Hillary Clinton’s mounting political — and possibly legal — problems over her e-mail server led me to write a column speculating that Democrats might move to install Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee if her poll numbers tank between now and the Democratic convention in late July. Biden might be joined on the ticket by fiery progressive senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in an effort to placate furious backers of Senator Bernie Sanders.
My NRO colleague Andrew C. McCarthy called my suggestion “increasingly plausible,” and pointed out that Democrats had made just such a switch in 2002 when their one-vote Senate majority was in jeopardy. An ethically challenged senator, Bob Torricelli of New Jersey, was trailing his GOP opponent by double-digit margins following release of a devastating Justice Department report on his involvement in bribery and campaign-finance scandals. Democrats made Torricelli “an offer he couldn’t refuse,” forcing him to leave the Senate race only 36 days before the election and replacing him with former senator Frank Lautenberg. “The lateness of the switcheroo denied Republicans a meaningful opportunity to campaign against Lautenberg, in violation of state election laws,” writes McCarthy. “But New Jersey’s solidly Democratic judiciary predictably looked the other way.” Lautenberg went on to win in November (although Democrats still lost their Senate majority, and didn’t regain it until 2006).
There is no doubt Democrats are worried. In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, 59 percent of independents said that their view of Clinton was unfavorable, and 67 percent said that she was “not honest and trustworthy.” Those dismal numbers are equivalent to those of Donald Trump. She is now barely holding her own in polls against Trump.
Should Hillary suffer further damage after a leaked FBI report into her e-mail server or the possible convening of a grand jury, Democrats know the political fallout could be devastating. Howard Krongard, the State Department’s Inspector General from 2005 to 2008, doesn’t believe Hillary Clinton is in danger of indictment from an Obama Justice Department. But there is a chance she could be forced to plea-bargain down to a misdemeanor charge similar to the one that former CIA director David Petraeus secured when he was found to have compromised classified information.
Clinton allies believe she could survive any fallout from a negative FBI report, but the polls may tell a different story and other Democrats may have a different view. As I noted in my column last week: “Unlike Republican delegates, who are ‘bound’ to vote for the winner of their state’s primary or caucus on the first ballot, Democratic delegates are only ‘pledged’ to support the winner. And they are only pledged to vote for a candidate if they can do so ‘in good conscience.’ One Democratic superdelegate I spoke with joked that the political definition of that phrase is ‘can they win in November.’”
With Hillary Clinton not having quite as secure a safety net with delegates as many think, she is vulnerable to a last-minute downdraft in public opinion. That’s exactly what happened to Bob Torricelli in 2002.
Here is how the Associated Press reported the story at the time:
Sen. Robert Torricelli began the year with possibly the best news of his turbulent political career: A federal prosecutor closed a long criminal probe of his campaign finances, saying no charges would be filed. . . . He was a sitting U.S. senator, his party’s most prolific fundraiser and a man who boasted he had never lost an election or a fight in Congress.
All of that made what happened Sept. 30 shocking.
Few believed Torricelli would quit his re-election bid, but he did, in an emotional announcement in which he professed to love his party so much he could not allow an almost certain Democratic defeat.
“Every man has his limits,” Torricelli said in announcing the end of his political career, “and I’ve reached mine.”
“It was a slow collapse of this gigantic skyscraper known as ‘The Torch,’” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said at the time. “Maybe it took a while for people to know the building was collapsing.”
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But a few weeks later, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a letter that “severely admonished” Torricelli because he “evidenced poor judgment” and “displayed a lack of due regard for Senate rules.”
“Most New Jersey political observers assumed he was on top of this somehow. The letter of admonishment came out and the stark reality hit,” Rider University political-science professor David Rebovich told the Associated Press. Soon, newspapers across New Jersey were calling for “The Torch” to resign. His poll numbers plummeted. Democratic leaders began trying to negotiate the terms of his departure from the race. Torricelli tried to brazen it out by threatening to call a news conference saying he was still running. He was told the game was up because Democratic-party support was crumbling. He then held the news conference that he had claimed he would never hold and pulled out. Torricelli said that he and Bill Clinton had just talked on the phone, recalling “all the times I went to the White House and told him in the darkest days that what I admired about him was that you never give up.#…#I admire that man so much.” Referring to Clinton’s fight against impeachment, and to Clinton’s survival of impeachment, Torricelli said, “I apologize to Bill Clinton that I did not have his strength.”
Most people believe that Hillary Clinton would resist till the bitter end any calls for her to leave the presidential race, no matter what the evidence or polls. But Bill Clinton had the nearly united support of Democrats during his impeachment struggle. After Bernie Sanders has won nearly 45 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, the same cannot be said of Hillary Clinton.As for Bob Torricelli, the former U.S. senator is now a real-estate developer and still active in fundraising for Democratic candidates. In April, he surfaced in the news again. The website NJ.com reported that Torricelli had told the Asbury Park Press that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, he “might ask to do something, but only if it was something special, something interesting.” If that didn’t pan out, he admitted he would be interested in running for the U.S. Senate again. Robert Menendez, the state’s current senior senator, is under federal indictment in a case that is reminiscent of Torricelli’s — he is accused of intervening on behalf of a wealthy friend and campaign donor in exchange for luxurious gifts and vacations.
When you’re a political animal — whether your name is Bob Torricelli or Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton — the fundraising and the lust for public office never go away. That is, until someone else stops you before you take your supporters and your party over the cliff.
– John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review.