Ever wonder why some scandals stick like Krazy Glue and become career-killers while others are a momentary blip on the radar–here today, gone tomorrow?
In today’s hyper-partisan culture, “scandals” of dubious proportionality and/or criminality are constantly being alleged by political adversaries. On the left and right–and on the lips of their media surrogates–scandal-peddling has become a cottage industry. But the sheer volume of these so-called scandals has forced voters to develop a credibility-filter. It’s the boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome.
Feigning moral outrage for political gain is the DC equivalent of flopping in basketball.
Fortunately, there’s a three-point litmus test to assess the impact of scandals, and all three points must be met for the scandal to stick. If a candidate can negate just one of the points, the scandal is survivable. If he/she can’t, the scandal is like an open wound: The candidate’s “brand” has been gashed and the bloodletting will leave a long and nasty trail. The more the candidate bleeds, the bigger the scar. And if he/she loses too much blood…it’s over.
Not all wounds are fatal, but all scars are permanent.
Now, does Hillary Clinton’s email scandal have “legs”? Might it derail her presidential aspirations? Will the wound leave a permanent scar–and if so, is the wound potentially fatal? The answer is YES.
The reason why is revealed in the three-point litmus test:
How to Evaluate a Political Scandal
- Does the scandal reinforce a preexisting narrative? For a scandal to gain traction, it must reinforce a negative perception about a brand. If it doesn’t, the scandal tends to be swept under the rug.
For decades, the Bill Cosby “brand” was that of a beloved father figure–the all-American Dad. He was Cliff Huxtable, for crying out loud! Because of this, we ignored decades of allegations of Cosby being a sexual predator. It was only when an overwhelming number of victims emerged that his brand began to change.
Scandals don’t become “real” until they validate our worst suspicions.
In the political realm, the reason why the George Washington Bridge “scandal” so utterly devastated Governor Chris Christie is that there was already a narrative of Christie being a punitive, ill-tempered bully. Later, the facts largely exonerated him from personal wrongdoing, but his brand was scarred because of human psychology: we first make decisions emotionally, and then retro-fit these emotions factually.
Emotionally, it just sounded like something Christie would do.
Scandals must resonate emotionally to gain traction.
- Is the scandal a one-off, or is it part of an ongoing series of news stories? A one-off scandal is unpleasant, but it’s usually not fatal. A candidate can take his/her lumps and recover because the goal isn’t to win the PR cycle today or tomorrow; it’s to win the PR cycle on Election Day. But if the story has “legs” and will be drawn-out in a slew of subsequent news stories, op-eds, TV news segments, etc., the scandal becomes a personal pandemic.
Death by a thousand cuts.
As long as there’s something (semi-)new to report, the bleeding will continue. Remember: only when the bleeding stops will the scarring begin.
Scars are ugly, but they’re infinitely preferable to an open, gaping wound…and the longer a wound bleeds, the larger (and uglier) the scar.
And too much blood-loss is fatal.
- Can you “connect the dots” to script a scenario where something deplorable and/or illegal has happened? All scandals must have an end-game. In today’s culture of hyper partisanship–where we’re predisposed to assume the absolute worst about our opponents–a scandal must lead to a (potentially) horrible outcome. If the worst possible outcome isn’t particularly cataclysmic, the scandal is defanged.
The least-scandalous outcome is when it simply “calls into question” someone’s judgment. Judgment is subjective, and politicians aren’t perfect; the public accepts this and views allegations through a partisan prism, cheerleading for their favorites and booing the other side. But when the motives are (plausibly) sinister, self-serving, or driven by a fatal character flaw–and when the end-result is illegal, immoral, or a gross dereliction of personal responsibility–there’s a serious problem.
So far, commentators on the left and right have vastly underappreciated the severity of Hillary Clinton’s latest scandal. It’s extraordinarily toxic to her long-term brand because all three points of the litmus test are met with flying colors:
One, it reinforces the preexisting narrative of Secretary Clinton being overly secretive, calculating, dishonest, and playing fast and loose with the law. It’s a Leona Helmsley-like attitude: “only the little people” have to follow the rules–but not the Clintons!
It’s, well, Clintonesque–but without the charm.
Two, the scandal will be absolutely, 100 percent, connected to a slew of upcoming news stories, particularly since the Republicans control Congress: Will she be required to testify under oath? (Probably.) What, exactly, were in the emails? Were her aides’ emails also on the server? Were her aides’ emails destroyed, too? Can the deleted emails be recovered? Does it relate to Benghazi? Will any emails to/from Secretary Clinton emerge from other email accounts that she neglected to disclose? Did her emails cross-pollinate with Clinton Foundation fundraising? And on and on…
By refusing to allow a third party to examine her emails, Mrs. Clinton has created a who-dunnit mystery with an infinite shelf-life.
Three, you can most certainly connect the dots to script a scenario where Mrs. Clinton’s motives were self-serving (shielding herself from public scrutiny). Furthermore, deciding on her own to delete whichever government emails she wishes could clearly have legal consequences. She violated the intent of the rules; we just don’t know if she also violated criminal statutes.
It’s still very early. This is a scandal writ large in embryotic form.
So yes, this scandal will eventually scar the Hillary Clinton brand. But worst of all for Clinton’s presidential ambitions, the wound is still bleeding.
And if it continues to bleed, the scar the wound leaves behind won’t just be cosmetic. It’ll be fatal.