Democrats Suffer a Comey Flashback

Democrats Suffer a Comey Flashback

  • Post category:USA
Democrats Suffer a Comey Flashback

For veterans of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president, yesterday brought back painful memories.

The special counsel’s report on the handling of classified documents by President Biden instantly recalled how James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, concluded his investigation of Clinton for her handling of classified documents when she was secretary of state.

“The first text I got this morning was, ‘Were you thoroughly triggered last night?’” said Nick Merrill, a senior adviser to Clinton.

Robert Hur, the special prosecutor in Biden’s case, cleared him of criminal wrongdoing in his handling of classified documents while he was vice president. In 2016, Comey likewise recommended that no criminal charges be filed against Clinton for using her private email server to handle official correspondence as secretary of state.

But Hur and Comey — both Republicans investigating Democrats — didn’t stop there, adorning their exonerations with harsh and damaging criticisms. Comey called Clinton “extremely careless” in her actions. That fueled a flood of critical media coverage, including in The New York Times, and handed a cudgel to her opponent, Donald Trump. To this day, many Democrats blame Comey — who went on to reopen briefly, and then shut down, that investigation 11 days before Election Day — as well as the news media for her loss.

“Was it a problem?” said Joel Benenson, a senior adviser to Clinton’s campaign. “Yeah, it was a problem. We had a tough time dealing with it.”

Hur, after announcing that he would not bring charges against Biden, went on to describe him as old and addled. With that, he appeared to offer a cudgel to Trump, and fueled fears among Democrats about Biden’s fitness as a candidate.

Yet for all the obvious similarities between the two episodes, there are critical differences.

The case against Clinton involved her actions when she served as secretary of state, a job she left in 2013, which arguably did not speak directly to her qualifications to be president. The charges were murky (what is the difference between a private email server and a public email server, and why should voters care?) and often seemed legalistic.

Many people — and not only Democrats — said the importance of the allegations against Clinton was vastly exaggerated, particularly when compared with the ethical and legal questions that hovered over Trump. But significant or not, they were damaging: Clinton was answering questions about her email practices through the crucial final days of her campaign.

Hur described the president as a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory,” an instantly memorable line that gave an official imprimatur to one of the lingering concerns about Biden’s ability to serve a second term.

“It’s god awful — it’s mean,” Donna Brazile, a close adviser to Clinton in 2016 and the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said of Hur’s report.

Biden’s age was already a line of criticism for Trump, and a subject of concern for many voters. (My colleague Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, has more on that below.)

It’s a difficult criticism to rebut. Biden is 81 years old. He looks his age; he moves stiffly, often speaks in a whisper. While everyone, including Trump (who is 77), has moments of forgetfulness and mixes up foreign leaders — who among us hasn’t confused the presidents of Mexico and Egypt? — that does happen with some regularity with Biden. The decision by the White House to limit Biden’s public exposure feeds the perception that he may not be at the top of his game.

For years, Democrats lamenting Clinton’s loss have embraced a rallying call — “But her emails” — to convey their frustration at the attention focused on her online correspondence, compared with the attention on Trump’s flouting of legal and ethical norms. That anger remains powerful today.

“Throughout the campaign we had heard about Hillary’s emails,” Benenson said. “The ‘Access Hollywood’ tape comes out, pretty newsworthy story. But the most covered news in the last 10 days of the campaign were Hillary’s email server, not a man bragging about sexually assaulting women and saying he could get away with it.”

It is still early, and Biden has time to turn this page of his campaign, and 2024 is different from 2016. Yet, if he is ultimately unsuccessful in his bid for a second term, “But his age” may serve as his campaign’s epitaph — fairly or not.

When a reporter asked President Biden on Thursday night about concerns about his age, his first instinct was to reject the premise. He replied in part: “That is your judgment.”

The concerns over his age are not just those of one reporter. A clear majority of Americans harbor serious worries about it, polls show. In Times/Siena polling last fall, more than 70 percent of battleground state voters agreed with the statement that Biden is “just too old to be an effective president.” More than 60 percent said they didn’t think Biden had “the mental sharpness to be an effective president.” And fair or not, fewer than half of voters express similar doubts about Donald Trump’s age or mental acuity.

Of all the reasons Biden has narrowly trailed Trump in the polls for five straight months, this is arguably the single most straightforward explanation. In Times/Siena polling, even a majority of Biden’s own supporters say he’s too old to be an effective president. His political problems might just be that simple.

The questions about Biden’s age are almost entirely without precedent in the era of modern elections. There has never been a president who has faced this level of concern about his age — not even Ronald Reagan in 1984, who was eight years younger than Biden is this cycle. That’s exactly why it’s easy to imagine how concerns about his age might be politically potent. But it also means we’ve never observed the political effect of something like this before.

The age question was already poised to reassert itself in the campaign — even before the special counsel report on Thursday. If Biden still trailed in May or June, despite the improved economy, his age would probably be the best remaining explanation for his weakness in the polls. And the stronger economy would perhaps leave Biden’s age as the top remaining issue for Republicans to attack. One way or another, Biden was going to have to confront the question. With the special counsel report on Thursday, that confrontation has come early.

Analysis about Biden’s age in this election is mostly speculative. That extends to analysis of the fallout of the report and the resulting news conference. What’s clear is that the report raised the burden on Biden to demonstrate his fitness for the presidency. It reinforced a pre-existing weakness, and it will probably earn the news media attention necessary to break through to the wider public. Against that backdrop, Biden’s news conference became a key test of whether he still has what it takes. —Nate Cohn

by NYTimes