Hillary's Challenge With Trust

Clinton continues to struggle to convince many Democratic voters of her authenticity—or at least, that she’s on their side.

David Becker / Reuters

Two recent interviews—one before her Nevada triumph and one after—showed Hillary Clinton standing at a crossroad. One path goes to South Carolina and a string of Democratic contests that favor her coalition of older voters, African Americans, college graduates, and union households.

The other goes to her greatest vulnerability—not only in the race against Bernie Sanders, but also during the general-election campaign and in the Oval Office, should she get that far: the issue of trust.

The first interview was with a CBS News anchor on Thursday:

Scott Pelley: You talk about leveling with the American people. Have you always told the truth?

Hillary Clinton: I've always tried to. Always. Always.

Pelley: Some people are going call that wiggle room that you just gave yourself.

Clinton: Well, no, I've always tried—

Pelley: I mean, Jimmy Carter said, “I will never lie to you.”

Clinton: Well, but, you know, you're asking me to say, “Have I ever?” I don't believe I ever have. I don't believe I ever have. I don't believe I ever will. I'm going do the best I can to level with the American people.

The only appropriate answer is, “No, I’ve never lied to the American people and I never will.” Clinton could have explained that withholding the full truth is something all presidents do—indeed, must do. On national security, internal deliberations, details of their private lives, and other matters, presidents simply cannot be fully transparent.

But to misled the public knowingly is a lie, a breach of trust, and something that a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state should be able to rule out. Clinton can’t—at least not honestly. From the firings of White House travel office employees in 1993 to the 2015 email scandal that still haunts this campaign, Clinton has a history of deflections, deception, and untruths.

Her supporters will explain that she has been the victim of outrageous attacks from extremist Republicans, and there’s some truth to that. Vince Foster killed himself; he wasn’t killed. Whitewater was a screwy land deal, not a scandal. But the sleazy acts of a vast right-wing conspiracy don’t give Clinton a free pass.

Even admirers of Clinton worry about her credibility deficit. In Nevada, as in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic voters who cared most about backing a candidate who's honest and trustworthy or one who cares about people like them overwhelmingly supported Sanders, according to exit polls. Those looking for experience or electability overwhelmingly backed Clinton.

Clinton’s victory in Nevada denied Sanders an opportunity—possibly his last, best chance—to reshape the Democrat race. A victory in the diverse Nevada caucuses would have undermined Clinton’s argument that she is the party’s best hope in November. It would have helped Sanders make his case to minority voters in South Carolina and beyond that he, rather than Clinton, represents their interests.

Still, the race is likely to grind on for weeks. Sanders’s populist movement is well-funded and suited to the times. For Clinton, the FBI’s investigation into her handling of government email is a dangerous unknown.

Which brings me to the second interview—this one on Sunday with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” It suggests that Clinton, finally, is beginning to understand that she’s dug herself a big hole.

Jake Tapper: I know that you have blamed the whole trust issue with independent voters on decades of unfair attacks by Republicans, smears against you by Republicans. But how do you fix it going forward? If you do become the nominee, you’re going to need independent voters?

Hillary Clinton: Absolutely, and I’m going to do what I’ve always done: I’m going to keep reaching out to voters. I understand that voters have questions. I’m going to do my very best to answer those questions. I think there’s an underlying question that maybe is really in the back of people’s minds and that is: “Is she in it for us or is she in it for herself?” I think that’s a question people are trying to sort through.

It will be fascinating to watch Clinton challenge Sanders’s advantage on the “cares about me” question. For years, her husband deployed his feel-your-pain vibe as a shield against scandal, starting with his campaign-saving pledge to New Hampshire voters in 1992:  “I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies,” Bill Clinton said.

Voters learned not to trust Bill Clinton to tell the truth about his private life. But they believed him when he said he got up every morning determined to work for them. “Is he in it for us or is he in it for himself?” Even when Bill Clinton disgraced himself and faced impeachment for lying about sex with an intern, most voters believed he was still in it for them.

Most voters don’t feel that way about Hillary Clinton, and it’s a dangerous matter of trust. She can’t convince voters that she’s always been honest—not in an era that equips people to be their own electronic fact-checkers. She can’t give today’s voters the authenticity they crave.

Her challenge is to convince them that even if she’s mendacious, she’s their liar—she’s on their side—and the other side lies almost as much.