Mark Shields: Answer to one question unnerves Democrats
Hillary Clinton, according to the reliable Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released earlier this month, defines the 2016 presidential race. A plurality of voters now find the former secretary of state being “knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency,” ”effective” and able to get “things done,” ”willing to compromise and find consensus,” and “compassionate enough to understand average people” — historically qualities prized by the presidential electorate.
Clinton is currently the voters’ choice when matched against all Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
But the answer to one question on the poll made more than a few Democrats, already nervous about their party’s prospects of winning a third consecutive White House term, break into a cold sweat: Do you think Clinton is “honest and straightforward”?
About a year ago, voters split almost right down the middle (38 percent yes, 40 percent no) when asked that question. But today just 1 in 4 respondents — a drop of 13 percentage points — judge the Democratic front-runner to be “honest and straightforward,” while one-half of voters give Clinton the thumbs-down as lacking those qualities of candor and integrity.
Obviously, context does matter. This poll was taken after press coverage of Clinton’s use of a private email server, widely seen as intended to avoid public oversight, and during the continuing controversy about the Clinton Foundation’s seeking and accepting large contributions from foreign governments and private companies with interests in winning favor with a former secretary of state or a future president. But almost always when an American president seeks to forge a consensus on painfully difficult national issues, especially when the proposed compromise calls for citizen sacrifice, that president needs the nation’s voters to trust and to believe him — or her.
One leading Democrat who would almost certainly back her in November 2016 accuses her and her campaign of “egregiously bad judgment” in her decision, upon leaving the State Department in February 2013, to entangle herself with the foundation and to go about collecting six-figure honoraria for speeches. “Bill Clinton made $104 million in speeches from 2001 through 2014. She was either in the Senate or the Cabinet and financially ‘pure.’ Did nobody — or her own moral compass — tell her that her speech fees and her renewed association with the foundation would become political and press disasters?”
Hillary Clinton remains overwhelmingly popular among Democratic voters, a remarkable 86 percent of whom could now see themselves backing her White House bid — contrasted with just 13 percent who could not. Bill Clinton remains the most popular U.S. president of the past quarter-century. But when, in an interview with NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden, he insisted that the Clinton Foundation has done nothing “knowingly inappropriate,” he reminded us, unhappily, of his stained second term and other tortured verbal constructions — such as “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” It forces us to wonder whether “knowingly inappropriate” will someday require further explanation.
If voters suspect that you as a candidate are not intellectually heavy enough, you, to rebut the charge, can write a thoughtful book, study hard and demonstrate mastery of a complicated subject. But what can you do if a growing majority of voters believe that you are not honest or straightforward beyond changing the subject to your opponents’ shortcomings? Stay tuned. We may find out.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.