If Donald Trump becomes president, the world will have Hillary Clinton to blame.
On the day her campaign released an ad that makes a brutal and effective case against a Trump presidency—“Our children are watching”—a New York Times poll revealed the cost of her squandered credibility.
Clinton and Trump are tied nationally, each supported by 40 percent of voters, in a survey taken after FBI director James Comey undercut Clinton’s shifting and deceptive explanations of her email practices at the State Department. A month ago, she held a six-point lead in the same poll.
While this is just one poll, virtually all statewide and national surveys suggest the race is tightening despite a number of factors weighted in Clinton’s favor. These include:
- The nation’s new demography favors Democratic presidential candidates. (President Obama’s coalition of young, minority, and well-educated voters is still ascendant.)
- The Electoral College favors Democratic candidates. (Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in each of the most recent six presidential elections, from 1992 through 2012. Together, they represent 242 electoral votes.)
- Clinton is a former senator, secretary of state, and first lady who is arguably more prepared, in terms of experience, than any non-incumbent presidential candidate ever.
- Clinton is outspending Trump 40-1 on advertising in states that will determine who wins the campaign.
- Clinton is running against Trump. That’s her biggest advantage. The celebrity billionaire has no political experience, no foreign-policy experience, and no more than a superficial interest or understanding in public policy. He is also—to put it kindly—temperamentally challenged.
The new Clinton ad exposes Trump’s toxicity by framing his speeches around soft notes of a piano and images of children watching TV, juxtaposing their innocence with the candidate’s vile rhetoric.
“I love the old days,” Trump says in the first sound bite. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out in a stretcher folks.”
Then, one after another:
“You can tell them to go [bleep] themselves.”
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
After a fifth and sixth noxious statement, the screen fades to black and two sentences appear. “Our children are watching,” reads the first. “What example will we set for them?”
Then the ad gives way to Clinton, who says that today’s children and grandchildren will look back on “the choices we are about to make.”
It’s a powerful ad—but one that would be far more effective had she made a better choice.
On March 10, 2015, hours before Clinton was to conduct a news conference at the United Nations to explain why she stashed her government emails on a secret server, I wrote a column titled “Hillary’s Choice.”* It imagined her making “the right choice” and coming clean at the event.
Clinton strides confidently into the room trailed by aides carrying an email server once registered to her home. "President Obama gave me the honor to serve the American people as secretary of State," she says. "While serving in that office, I wrote and received thousands of emails. These emails belong to the American public, not to me. I am turning them over to the State Department—all of them."
Photographers inch closer to Clinton, their cameras whirring and flashing. "I recommend that a ruthlessly independent entity be selected to review the email to determine which ones are private, which ones should immediately be made public, and which ones fall under public-archive rules. My actions have damaged the public's trust in the integrity of my email cache. I'll take whatever steps are necessary to earn back that trust."
… [S]he smiles, nods at the cameras. "I think this is a bit overblown. But let's be honest: There would be no controversy had I made a different set of choices. My political enemies are attacking, but I'm the fool who gave them the opening," she chuckles. "The ends do not justify the means. Any questions?"
Reporters ask a few forgettable questions. Columnists praise her decision. Editors declare the controversy over. Republicans pout.
Of course, that’s not how the news conference played out. Instead, she chose to stonewall and lie, gambling that—as a close friend and adviser told me later that spring—it doesn’t matter whether a politician is trusted.
Clinton lost the bet. The number of Americans who say they trust her steadily declined and hit a low point with the today’s New York Times poll. Sixty-seven percent of voters said she is not honest and trustworthy, more than the 62 percent who said the same of Trump. Just 28 percent of voters said they had a positive view of Clinton, according to the Times, compared with 33 percent last month.
Asked if her email practices were illegal, 46 percent of voters said yes, compared with 23 percent who said using a private server was improper but not illegal. An ABC/Washington Post survey suggests a majority of voters think Clinton should have been charged with a crime.
The collapse of her credibility was totally predictable, and totally avoidable. That makes Clinton’s actions particularly galling to Americans like me, who would never vote for Trump but who don’t want to condone her conduct; who don’t know whether they can trust her; and who now face a hard choice: Vote for Clinton, vote for a candidate outside the two-party system, or don’t vote at all.
Clinton is still more likely than not to be the next president. But it didn’t have to be this close.
* This article originally stated that Hillary Clinton's press conference was on March 8, 2015. We regret the error.