Hillary Clinton isn’t changing a thing.
What emerged most clearly from her press conference on Tuesday, when she addressed the controversy over her use of email as secretary of state, is that the Hillary Clinton that runs in 2016 won’t be that different from the woman who was first lady in the 1990's and a presidential candidate eight years ago.
In her press conference, like much of her more than 20 years on the public stage, she was confident not only in the rightness of her position (“I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by,”) but that the American public, if not the press, would agree with her. (“I feel like once the American public begins to see the emails, they will have an unprecedented insight into a high government official's daily communications, which I think will be quite interesting.”)
She was a tad contrite (“looking back, it would've been better if I'd simply used a second email account”), but like when she was first lady and a candidate in 2008, unwilling to concede much to her critics. She at times used slippery, legalistic language, emphasizing her successor John Kerry was the first secretary of state to “primarily” use a government email - a fact that obscures that only four people have held that post since email has been widely used and one of them (Condoleezza Rice) sent very few emails but all on government servers.
Clinton is known to believe that the press focuses on silly issues instead of important ones. She made that point subtly in her remarks on Tuesday, talking about the work on gender equality she was doing at the United Nations and then blasting congressional Republicans for trying to undermine President Obama’s negotiations with Iran before turning to the email issue. She repeatedly invoked the American public as her audience, making clear she was addressing questions they might have, not the political press, of which Clinton is deeply skeptical.
Referring to Iran, Clinton said, "I would be pleased to talk more about this important matter." She then shifted to a topic that Clinton did not call important, adding, "I know there have been questions about my email."
“No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy,”
When a reporter asked Clinton if the controversy over her email would have erupted if she were a man, the former first lady, whose supporters say she has long been the victim of sexism, smirked, even as she dodged the question.
Early reaction to Clinton's remarks, unsurprisingly, was divided along on partisan lines. Elijah Cummings, a House Democrat and longtime Clinton ally, said, "I am glad Secretary Clinton addressed this issue directly." But Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus blasted Clinton's remarks as "completely disingenuous."
“If she had an ounce of respect for the American people, she would have apologized for putting our national security at risk for ‘convenience," he said. "She would’ve agreed to hand over her secret server to an independent arbiter. And she would’ve reassured the nation that her influence is not for sale to foreign governments. She did none of that."
He added, "Because only Hillary Clinton controls her personal email account and admitted she deleted many of her emails, no one but Hillary Clinton knows if she handed over every relevant email.”
The performance was very Clintonian to those who have watched both Clinton and her husband closely, an aggressive defense of her actions and disregard for the arguments of both the media and Republicans.
But it was a shift in one major way: Clinton was talking to the press at all.
The heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination had been running essentially a Rose Garden-strategy for months, behaving as if she were an incumbent president running for reelection. Party donors flocked to her and prominent Democrats, including two of President Obama’s top advisers, have signed on to aid her campaign, even as Clinton has refused to announce publicly that she is a candidate.
But the dispute over her use of only a private email account, instead of one on a government server, caused senior Democrats to urged Clinton to confront the issue publicly and directly. Her aides had hinted the controversy would pass and was simply a media obsession, but they bent to the will of key Democrats, including California senator and Clinton ally Dianne Feinstein, who said her silence was causing the issue to become a bigger political problem.
A confident Clinton on Tuesday took numerous questions on the email matter, speaking for more than 20 minutes.
But Clinton could have stopped once she gave her initial statement, as she budged little under questioning, as is her style. Her message, no matter the question, was the same: she had followed the law but should have had two separate email accounts anyway, was taking the “unprecedented” step of releasing all of her work-related emails to the State Department and she would leave it up to the public to determine if she was wrong to not release her more personal notes.
“No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy,” Clinton said.
Clinton could be so confident because the email controversy, at least for now, is having little impact on her electoral prospects. Democrats remain firmly behind Clinton as the party’s choice to be its nominee in 2016. There are no signs that strong alternatives to Clinton, particularly Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are changing their minds and deciding to enter the race. And none of the Democratic elected officials, donors and campaign operatives who have already endorsed Clinton or joined her staff are backing away from her in light of these revelations.(A recent NBC/WSJ poll found a whopping 86 percent of Democratic primary voters saying they could see themselves supporting her.)
"I thought she answered the questions, people asked her questions, she did not break any law," Feinstein said Tuesday, after Clinton's press conference. "I don't know what else she can do."
Even former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, two of the Democrats who are running against Clinton, have avoided attacking her over the email controversy.
“The Draft Warren movement is less concerned with the frenzy surrounding Secretary Clinton's emails than we are with standing up, on behalf of millions of working families, to those who are rigging the system in favor of the rich and powerful,” said Erica Sagrans, who is running a group that is urging Warren to run.
And for the election in November 2016, factors as such the unemployment rate, President Obama’s approval rating and ideology (most Americans lean either towards the GOP or the Democrats and vote accordingly in a presidential race) will affect Clinton much more than the email dispute.