In the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, voters judged Donald Trump to be more honest than Hillary Clinton by a ten-point margin. It is a finding that boggles the mind. Americans deem Clinton less honest and trustworthy than a man who lies in public about opponents in both parties with a frequency and brazenness unsurpassed in national politics, who has broken precedent by refusing to disclose his tax returns, who routinely refused to pay contractors for services rendered, who abused a charitable foundation for personal and political gain, who once boasted in a best-selling book about his habit of lying, and who is currently facing trial for bilking thousands of victims in a massive fraud.
Clinton, as I have conceded, has done some bad things born of secrecy and paranoia. But those bad things have not merely tainted her image but defined it. The email story has utterly dominated the public’s impression of Clinton, who is the second-most-unpopular nominee of all time and whose shortcomings compare in the public mind with those of her grossly unqualified, authoritarian opponent. Open up any interview with undecided voters, and you will find them equating Trump’s shocking lack of qualifications with Clinton’s mundane transparency issues. (For instance, this Florida voter: “Mr. Trump scares him, Mr. Lewis said. Mrs. Clinton, he believes, is dissembling about her health. He, too, is considering sitting out the election.”) The ongoing normalization of Trump is the most disorienting development of the presidential campaign, but the most significant may be the abnormalization of Clinton.
The news media’s obsession with the emails has, without necessarily intending to do so, conveyed the impression that Clinton committed not just run-of-the-mill political scandals but extraordinary offenses of a historic scale. Indeed, this is exactly what most Republicans, even staunch critics of Trump, believe — for all of Trump’s flaws, she too is disqualified. “He’s awful,” conservative columnist John Podhoretz tells the Huffington Post. “But so is she, and all these arguments about how he’s unprecedentedly awful fail to take account of the fact that the Democratic nominee for president was all but indicted by the director of the FBI. Which means she is too.”
“Unprecedentedly awful” is a high bar. It seems fair if one’s precedent is limited to the current administration, which has had two terms remarkably free of real scandals (that is, scandals that exist outside the conservative fever swamps). But what if we delve farther back into history? Not all the way, to Andrew Jackson profiting off the land he seized from Native Americans, or even to Watergate, Teapot Dome, and Iran–Contra, but to the presidential administration immediately prior to Barack Obama’s?
The funny thing about the scandal surrounding Clinton’s private email account is that there was a similar scandal in the Bush administration. Dozens of White House staffers, including Karl Rove, improperly used email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee, which were supposed to be for political work only, for their official duties, thus evading public-records requirements. They then deleted some 22 million emails, thus systematically flouting the same public-records principle that Clinton evaded.
If you forgot about this episode, it is because it was merely a secondary scandal within a larger one, involving a Bush administration scheme to politicize the Department of Justice. The administration pressured federal attorneys to find and prosecute vote fraud, which they believed Democrats were committing on a wide scale. When the (Republican) attorneys were unable to find any significant evidence of such vote fraud, the administration fired eight of them, an unusual breach of norms designed to insulate the legal apparatus from partisan politics.
If you don’t remember that scandal, it’s because it was subsumed beneath a torrent of other scandals. Here are some highlights:
• The misappropriation of many billions of dollars by contractors in Iraq, much of which was awarded without bids or any recordkeeping. (“When testifying before Congress in 2007, L. Paul Bremer, the former head of reconstruction in Iraq, was unable to account for as much as $12 billion—about half of his budget—as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority between May 2003 and June 2004.”)
• The illegal, and probably retaliatory, exposure of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
• Massive bribery of officials in the Department of the Interior.
• Bribery, and obstruction of justice thereof, in the General Services Administration.
• The administration’s flouting of a Supreme Court ruling by refusing to acknowledge the findings of it own climate scientists.
• Undisclosed payments to putatively independent political commentators Maggie Gallagher, Armstrong Williams, and Michael McManus to promote the administration’s policies.
• Plus, of course, the administration’s intentional manipulation of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There is widespread confusion about this, because the administration suffered both from genuine intelligence mistakes and also manipulated the intelligence at its disposal to support its preferred conclusion. Senate Republicans blocked any investigation into the administration’s manipulation of intelligence, but when Democrats gained control of the chamber, a bipartisan investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee found “the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”
Many of these episodes read to the public at the time less as evidence corruption than incompetence (which, to a large extent, it was). But the endemic corruption of the Bush administration reflected ingrained contempt for ethics and good governing norms. Bush filled his administration with people who abused their official power for political or personal gain.
One can’t directly compare the many ethical failings of the Bush administration with those of a single person. But even if we saddle Hillary Clinton with every ethical failure of her husband’s administration alongside her own tenure as secretary of State, and include those of the Clinton post-presidency, it simply does not compare with Bush’s. And it should go without saying that the comparison does not excuse Clinton’s very real failures of ethics and judgment. Yet the question is not whether Clinton’s ethics problems exist at all but whether they ought to separate her from normal politicians. The inability to contextualize these flaws has been a signal failure of the general election.