year, discussing the then-Arkansas governor’s role in the investment scheme, along with that of the then-First Lady. It only snowballed from there as investigators tried to link the Clintons to the failure of a savings and loan, improper use of FBI files, misconduct in the White House travel office, and much more — including the investigation that broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Despite being dogged by investigations (including President Bill Clinton’s notorious impeachment trial), the president was quite popular during his time in office, consistently earning extremely high approval ratings. His wife, however, was not so lucky. As often happens with political wives, she was smeared during the Lewinsky scandal even though she was hardly responsible for her husband’s wandering eye, and while the public seemed willing to forgive the president for Whitewater, it still viewed her with deep distrust. Despite later serving in the Senate and then at the State Department with proficiency and distinction, she was followed by conspiracy theories, lies, manufactured controversies, and more — she is one of the most hated women in American politics, in no small part perhaps because she’s a woman, and misogyny runs deep among those who don’t like seeing women in the halls of power.
Dredging up Whitewater is a fantastic way to remind the public of one of the darker periods of the Clinton Administration, and by association, it positions Secretary Clinton as cold, calculating, and corrupt. This feeds not just the Trump campaign, but the Sanders campaign, which must have been absolutely delighted when the news broke on Wednesday — it plays right into the Senator’s consistent rhetoric about the Secretary’s corruption and untrustworthiness.
A Washington Post/NBC News poll provides fascinating insight into the obstacles Secretary Clinton faces, as a candidate who’s repeatedly slapped with a ‘likability problem.’
54 percent of voters view the Secretary negatively — 58 percent view her opponent negatively, and four percent isn’t much of a spread, considering the extremes of Trump’s campaign. By contrast, the news organizations found, voters have a more positive view of Vladimir Putin than Secretary Clinton or Trump. Putin, who has become almost cartoonishly villainous in the US media, is apparently more palatable than the two leading candidates for president. Both candidates have a larger number of backers who are voting against the other candidate than for them, which is, pollsters point out, rather unprecedented. And while Trump has experienced a tremendous surge in popularity among Republicans, Secretary Clinton’s numbers have barely moved at all. She may be viewed more favorably than Trump in the context of her party, but she’s not creating and building momentum.
Currently, she’s less popular than she was during her time at State, something that’s clearly attributable to the growing list of scandals and pseudoscandals swirling around her: Benghazi, the endless email debacle, attacks on her aides and associates, and suggestions of corrupt ties with the corporate world, a meme spread and reinforced by the Sanders campaign. It’s impossible for her to escape this news cycle, as yesterday painfully illustrated. At the same time that the Trump campaign was slyly dragging Whitewater out into the public eye, the State Department was issuing a report ruling her use of email inappropriate, a devastating one-two punch.
Secretary Clinton is being judged by over 30 years in public life, and over 30 years of consistent misogynistic attacks almost specifically primed for this very moment. Her presidential campaign is turning out to be an endless fight against ghosts that just won’t die, fueled by the skillful manipulation of the media by her opposition. Donald Trump has the advantage of being a public figure so well-known for being ludicrous, bombastic, and always good for an absurd soundbite that the media breathlessly trail him in the quest for the next great news story, giving him billions of dollars in free advertising whenever he opens his mouth. The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, has realised how thoroughly it can leverage social discontent and the plucky upstart narrative to pull the eyes of the press in its direction and hit Secretary Clinton with some sharp blows of its own.
Caught between two equally vindictive opponents, Secretary Clinton is being repeatedly confronted with old news that should have been put to bed, often in ways that scream of hypocrisy. Donald Trump has been involved in numerous failed real estate ventures and incidents suggestive of financial malfeasance, but all eyes are on Whitewater, not his poor business acumen — he’s adroitly turned the tenor of the conversation away from his own failings and onto those of his opponent. Sanders, meanwhile, earns a rather comfortable salary and has an extensive investment portfolio, but when he rails against Wall Street corruption, he doesn’t mention the fact that he earns sizable returns there, and while he profiles himself as a man of the people and one of the 99 percent, his net worth is actually quite substantial.
Politics is always dirty, though this year in US politics feels unusually dirty. Secretary Clinton is backed into a terrible corner not just as a woman in a very misogynistic world, but as a candidate who has been systematically tarred and feathered for decades. Should she try to turn the tables on her opponents by pointing out their hypocrisy, she’ll get labeled as ‘defensive’ and ‘avoiding the issues,’ making it impossible for her to highlight the fact that her opponents are involved in the self-same shell games that they and their supporters are accusing her of. This week, it’s Whitewater and email capturing the public eye, and next week, it will be some other warmed-over ’90s-era scandal.
While many in the United States rest confident in the belief that Donald Trump will ultimately lose the day, they shouldn’t be so sure. Secretary Clinton is so hated that the chances of winning the election really are genuinely in question, and that should be utterly terrifying.
Photo: Paula R. Lively/Creative Commons