Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ greatest weakness going into 2016 — but she is also the party’s greatest strength. From Whitewater to Emailgate to Benghazi, the soon-to-be-coronated Democratic nominee has a record far from clean, but each scandal seems to bounce off her, leaving her unscathed. Her 11-hour long testimony on Benghazi, for example, only boosted her poll numbers, giving her a symbolic win over congressional Republicans.
Clinton’s baggage is merely the most recent in a long line of presidential scandals. Fortunately for Democrats next year, presidential-scandal politics almost never pays off for the opposing party. Presidents — and their successors — tend to get reelected, rather than ousted, even after some of the largest scandals in American history.
The one glaring exception to this rule — Watergate — happens to have launched Hillary Rodham’s political career. By investigating President Richard Nixon, she learned how to engage in secretive power politics from the best, and developed a talent for brushing off scandals.
Scandal Politics — Why History Favors Clinton
“Six months after the Abu Ghraib torture revelations surfaced, President George W. Bush won re-election with a larger popular vote share than in his first race,” writes RealClearPolitics author Bill Scher. He also notes Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, which followed the Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate scandals. Clinton received a larger popular vote count in 1996 than in 1992 (although, like Bush in 2000, he did not win a majority).
After news of the Monica Lewinsky affair broke, and it became clear President Clinton had lied under oath, congressional Republicans famously fought for impeachment. The House of Representatives did impeach Clinton, but at tremendous cost. “House Republicans’ headlong pursuit of impeachment led to Democratic gains in the 1998 midterms, precipitating the fall of Speaker Newt Gingrich,” Scher recalls.
Similarly, President Ronald Reagan won an undisputed landslide — 49 states and 58 percent of the popular vote — in 1984, despite first-term cabinet member scandals and a “sleaze factor” attack by Democrats. While the Iran-contra scandal arguably hurt Reagan’s successor — George H. W. Bush — in 1992, by that time Reagan had already left office with high popularity and approval ratings — securing the presidency for an extra four years.
The weakness of presidential-scandal politics traces back even further, however. The Teapot Dome scandal from President Warren G. Harding’s administration ranks third on many lists of “Top U.S. Political Scandals,” often right behind Watergate and Lewinsky.
Then-Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall sold the right to the Teapot Dome reserve in Wyoming to the highest bidder — Mammoth Oil Company — pocketing numerous bribes. Harding died just prior to the scandal breaking, but the stigma of scandal has plagued the memory of his presidency ever since, despite the fact he turned around a recession (1919-1920) worse than the one that precipitated the Great Depression (1929-1930).
Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, should have lost the 1924 election — not just due to the scandal. A Republican senator from Wisconsin ran for president in the new Progressive party, and Democrats hoped this would win them the presidency, as a Republican split had done in 1912 (and as Ross Perot did in 1992 and 1996). Following the death of his younger son Calvin, President Coolidge became withdrawn and ran a subdued campaign. Despite scandal and these other problems, Coolidge won 35 out of 48 states and 54 percent of the vote.
In the wake of this history, Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, despite the Fast & Furious, Solyndra, and Benghazi scandals, proves much less surprising. The president’s worst scandals — the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the VA scandal, the AP scandal, the Obamacare rollout — came in his second term. Obama’s drop in the popular vote and loss of a few states from 2008 may be more telling, but if the scandals had any effect, it was limited to the margins.
What About Watergate?
If scandals have exerted little impact on presidential elections, why does the opposing party leap at the chance to investigate a sitting president and his administration? One word — Watergate.
In June 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Further investigation revealed their connection to the Nixon administration. When President Nixon attempted to cover up the connection, congressional probes discovered a vast swath of abuses of power, leading ultimately to Nixon’s resignation and the indictment of 69 people, 48 of whom were incarcerated.
