Should Democrats Panic About Hillary Clinton's Email Scandal?

The 2016 frontrunner appears to have the support of most of her party, but more progressives are asking why there's no plan B.

Democrats are freaking out about Hillary Clinton's latest misstep. Or they're blasé. Or, if you ask the right ones, they're feeling rather smug. It all depends on who you ask.

Since the 1990s, reporters have practically made "divisive" a formal part of her name, and now it's Clinton's own party that's divided over how to react to #emailghazi. How will revelations about her use of a "homebrew" private email server affect the 2016 presidential election? Do Democrats just shake it off? Panic completely about her prospects for election? Or maybe quietly start looking around for a backup candidate, while maintaining a brave face? Any worries are naturally magnified by the fact that Clinton has already managed to effectively clear the field, without even declaring her run official. For the time being, there is no plan B.

Late Wednesday, Clinton took to her seldom-used Twitter account to try to stifle some of the discussion. "I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible," she wrote. (Illustrating one reason her email subterfuge is so difficult to talk around, her avatar is that famous image with the BlackBerry and the sunglasses. What email account are you using on that device, Madam Secretary?) But that process could take months, the State Department told ABC's Jon Karl, and whatever they release will be culled from ... whatever emails Clinton opted to turn over to the State Department in the first place.

One potential indicator of how the Democratic establishment might react is the Obama White House. The conventional wisdom for months has been that Clinton has to figure out how to distance herself from the president on his least popular policies, without alienating too many of his supporters—a trick made more delicate by the fact that she was his top foreign-policy official. Now, it's the White House distancing itself from Clinton. The Associated Press reports:

The White House counsel's office was not aware at the time Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state that she relied solely on personal email and only found out as part of the congressional investigation into the Benghazi attack, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The person said Clinton's exclusive reliance on personal email as the nation's top diplomat was inconsistent with the guidance given to agencies that official business should be conducted on official email accounts.

So the White House would rather not get sucked into this—after all, the administration has plenty of fish in the fryer already. But what about other Democrats and liberals? For the time being, you can find news reports to support almost any conclusion. The conflicting accounts don't mean any of them is wrong—there is a mix of opinions. In the main, progressives seem to be avoiding the urge to panic, but most of the reactions fit into three major camps:

1. The Non-Chalants

What, them worry? This group is a diverse bunch. It includes professional Hillary Clinton defender David Brock, who will stand up for basically anything Clinton does, and liberal journalist Michael Tomasky, who argues that this is mostly a pseudo-scandal cooked up by Republican partisans. It also includes nonpartisan analysts like political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who's skeptical of much long-term electoral impact. More to the point, most elected Democrats seem to have joined the caucus, at least for now. Dave Weigel talked to some congressional Democrats, who mostly reacted with a shrug or intimations of political witch-hunting. One exception was Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent who's considering running for the Democratic nomination himself, and who really seemed to think it wasn't a story: "You're not going to be the sixteenth writer who asks me about Hillary, are you?"

The New York Times found something similar, noting that fewer Democrats are willing to second-guess her than were eight years ago. The case here is straightforward: Clinton's been around many blocks, she's taken hits before, and she'll get through this one. Besides, will voters really care about something as arcane as public-records laws governing emails? All of this could change if top donors started freaking out, which they're not doing publicly. But then again, to what alternative candidate would they flee? Given the Clintons' reputation for long memory of slights, defecting at this stage in the game could be a costly error.

2. The Doomsayers

The lack of an alternative is the germ of the pessimists' case: You've always got to have a backup plan. Some people have been saying so for months, and so this is a sweet moment of I-told-you-so. Take Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic party chair who reporters love for his ability to give highly quotable, often inflammatory comments.

"There’s always another shoe to drop with Hillary," he told The Washington Post. "The fact that she’s already turned emails to the Benghazi committee because she was doing official business on it means she’s going to die by 1,000 cuts on this one." Now, why would he say that? Well, it turns out he's backing Joe Biden, one of the potential beneficiaries of a Clinton collapse (though one who's done little to build a campaign apparatus).

Much of the rest of the panic brigade are journalists. Chris Cillizza is sounding alarms. The New Republic's Danny Vinik warns that Clinton is "not ready for prime time" and needs more vetting, which is sort of a funny thing to say about a former first lady, senator, presidential frontrunner, and secretary of state. That's not to say the scandal doesn't raise questions about Clinton's judgment, but is vetting really the problem?

3. The Wait-and-Sees

There is a middle ground between these two extremes: Clinton will most likely be fine, but there ought to be a backup anyway. "There must be a list," writes Jill Lawrence. "Conservatives have correctly discerned that Clinton is the Democrats’ indispensable woman." (But she cautions that "the gubernatorial pickings are exceedingly slim" and the Senate list isn't much better.) Frank Rich is on the same page: "The Democrats ridicule the GOP field at their own peril; they have no field at all."

For the Democratic Party, that may be the crux of the matter. It's not worth panicking when there's no viable alternative. But stay tuned for new wrinkles. Already, there are some awkward new angles, like a report that Clinton's State Department ousted an ambassador for using private email. The next few days will give a chance for the story's natural news cycle to fizzle, or else for Clinton to look even shakier—and for Democrats to start casting about for a backup.