Transactional politicians.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Philosophy That Fuels the Clinton Scandal Machine

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We know one thing for sure about the wave of Clinton-related scandals over the years: People will go to any lengths to spot them and use them as fresh “proof” that Hillary and Bill Clinton are corrupt.  

Take, for example, a Wall Street Journal article that alleged … well, it’s not entirely clear what it alleged. It tries to make something of a set of facts. One, Hillary and Bill Clinton have been close to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Two, McAuliffe recruited Dr. Jill McCabe to run for a Virginia state senate seat in 2015 and was responsible for raising most of the money for her campaign. Three, McCabe’s husband was a senior FBI official, who, after the campaign, was promoted to deputy director and wound up involved in the investigation of Clinton’s e-mails.

What does that add up to? “Nothing” would be the pretty obvious answer.

The implication seems to be that Dr. McCabe was given something by the Clintons’ ally to secure better treatment for Hillary Clinton from Andrew McCabe.

Only three things are wrong with that theory.

First, Andrew McCabe wasn’t involved in the Clinton investigation until after his wife’s campaign ended. That is, there was no motive at the time for influencing him.

Second, nothing is even slightly unusual about McAuliffe’s directing money into the contest, which was regarded as crucial for Democratic control of the Virginia senate. There was no hint in reporting at the time that Dr. McCabe was anything other than a promising candidate. She seems to have run a solid race, while losing by 5 percentage points to an incumbent. If McCabe wasn’t a strong candidate but McAuliffe backed her as part of an influence-peddling scheme, he was making a significant sacrifice. He and Virginia Democrats wanted that seat.  

Third, if Clinton wanted to influence Andrew McCabe through his wife through McAuliffe (presumably to keep her distance from the “plot”), what kind of bribe is it to run an uphill battle for a state senate seat? A position that pays $18,000 a year? I’m no expert on Virginia government, but surely McAuliffe could have appointed Dr. McCabe, a hospital physician, to something, or done something to steer state or party business her way.

Here’s a better theory of what’s going on, from Kevin Drum:

  1. Make a list of the entire chain of command that had some oversight over the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. That’s going to be at least half a dozen people.
  2. Make a list of all their close family and friends. Now you’re up to a hundred people.
  3. Look for a connection between any of those people and the Clintons. Since FBI headquarters is located in Washington DC and the Clintons famously have thousands and thousands of friends, you will find a connection. I guarantee it.
  4. Write a story about it.

Something like this template has been used for 24 years, since the first Bill Clinton presidential campaign. Eventually, most people get the sense something is wrong with Hillary Clinton. After all, with so many of these stories, there must be something behind them.

And this sense makes it easier to run nonsense stories like the Wall Street Journal’s article. And so on and so on.

Both Clintons, especially Bill, are transaction-style politicians, rather than ideologues. Both of them have been willing to cut deals, to temporarily embrace positions they might not like very much, and to champion the best-available option and hope to win. I like these kinds of politicians, the Bob Doles and John Boehners and Nancy Pelosis. I’d much rather have them govern than any ideological warriors, including those ideologues I agree with on the issues.

I suspect that many people’s dislike of Hillary Clinton has to do with their discomfort with the complicated ethics of transactional politics as opposed to strict ideology-based politics. (There is, on a light note, considerable coverage of Clinton’s Cubs-Yankees fan history.) For a good defense of that kind of politics, see Jonathan Rauch’s item in the New York Times over the weekend. 

Yes, transactional politicians are vulnerable to excesses. A more ideological Democratic candidate than Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, would not have rushed home from the 1992 presidential campaign trail to speed up the execution of a murderer, Ricky Ray Rector, to prove he was tough on crime. A more ideological politician than Hillary Clinton would likely not have used the word “superpredators” 20 years ago to make the same point.  

So the woman who looks to be the next president is capable of saying one thing and doing another, and of crass political calculations. In that way, at least, she is not unlike a lot of successful U.S. presidents.

That’s no coincidence. The sorts of things presidents need to do -- form coalitions and keep them together, bargain for marginal gains, and put a good face on all of it to convince both elites and voters that everything is going as planned -- are the skills of transactional, hypocritical politicians. This doesn’t guarantee that Hillary Clinton, if elected, will be a good president, of course. But it’s a start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net