While the abuse of presidential power has been a constant theme in American politics, Watergate proved the perfect storm. A long, drawn-out investigation received constant coverage in the press and the Democratic-majority House and Senate hired a very effective special prosecution. Even the congressmen in Nixon’s Republican Party abandoned the president in the wake of scandal after scandal — a coup no subsequent scandal has yet achieved.
In July 1974, the House of Representatives recommended three articles of impeachment — obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Facing certain impeachment in the House and a subsequent Senate impeachment which would remove him from his office, Nixon resigned on August 8.
Next page: How Hillary Learned from the Best
Amid the hustle and bustle of Watergate investigations, a young lawyer by the name of Hillary Rodham worked feverishly to bring down the president. In her memoir “Living History,” Clinton recalled the “strict policy of total confidentiality, even anonymity,” enforced by liberal Republican prosecutor John Doar.
Doar ran a tight ship, as Clinton recalled. “He warned us not to keep diaries, to place sensitive trash in designated bins, never to talk about work outside the building, never to draw attention to ourselves and to avoid social activities of all kinds (as if we had time).” During this hectic time — where her team was working 20 hours a day, 7 days a week — Clinton listened to the Nixon tapes.
“It was extraordinary to listen to Nixon’s rehearsal for his own coverup,” Clinton wrote. She had a front-row seat to the palace intrigue of the new “imperial presidency,” and she learned a great deal.
Nixon had his liberal “enemies list,” and Clinton keeps a close eye on the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” As each scandal hit Bill Clinton’s White House, Hillary helped her husband brush them aside through the now-familiar rigmarole of denial, and failing that, dismissal of the importance of any allegations. She learned from Nixon’s successes — and his one great mistake.
During the Watergate investigation, Doar had Hillary draft a memo on the inner workings of Nixon’s White House — the hidden power politics and true structure of authority: who really reported to whom.
This work gave the future first lady “an intimate view of a president practicing the dark art of Washington politics, doing whatever necessary to maintain his grip on power,” according to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., in their biography “Her Way,” published during her first presidential race in 2007.
Clinton’s lessons from Nixon would pay off early in the 1992 presidential race, according to Gerth and Van Natta. On the campaign, Bill Clinton’s team included a “war room” to constantly track media and public opinion, and a “defense team” overseen by Hillary, which prepared a list of potential vulnerabilities. “Roughly two-thirds of the issues were matters relating to both Hillary and Bill or to Hillary alone,” the authors recall. “Many of the joint issues involved tax returns and financial disclosure reports.”
That year, the media uncovered the “Whitewater” scandal, in which the Clintons’ friend, James B. McDougal, involved them in a bum real estate deal, making Bill and Hillary a great deal of money. Following a damning story in the New York Times, Hillary wanted to go the full Nixon and attack the press. She reportedly wanted to accuse the Times of being a conservative hit-rag — irresponsible and anti-Clinton — but George Stephanopoulos talked her out of it.
The Democratic Nixon?
When details of Clinton’s email scandal broke this past March, her weak explanations and declarations that she followed the law reminded many pundits of Nixon’s denials in the first stage of Watergate. Hillary’s experience bringing down Nixon, however, has helped her stay above the fray in recent months, as her poll numbers remain strong even with Americans saying she is untrustworthy.
Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon have more than scandal in common, as Bloomberg’s Sam Tanenhaus argues. Hillary “also shares Nixon’s anti-charismatic gifts of steely inner discipline combined with intense ambition and an almost shameless refusal to accept defeat, even as the humiliations pile up.”
Like Nixon (who served as vice president to Dwight Eisenhower and seemed “next in line” in 1955), Clinton was viewed with suspicion by both left and right in 2008. Also like Nixon, Clinton’s public persona rings truest when under fire — as Tanenhaus wrote, she symbolizes “idealism and injury merged in the dignity of moral rebuke.”
In order to defeat Hillary Clinton next year, Republicans should present a strong moral and policy contrast — less by engaging in scandal politics and more by showing America what they will do if given a chance at the reins. As Paul Ryan declared, “We need to move from being an opposition party to being a proposition party.”