Would-Be Dem Challengers So Far Silent on Clinton Emails

Would-Be Dem Challengers So Far Silent on Clinton Emails
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It is just the kind of news story that seems tailor made for any of the four prospective Democratic presidential contenders who aren’t named Hillary Clinton. With all of them struggling mightily to be regarded as anything more than a minor distraction in the 2016 primary, here is their chance to throw down the gauntlet once and for all and leave no doubt that they are in it to win it. 

Since The New York Times first reported that Clinton used a private email address to conduct official business when she was secretary of state, the follow-up stories have raised even more questions about why she went to such lengths to sidestep public recordkeeping that is otherwise standard practice in federal agencies. 

But instead of pouncing on the revelations, each of the possible usurpers of Clinton’s presumed place upon the Democratic throne has punted. Instead they have left it to Republicans and the media to sort out the implications of a potential scandal that threatens to reinforce the Clinton family image as secretive and reluctant to play by the rules.  

Asked on Wednesday about the hot water Clinton has found herself in, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told CNN, "I only know what I read in the newspapers, so I just don't know a whole lot about it. That's about all I can say.”

It was an oddly muted response from the typically outspoken independent lawmaker who says he is serious about vying for the nomination. Indeed, he has insisted that he would “run to win” if he does enter the race. 

But if running to win means questioning, even politely, whether a Clinton coronation is ill-advised, Sanders wasn’t having it.  

"You're not going to be the sixteenth writer who asks me about Hillary, are you?" he scolded Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel on Wednesday. "I know you would not do that. You want to ask me about the state of the economy, unemployment, poverty. You would not ask me about my views on Hillary Clinton.” 

There is an old political adage that would, in theory, explain this hesitance to attack: When you’re opponent’s ship is sinking, you don’t fire on it.  

But at this point, the USS Hillary Clinton is not even taking on water. 

In a hypothetical matchup for the Democratic nomination, she leads her nearest competitor -- Vice President Biden -- by 44 percentage points, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.  

And yet, Biden, too, has said nothing in the wake of the revelations. Instead, he’s left it to the lone vocal champion of his 2016 aspirations in South Carolina to lead the meek charge against this formidable prospective opponent.  

Biden’s reticence may be explained, in part, by his current position in the administration -- not to mention the probability that he will not run for president if Clinton does.  

But what about former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who for over a year has been working hard to pave the way for a White House bid of his own and appears inclined to get in no matter what Clinton does?  

O’Malley will be in New Hampshire on Friday to embark on his latest two-day swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state, but his spokesperson told RCP that he has “no plans” to address the Clinton controversy.  

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is equally disinclined to speak up.  

Asked whether Webb -- who launched a presidential exploratory committee last November -- planned to address the situation, spokesperson Craig Crawford’s reply was in keeping with the other would-be contenders’ caginess: “No comment.” 

The collective unwillingness of this group to weigh in lends credence to the conventional wisdom that the former secretary of state will face only token competition in the Democratic primaries -- not loyal opposition, per se, so much as docile sparring partners who are in the ring only for the privilege of getting knocked on their backs.    

Whether they’re seeking to raise awareness of pet issues, angling for the vice presidency, or just sticking around on the off chance that Clinton decides not to run after all, none of the other Democrats in the prospective field has shown any appetite for taking the frontrunner on in a meaningful way.  

There remains plenty of time for that dynamic to change, but the would-be Clinton competitors may never have a better opportunity to stake their claims as serious challengers than they do now.  

Instead, they’ve so far chosen to avoid getting their noses dirty.   

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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