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Emailgate is a political problem for Hillary Clinton, but it also reveals why she'd be an effective president

Hillary Clinton supporters rally in New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton supporters rally in New Hampshire.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's emails have, in a sense, taught us nothing new about her. She's not into transparency, she doesn't like the media (who also doesn't like her), and she's not overly concerned with following the spirit of the rules. To her critics, that makes her a deeply sinister figure.

"This is like the Nixon tapes," a former Nixon staffer named Ken Khachigian told Politico, "Everybody wanted access. We resisted, and then they were eked out in death by a thousand cuts. Finally they were expropriated and now belong to the archives." No less a figure than Bob Woodward trotted out the exact same analogy on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Rupert Murdoch's New York Post editorialized that Clinton is "looking more like Nixon," as did James Robbins in a USA Today column and Michael Gerson in a Washington Post column.

There's something overblown about this — a secret email server is hardly on par with a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia — but it does get something right. From her adventures in cattle trading to chairing a policymaking committee in her husband's White House to running for Senate in a state she'd never lived in to her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results to her email servers, Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas.

This is normally portrayed as a political weakness of hers, and in many ways it is. She can't credibly portray herself as the kind of outsider who's going to clean up a broken and corrupt Washington system, because she is very much a part of that system and has been for years.

But it's also an enormous source of potential strength. Committed Democrats and liberal-leaning interest groups are facing a reality in which any policy gains they achieve are going to come through the profligate use of executive authority, and Clinton is almost uniquely suited to deliver the goods. More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.

Liberals need an iron fist in the White House to make progress

Democrats have almost no chance of securing a majority in the US Senate and even worse odds of securing a majority in the House. So if there is a future for making progressive policy, that future is executive action.

It took Democrats five years to learn this lesson. Even though the basic configuration of forces was visible as soon as the results of the 2010 midterms were in, Democrats in general and the Obama White House in particular were clearly slow to embrace it. The president spent most of the next two years pining after a "grand bargain" on fiscal issues that would cement his legacy and supposedly clear the legislative deck for other agenda items. It didn't happen. Then he turned to the hope that after securing reelection, the GOP "fever" of non-cooperation would break, laying the groundwork for comprehensive immigration reform.

That didn't happen either. So in the final years of his presidency, Obama has reconciled himself to being a president who grinds out policy wins through executive action while facing constant lawsuits and controversy rather than the kind of president who secures huge bipartisan majorities and ushers in a broad era of good feelings.

This turn, though forced by objective reality, very much cuts against the grain of Obama's preferences and political persona.

Hillary Clinton is comfortable winning ugly

Clinton, by contrast, has long been reconciled to her status as a polarizing figure and made a point in 2008 of specifically mocking Obama's aspiration to transcend partisanship.

"Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will sing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and everything will be perfect," she intoned ironically at a Rhode Island rally. "Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusion about how difficult this is going to be."

In this regard she is more of an outlier than might be initially obvious. There is essentially no greater temptation in politics than to believe that you are a unique figure who can personally overcome structural obstacles. Bernie Sanders, for example, appears to genuinely believe that his election would usher in a "political revolution" that sweeps away special interest opposition to his policies.

Clinton's much more realistic assessment likely stems in part from the fact that her husband served eight years in the White House, meaning she would start the job with much more of a veteran's mentality even in her first 100 days. Her view is that the bad guys don't play fair and square, and there's no reason the good guys should unilaterally disarm.

Hillary Clinton DGAF

Presidential power is, in part, a question of laws. There are some things the executive branch can do and others that it can't. But to an extent that's often not sufficiently appreciated, it's largely a question of norms (legally speaking, after all, the president could have his or her team do basically anything, up to and including murder people, and then pardon them) rather than statutory text. Barack Obama, for example, long told immigration activists that he couldn't halt deportations because he's not a king.

When he eventually came around to the opposite view, a key selling point for his actions wasn't just the text of laws or the inherent possibilities of prosecutorial discretion — it was a series of precedents culminating in a 1990 "family fairness" measure enacted by George H.W. Bush that made the difference. But while Obama did have precedent on his side, he also clearly did make a break with the past — taking action that was both larger in scope and more clearly square in the center of partisan controversy than any previous president.

Clinton's record in politics is characterized by a clear willingness to push harder than the typical public figure against existing norms. There was no winnable Senate race for her to enter in Illinois or Arkansas in 2000, so she ran in New York instead. Barack Obama forbade her from employing Sidney Blumenthal at the State Department, so she employed him at her family's foundation instead. Sandy Berger faced criminal penalties for destroying classified documents at the National Archives, but that didn't stop Clinton from informally employing him as an adviser on sensitive Middle East peace negotiations.

She decides what she wants to do, in other words, and then she sets about finding a way to do it — exactly the mentality any Democrat would need to move the needle on policy in 2017.

A candidate for our time

None of this means that you need to like Clinton. On many issues she'll push executive power in somewhat unorthodox ways in pursuit of an agenda conservatives hate. On a handful of issues — likely those most directly connected to foreign policy — she'll push executive power harder than Obama did, in pursuit of an agenda that liberals will find much less congenial than Obama's.

But she truly is the perfect leader for America's moment of permanent constitutional crisis: a person who cares more about results than process, who cares more about winning the battle than being well-liked, and a person who believes in asking what she can get away with rather than what would look best. In other words, as nervous as the rumblings of scandal around her emails make many Democrats, the exact same qualities that led to the server drama are the ones that, if she wins, will make her capable of delivering on the party's priorities in a way few others could.