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Election 2016

Could Anthony Weiner's Mishaps and Personal Disasters End Up Electing Donald Trump?

The latest Clinton email controversy threatens to upend an already disappointing campaign.

Photo Credit: Boss Tweed / Flickr Creative Commons

In one week, this nightmare election will be over. If Hillary Clinton does manage to win, Democrats and progressives will experience a complex set of feelings.

First, of course, sheer relief that American democracy was spared Donald Trump.

Second, some hope and good wishes—that Clinton can somehow break through the toxic Republican cynicism that has blocked progress on serious national problems; that she can begin to repair the damage to American democracy.

But third, there will be barely repressed fury that Clinton came so close to blowing it because of her own questionable judgment on so many fronts. A less blemished candidate would be leading the bizarre Donald Trump by double digits, and pulling along a Democratic Senate majority with her.

A narrow Clinton win will be a weak mandate. Trump will challenge the election’s legitimacy. Republicans will be emboldened to block everything.

Of course, as Hillary Clinton got serious about an election run, there was nothing she could do about the bad memories of Bill Clinton’s womanizing. That back story and its potential for damage was a given.

And the outrageous behavior of FBI Director James Comey, just days before the election, was also beyond Clinton’s own control. As was the Russian complicity in leaks of confidential emails of Democratic strategists and others close to the Clintons.

But given the likelihood of all manner of dirty tricks, did she have to hand her enemies so much other ammunition?

Did she have to cozy up to Wall Street and take six-figure speaking fees and say such nice things about bankers—knowing that she would very likely run for president?

Did the Clinton Foundation have to co-mingle so much of its own charitable works with enrichment opportunities for Bill, Hillary, and their retinue of retainers led by Doug Band?

Did Clinton’s senior staff have to use easily hackable Gmail accounts for confidential strategy conversations?

And once the disclosures about aide Huma Abedin’s pathetic husband, Anthony Weiner, went from sleazy to grotesque, why did Abedin not announce that she was leaving Clinton’s employ lest she become a distraction? That latest twist, when she finally left Weiner, was more than two months ago.

Surely, that option occurred to Abedin, to campaign chief John Podesta, and to Clinton herself. There is loyalty to aides, for which Clinton is famous, and then there is loyalty to the Republic. Abedin can’t very well resign now under fire without calling even more attention to herself.

As we head into the final week, it’s not yet clear how much damage has been done. If I had to bet, I’d wager that Clinton still pulls out a narrow win by a few percentage points. But that’s far from guaranteed, and the race is much closer than it should be. One November surprise and Trump could be the next president.

Even before Comey’s clumsy, transparently partisan disclosure/non-disclosure, the polls were already narrowing. WikiLeaks gave the public a detailed look into the less savory details of what Clinton retainer Doug Band called Bill Clinton, Inc. By sheer unlucky timing, projections of large premium increases for some participants in the Affordable Care Act were disclosed. And both of these stories took the spotlight off Trump. And then came the letter from FBI Director Comey.

We know from the rhythm of the campaign that whenever Trump is in the spotlight, he loses support, because of his propensity to say crazy, reckless things. And whenever he manages to stay offstage and let Clinton take the heat, voters remember why they don’t like her either.

For several days, Clinton defenders have been frantically trying to rebut the details of these latest unflattering revelations. The facts are on their side. But that may not matter.

Nothing illegal was disclosed about Doug Band, his Teneo Consulting firm, or the enrichment of the Clintons (Right, but so what, it still looks like hell.)

If you drill down into the details of who gets premium hikes, it’s less than 5 percent of insured people and most of the hikes will be offset by government subsidies. (Great, the taxpayer pays again.)

Comey should never have announced the reopening of an investigation that is not about Clinton anyway. (Yes, it’s only about her closest aide’s husband electronically exposing himself to an underage girl, which somehow reminds the public about someone else’s randy husband. And it’s about Weiner evidently sharing a computer with Abedin, which reinforces questions about Clinton’s judgment and the email mess.)

The trouble is that Clinton and her surrogates can win each of these details on points, and still lose on the big picture.

For too many voters, it all blurs. All those emails: the emails that Clinton incautiously kept on her own server, the new emails leaked by the Russians, and the latest FBI probe of emails on Abedin’s computer. The Clinton family business: Hillary’s Wall Street speaking fees, her kind words about the banks, and Bill Clinton’s self-enrichment. And the tawdry sex: from Anthony Weiner to Monica Lewinsky.

It would be a miracle if some swing voters previously leaning towards Clinton did not just throw up their hands (or just throw up) and conclude that Trump and Clinton were both sleazy.

That would be an appalling case of false equivalence. Clinton is merely a case of disappointing business as usual. Trump is a genuine proto-fascist. His sexual abuses are of a whole other scale, and neither Anthony Weiner nor Bill Clinton is running for president this year. Trump is.

Conflating Hillary’s sins and those of Trump would be profoundly unfair. But politics isn’t fair. A week out, Clinton is not energizing the volunteers, not inspiring the young, not demonstrating the clean, vivid contrast with Trump that she needs to win big.

If she wins at all, a lot of Democrats and progressives are probably prepared to forgive her. If she loses and Donald Trump becomes president, she will face the unforgiving judgment of history.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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