A passage from Ernest Hemingway fits the moment. In “The Sun Also Rises,” one character asks, “How did you go bankrupt?” and another responds: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
The exchange captures Hillary Clinton’s red alert. She’s been going politically bankrupt for a long time, and now faces the prospect of sudden collapse.
If she’s got a winning defense, she better be quick about it. The ghosts of scandals past are gaining on her and time is not on her side.
The compelling claims that she and Bill Clinton sold favors while she was secretary of state for tens of millions of dollars for themselves and their foundation don’t need to meet the legal standard for bribery. She’s on political trial in a country where Clinton Fatigue alone could be a fatal verdict.
After 25 years of corner-cutting and dishonest behavior, accumulation is her enemy. Each day threatens to deliver the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It may already have happened and we’re just waiting for public opinion to catch up to the facts.
Meanwhile, her Houdini skills are being tested big time.
Hillary’s one big advantage is obvious — she’s the only serious contender for the Democratic nomination, and she beats most GOP opponents in head-to-head matchups. But everything else weighs against her, including momentum.
Start with the fact that the sizzling reports of corrupt deals are coming from major news organizations that reliably tilt left. With supposed friends making the case against her, the tired Clinton defense that the attacks are partisan hit jobs has been demolished.
And after digging up so much dirt, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters, Bloomberg News and others are not likely to be content with stonewalling and half-truths, especially given her recent lies about missing e-mails. No wonder the Times editorial page called on her to provide “straightforward answers” to the accusations.
I don’t see how she can meet that test. The outlines of cozy relationships and key transactions are not in dispute. The only issue is whether the millions the Clintons got amount to a quid pro quo.
On the face of it, that’s certainly what they look like. There are several deals we know of, and more could emerge, that put money in the Clintons’ pockets while helping businesses, including some loathsome international figures, make a killing. It is preposterous to argue that it’s all a coincidence.
Her position was further undercut when the family foundation announced it would refile five years of tax returns. In one three-year period, it omitted tens of millions in foreign contributions, reporting “zero” to the IRS. In another two-year period, it admitted to overreporting government grants by more than $100 million.
A foundation aide described the errors as “typographical,” which is bizarre — and par for the Clinton course. To concede the errors during the firestorm must mean keeping them quiet was an even greater liability.
Sooner rather than later, Hillary will have to meet the press — but what can she possibly say to alter the story lines?
If history is a guide, she’ll insist she did nothing wrong, offer ambiguous answers to specific questions, take offense at persistent reporters and end by playing the victim. She’ll follow up with a fund-raising pitch for money to keep “fighting for everyday Americans.”
To imagine that scenario is to realize it won’t fly, but I’m not sure what other options she has. She can’t tell the truth. It will sink her.
Nor can she credibly demand to be trusted, given her past. A recent Quinnipiac poll finds 54 percent of Americans already say Clinton is not honest or trustworthy.
Swing-state surveys show similar lopsided findings and each new sordid revelation will deepen the trust deficit. At this point in her life, it would take a near-miracle to change people’s basic view of her.
Her best hope is that a missing ingredient remains missing — a Democrat who could take the nomination from her, the way Barack Obama did in 2008. None of those already in the race or committed to it — Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, even Joe Biden — comes close to measuring up.
The only possible rival who does is Elizabeth Warren, the fire-breathing senator from Massachusetts. Gender aside, she is everything Hillary isn’t — an anti-Wall Street conviction populist with a record to match her rhetoric.
A movement to draft her started before Hillary hit the fan, so Warren would begin with a built-in constituency. So far, though, she insists she’s not running.