The big question about Hillary Clinton is whether she is better off defending herself on the phony issues or the legitimate ones. She was on her way to clearing her skirts of the big phony ones, Benghazi and emails, before her husband's witless dawdle with the attorney general on a Phoenix tarmac.
Email frenzy will gradually play itself out, too, now that the FBI has concluded that her insisting on keeping her electronic communications on her family server rather than the government's was "extremely careless" but that, like Colin Powell's before her, no harm came of it. It dashed Republican hopes that the FBI would find criminal purpose in her handling a few classified documents on her server.
For Donald Trump, of course, all of that won't matter. He'll continue the wild claims about emails, Benghazi and the rest of the tissueless controversies that have haunted Clinton since the months before and after she became the first lady — her futures-trading venture as a new bride in 1977, the suicide of her friend Vince Foster, her handling of her husband's extramarital flirtations, her privacy-obsessed West Wing blunders — and then the hugely successful fundraising of the Clinton Foundation and her lucrative speechmaking as a private citizen.
All that publicity, originating mainly from the New York Times and the Washington Post, once libeled as the liberal press, have sunk her poll numbers since the high marks of her State Department departure, but they will have a diminishing impact on voting.
Bald-faced lies and wild exaggerations characterize free-for-all primary campaigns, but, when the nation's undivided attention is on two people, facts, real actions and real policy exposition do tend to take over. Trump may make it different, but we shall see.
As the final congressional reports confirmed, Benghazi was the biggest snipe hunt since Whitewater. The millions spent on fruitless investigations of the mob attack on the U.S. embassy, which sought to blame Clinton, were especially bizarre coming on the heels of the investigations of 9/11, where 2,966 people died and 6,000 were injured. The 9/11 Commission, seeking not to rest so terrible a burden on the occupants of the White House, did not even demand or reveal the daily security briefings of the president that warned futilely of terrorist airplane attacks on U.S. targets.
But the real issue was not whether anyone besides the ambassador, who insisted on going to Benghazi at the risk of death, could have prevented the tragedy, but whether U.S. policy contributed to the stateless chaos that Libya had become. Hillary Clinton was the architect of that policy. It was her insistence that the nation take strong military steps to protect insurgents from the mad autocrat Muammar Gaddafi that persuaded President Obama to abandon his own doubts and those of his other advisers and drive Gaddafi from power.
It should be the overriding foreign policy issue of the campaign, the recurring issue of the past 75 years — the American mission of taking sides in the religious, sectarian and tribal rivalries of the Middle East to put people in power whom we think may have values closer to ours and are thus better for the people there. It started with the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 and continued through the modern Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and, to a subtler degree, other Arab principalities. There were some successes but there is a good argument that they loosed the more rabid religious elements and the chaos and terrorism that engulf the region and touch all of us who meddled.
Hillary Clinton backed all those policies — well, she was only 6 at Mossadegh's coup. So, of course, did all the presidential candidates of both parties, except the other Democratic candidates and Rand Paul. Trump claims long after the fact that he opposed them all, but contemporary records show he didn't. Still, it is an issue he hopes to exploit without looking soft on Muslims.
Although Republicans promote an image of Clinton as a pacifist or a weakling abroad but a radical on domestic issues, she is the opposite of both. She shares only with Jeb Bush among all the presidential candidates the sure footing of a centrist. She is the least ideological of all the candidates, with the possible exception of Trump, whose views on everything but immigrants and minorities are endlessly flexible.
Bernie Sanders built a giant following among liberal Democrats and working folks by pointing out her frequent capitulations on conservative causes, from the Iraqi war vote to bankruptcy reform and the capitulations of her husband on welfare reform and telecommunications and banking deregulation. Recalling her role in the Clinton gubernatorial years, I always believed the White House "triangulation" policy was hers. This is not the year of middle-of-the-road politics.
Big question: Can Donald do a Bernie?