Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was rocked by a succession of problems during six short hours on Tuesday in New Hampshire that saw news of her computer drives being handed over to the United States department of justice, black protesters barred from an event and her poll lead in the Democratic primary eclipsed for the first time by an insurgent challenge from the left.
Though the former secretary of state retains a commanding lead in the national race to secure her party’s nomination for the 2016 election, the early parallels with her campaign’s implosion in 2008 are also now leading to renewed pressure on Vice-President Joe Biden to join the race as a mainstream alternative.
Much of the recent trouble can be traced back to a Republican strategy to focus attention on her handling of a 2012 terrorist attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Though initially dismissed by Democrats as a partisan smear tactic, the congressional inquiry into the affair has instead snowballed into a more persistent irritant since it emerged that some related records were stored by Clinton on a personal email server kept at her home.
The long-rumbling saga culminated on Tuesday evening with news that Clinton had agreed to hand over the server and an associated flash drive to investigators at the department of justice to help them make sure no classified information is at risk by not being stored on official government computers.
“She pledged to co-operate with the government’s security inquiry and if there are more questions, we will continue to address them,” said Nick Merrill, a campaign spokesperson, in a statement confirming the decision. “In the meantime, her team has worked with the state department to ensure her emails are stored in a safe and secure manner,” he added.
Nonetheless, the inquiry raises questions about Clinton’s earlier claims, made when news of the private server first emerged in March, that no classified material had been sent via her personal email.
On Monday, Clinton was also forced to issue a declaration, under penalty of perjury, to a federal court that all official correspondence has been handed over to the state department amid continued scepticism from political opponents.
Disproportionate amount of attacks
Though such legal controversy is hardly an ideal backdrop for a presidential campaign, the attacks – something Clinton supporters point out she has had to deal with disproportionately for much of her professional career – would matter less if they did not coincide with signs of surprise weakness in opinion polls.
Bernie Sanders, who has drawn huge crowds with an unabashed programme of social democracy seen as more authentic by his supporters, overtook Clinton for the first time on Tuesday night in a poll revealing him ahead by 44% to 37% in the crucial early primary state of New Hampshire.
Though the poll is only one among the many that have shown Clinton ahead and by an average of 35 points nationally, it defied predictions by some pundits that a recent surge in Sanders’s popularity had peaked.
It also risks opening the floodgates to more Democratic defections by demonstrating that Sanders, who is happy to describe himself as a democratic socialist in a country where the leftwingers are often derided, has more widespread electoral appeal than his detractors have hitherto acknowledged.
Another risk for the Clinton camp is that any signs of weakness in a campaign that has so far benefited from an overwhelming sense of inevitability may tempt more established opponents into the fray.
Biden is said to be deciding later this year whether to throw his hat into the ring, speculation that has gained traction after reports that he had been urged to do so by his dying son, Beau.
Whether the 72-year-old vice-president will prove a more serious threat to Clinton’s well-financed and well-organised campaign remains in doubt, but the narrative is eagerly lapped up by a Washington press corps that remembers her defeat by Obama in 2008 and has got off to a rocky start with the Clinton machine the second time around.
Protesters shut out of forum
Only hours before the latest poll numbers and email drama, the campaign was once again at loggerheads with some reporters over access to a protest by members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Clinton was forced to contend with a group of protesters who were shut out of the presidential candidate’s forum on substance abuse in Keene, New Hampshire. After the event, Clinton met the five activists, who watched the event they intended to interrupt from an overflow room.
The activists characterised the meeting as positive, telling journalists afterwards that they were able to ask her questions about her family’s involvement in perpetuating the “war on drugs”, which led to the disproportionate, mass incarceration of young black males.
The campaign said US secret service agents, charged with protecting Clinton, closed the doors to the event when it reached capacity. But some Black Lives Matter activists, who had publicised their intentions before arriving at the event, later disputed claims that they had asked for reporters not to be present during their meeting with Clinton.
Initially, the meeting was to be recorded by selected members of the media who were covering Clinton’s campaign event. But the campaign said the protesters had asked those already in the room with Clinton to stop recording and photographing and the campaign decided not to escort anyone else into the room after that, out of respect for their request.
Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter in Boston and the leader of Tuesday’s protest, told CNN that they had not asked the campaign to restrict access to the media. “We said that we did not want to take a photo with her,” Yancey told the network. “The only thing that we were asked about was whether we wanted to include photos.”
Clinton is not alone in facing such disruptions: at last month’s Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, protesters also interrupted speeches by Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, but since then both candidates have rolled out new policies on issues of race and social justice.
It is also unclear how successful the protesters would have been had they been admitted to the event, as Clinton is closely guarded by secret service agents. In an interview with the New Republic, one protester acknowledged that the meeting was the best they could have hoped for.
But, as has often been the case for the Democratic frontrunner with an outsized public profile, Clinton risks facing outsized scrutiny and anxiety among her supporters not to repeat the slips of the past. – © Guardian News & Media 2015