Silence is Hillary's Only Play


Yesterday on Meet the Press, [mc_name name=’Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’F000062′ ] theorized that Hillary Clinton was hurting herself with the personal email scandal by not speaking out and taking questions about the whole affair. Feinstein’s reasoning is that the rules and laws regarding email archival were inherently ambiguous and if Clinton just comes out and explains that, everything will be fine:

Feinstein pointed to a law signed by President Obama in November that required government officials to forward any business emails from a personal account to a government account within 20 days.

“That in itself said the situation wasn’t clear,” she said. “It has to be cleared up.”

But Clinton needs to help clear up her email arrangement, she added.

As a “preeminent political figure” and the “leading candidate to be the next president,” Clinton needs to “come out and state exactly” what her motivations were, Feinstein said.

“From this point on, the silence is going to hurt her,” she added.

This take on things from one of the more reasonable Democrats in the Senate sounds great in theory, but ignores the fact that this excuse just won’t wash with ordinary people who are familiar with the modern day world of email with respect to record retention. As Colin Powell illustrated on This Week, the last 15 years have seen a humongous leap in terms of both the widespread acceptance of email as a primary mode of communication and also the understanding that emails are business/government records that must be preserved in the event of litigation (or in the case of government records, for FOIA requests).

The problem that [mc_name name=’Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’F000062′ ] faces is that she faces a generational gap when it comes to understanding the nuts and bolts of email usage. And I’m not trying to knock seniors here – there are many who have gotten on board and have a perfectly functional understanding of email and computer usage. However, United States Senators disproportionately belong to the class that has decided that dealing with email is something they pay something else to do for them, as Lindsay Graham hilariously illustrated last week when he confessed that he’d never sent or received an email in his life.

The reason Hillary isn’t taking this particular tack is frankly that it’s convincing to literally no one under the age of 40 (probably 50). Everyone who has been involved in the workforce for the last decade has sat in on document retention seminars and gotten employee policy manuals that detail the importance of using work email for work purposes, ensuring that they are only sent from secure/encrypted devices, and complying with the company’s record retention promises. The idea that the Secretary of State – a position of some considerable responsibility by its very description – could take such a blase attitude towards record retention by accident is just not a tale most people are willing to hear.

This applies a fortiori given the manner in which Hillary used a personal email. She did not just set up a gmail or whatever, this was an elaborate scheme set up with the obvious and deliberate purpose to avoid having any permanent record kept of her emails. This was not an accidental breach of security and record retention policies, it was a deliberate one. The very description of what Clinton did forecloses the possibility that the entire scheme was cooked up by accident or through misunderstanding of the rules.

As Josh Kraushaar notes, although keeping silent may cause some grumbling, Team Clinton understands full well that to answer questions about this scandal right now would be absolute suicide:

But in reality, her decision to wait until April to launch a campaign has been an overall boon to her prospects—allowing her to avoid weighing in on numerous controversial issues that are dividing her party. Indeed, Clinton’s stalling tactics are a sign that she understands the political environment better than the critics realize.

If anything, the latest revelation that Clinton hid many of her official emails as secretary of State underscores how important avoiding scrutiny is to her emerging campaign. Far from being unable to respond to the criticism, as a noncandidate she boasts an entire organization—Correct the Record, an arm of the Democratic opposition research firm American Bridge—that’s devoted to pushing back against her unfavorable coverage. This week, she’s participating in carefully staged events, delivering the keynote address at EMILY’s List on Tuesday and attending the Clinton Foundation gala on Wednesday. If she was a candidate, she’d be constantly grilled on the campaign trail over her conduct. She’s hoping that, when she announces in the spring, the furor over these controversies will have died down.

By contrast, prospective Republican presidential candidates have been grilled over Obama’s Christianity, support over a DHS funding deal, or inconsistencies over Common Core, even as Clinton has faced minimal scrutiny of her policy positions during the same period. She has been giving international paid speeches where she has avoided reacting to the leading issues of the day. Even on the one recent occasion Clinton agreed to an interview with a journalist, the questions were notably soft. Her sit-down with Re/Code‘s Kara Swisher prompted the executive editor to gush onstage: “I interviewed President Obama last week, and I’m eager to interview another president.” (Swisher also took a selfie with the former secretary of State, which she posted to her Twitter account.)

Meanwhile, Clinton has been able to dodge questions over her positions on issues at a time when there are growing divides within her party. She headed the State Department during its Keystone XL review, but has diligently avoided commenting on the merits of the pipeline’s construction. She hasn’t been pressed to take sides on liberal icon [mc_name name=’Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’W000817′ ]’s pet initiatives—higher taxes on the wealthy, tighter banking regulations on Wall Street, and opposition to global trade deals.

Most significantly, she’s been mercurial about her position on an emerging nuclear deal with Iran that many of her party’s rank-and-file members are struggling to support. She hasn’t yet responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, which warned of the dangers of the president’s diplomacy. She’ll eventually have to take sides, but she has the luxury of time in devising her position.

Don’t expect Clinton to comment on this issue until and unless she is literally forced to under Congressional subpoena, which she will doubtless fight. Until then, the smartest play for Clinton is to keep her head down and hope that the obedient press eventually forgets.

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