Weiner Scandal Puts Clinton Political Machine to the Test

Hillary Clinton's enemies are hoping the debacle in New York City will cast doubt on the potential 2016 presidential candidate — but her allies say she's handled it perfectly

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Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with her deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin, in New York City on Sept. 20, 2011

Anthony Weiner’s floundering mayoral candidacy has tested the limits of political forgiveness, the patience of New Yorkers and the imaginations of tabloid headline writers everywhere. But it may also have served as the first test for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her allies as they weigh another run for the White House.

The Weiner drama has not only ensnared one of Clinton’s closest aides, Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, but also reminded a scandal-weary public of the Clintons’ checkered past. After all, Clinton, whose 2008 campaign was plagued by infighting, finger pointing and worse, is no stranger to political — and sex — scandals. But the potential 2016 presidential candidate, supporters say, has adeptly managed the crisis from afar, distancing herself from Weiner through intermediaries and remaining quietly loyal to his embattled spouse.

“They’ve handled this perfectly so far — supporting Huma and using surrogates to blast Weiner,” says Adam Goldberg, a former special associate counsel to President Bill Clinton who handled the Monica Lewinsky investigation, and founder of crisis-management firm Trident Advisors.

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Republicans are betting that Weiner’s antics will heighten voters’ sense of “Clinton fatigue” — that by 2016 they won’t want to relive eight years of high drama and investigations. But they have also seized on the Weiner affair as an opportunity not just to create a cloud around Hillary Clinton, but also her husband. Both Clintons remain tremendously popular, with the former President playing a potent role on the 2012 campaign trail, even overshadowing President Obama at last year’s Democratic National Convention.

Weiner only helped the GOP’s efforts when he implicitly compared his situation to Bill Clinton’s White House sex scandal. “Weiner’s comparison to Bill might’ve been fair, but it was bad form and bad politics,” says Goldberg. “Fair because what Bill did was so much worse, bad form because of the Clintons’ support for him, and bad politics because he further alienated every Hillary supporter and hurt his wife’s career.”

Clinton-world repaid Weiner with anonymous sniping from the pages of the New York Times to the New York Post, further accelerating his slide in the polls. The Post cited one New York Democrat as saying, “The Clintons are upset with the comparisons that the Weiners seem to be encouraging — that Huma is ‘standing by her man’ the way Hillary did with Bill, which is not what she in fact did.” This provoked Weiner to insult his former patrons, further insulating them from his problems. “I am not terribly interested in what people who are not voters in the city of New York have to say,” he said in reference to the Clintons, the New York Daily News reported, a remark greeted with relief by those in Hillary Clinton’s orbit for creating public distance between the two camps.

That distance is now a gulf. The New York Times reported Thursday in great detail that Hillary Clinton’s ferociously loyal spokesman Philippe Reines swore at Weiner when he was informed of his post-resignation explicit communications. Reines then advised Abedin to distance herself from her husband’s campaign, the Times reported.

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But Hillary Clinton’s critics have also sought to use Weiner’s scandal as evidence of a broader trend in Clintonian politics. “The Huma-Hillary-Danger saga is déjà vu of some of the worst Clinton-land attributes,” says Tim Miller, executive director of the Republican America Rising PAC. “There’s anonymous leaking and infighting, an addiction to drama, and hunger for power over substance. Hillary’s nowhere on the big-issue debates of the moment but all over the tabloids. Democrats claim they’ve learned their lesson from the scandal-plagued ’90s and drama-soaked 2008 campaign, but the last week has been a replay of both. That doesn’t bode well for 2016.”

Even some Democrats admit that people in the Clintons’ orbit bring a lot of drama to the table. One former Obama campaign aide pointed to the bizarre leak about a Washington, D.C., dinner this week between Reines and Abedin to CNN. The source for the report was apparently deep enough in the inner circle to push back on assertions that the Clintons are “livid” about being compared to Weiner. The Obama aide said that if Hillary Clinton ran, the episode should serve as an example of just the type of process-driven drama to avoid.

Supporters insist Hillary Clinton made the right decision in standing by her trusted staffer. “Being loyal to Huma is important, I think, to show they can stick things like this out and be loyal to good people,” said one top Democratic communicator. “No drama from them here might show they’ve learned from the chaos, throw-people-under-the-bus approach of 2008.”

“As long as Hillary avoids photo ops with Huma in the next couple of months, this won’t affect Hillary’s run at all, and Hillary’s response simply reaffirms the lesson she learned long ago: fight back hard and fast,” Goldberg says. “That said, it’s impossible to see Huma having a high-profile campaign post if she and Weiner are still together — you don’t want people thinking Weiner photos when hearing your message.”

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