Democrats didn't fully appreciate the size of the gamble they're taking on Hillary Clinton by assuming she's their strongest 2016 candidate, but they're sure finding out now.
Forget the email server. The latest revelation—that a Canadian mining company with close ties to the Clinton Foundation sold its uranium business to the Russians with approval from Clinton's State Department—is more damaging than any of the previous controversies that have buffeted the campaign.
The story goes to the heart of several serious, growing vulnerabilities that Clinton will be facing, sooner or later. First, the perception of foreign entities paying the Clinton Foundation and later getting favorable treatment from the State Department raises the spectre of foreign governments buying access at the highest levels of the U.S. government—a politically potent allegation should any connection be proven. The fact that Clinton reportedly concealed the company's donations to the foundation from the Obama administration only raises the reason for suspicion.
Second, it's an unwelcome reminder that as secretary of State, Clinton viewed Russia as a trustworthy partner and didn't see any national security consequences as a result of the transaction. Republicans will be raising questions about her foreign policy judgment on numerous hot spots that are currently deteriorating, including Libya, Ukraine, and Iran.
Third, it raises the question of what other actions she took as secretary of State that would have the consequence of enriching her family through the Clinton Foundation. Former President Bill Clinton made a half-million speaking to a Russian investment bank promoting the mining company's stock shortly after the corporate takeover. That badly threatens to undermine her positioning as a populist fighter for the "everyday" American—an image her campaign has been assiduously pushing with her low-key launch.
Finally, her evasive answers in dealing with the controversy, refusing to address the specifics of the reporting and using her campaign team to attack the messenger(s) shows both how serious the allegations are, and how unprepared she is for the scrutiny. Polling has already shown her standing taking a serious nosedive, as more questions are raised about her conduct in office.
Usually candidates who announce their campaign see a boomlet in popularity. The opposite is happening with Clinton, who is at least as unpopular as she is popular, according to a new Quinnipiac poll released Thursday. A 47 percent plurality view her unfavorably while 46 percent view her favorably. For the first time, her net unfavorable ratings put her (narrowly) behind several Republican contenders, including Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul. Her trustworthiness is taking a bigger hit: Only 38 percent view her as being honest, while 54 percent disagree.
These are glaring red flags that would usually be an inducement for other Democratic candidates to run and challenge her. But the normal rules of politics don't seem to apply in a Clinton-controlled Democratic Party.
For all the Democratic denial, the controversies are already undermining one of Clinton's major campaign assets.
What's striking is how little she's talked about her record as secretary during her first two weeks on the campaign trail. It's no coincidence that she's been conspicuously silent on that front; it's an acknowledgement that it's becoming a political vulnerability. She understands that any time she brings up her record, uncomfortable questions about her conflict of interest with the family foundation will come up.
For months, her allies were trumpeting her record at State as a major political asset. Even with the controversy surrounding her role during the Benghazi attacks and worsening crises in the Middle East, her record at Foggy Bottom still looked solid. She boasted about her record of improving women's rights globally and extensive travel to underserved countries.
But the list of foreign policy controversies she's connected with is continuing to grow. She championed the airstrikes in Libya that toppled the Qaddafi government. The country has now become an ungovernable safe haven where terrorist groups are thriving. She failed to identify the growing geostrategic threat Russia posed, famously giving a "reset button" to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Republicans just announced that their report about the Benghazi attacks will be released in 2016, right in the middle of the presidential campaign. Fairly or unfairly, Republicans will be connecting the growing turmoil in the Middle East to foreign policy under her watch. Her tenure at State, which allowed her to become one of the most popular politicians in America, is now seen favorably by only 50 percent of voters.
This wasn't part of the plan: Surely she knew that her approval ratings were never going to be as strong as they looked last year, but it's unlikely she expected to be in a defensive crouch from the outset. The notion that she will be able to avoid the "distractions," to borrow her characterization of the growing controversies, is delusional. If she continues to insist that these pay-to-play allegations are another "right-wing conspiracy" and not deserving of a substantive response, it could be fatal for her campaign. The dismissive response from her allies is doing her nearly as much damage as the allegations themselves. It guarantees the coverage will last much longer than the current news cycle.
Democrats are badly misreading the polls showing Clinton as a formidable Democratic force. Her strong numbers are as much a product of a lack of primary competition as a result of her political strength. She's also benefiting from the country's partisan polarization at a time when there aren't many other Democrats offering themselves as an alternative and joining in on the criticism. But those benefits are looking awfully short-lived, as Clinton looks unprepared to tackle questions that undermine her credibility for higher office. The more Democrats bet on Clinton, the uglier the recriminations will get if things go wrong.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.