Politics & Policy

Democrats Are Right to Worry About an October Surprise

(Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
When a fundraising scandal threatened his reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton stonewalled. Will Hillary be able to do the same with the Clinton Foundation?

Much of the media are already declaring the election an all-but-certain win for Hillary Clinton. Today, the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, using polls plus historical and economic data, gives Hillary a 74.7 percent chance of being elected. But smart Democrats are resisting overconfidence; they know a lot can happen before the election. “American politics is freaky and can turn on a dime and in the other direction in one news cycle,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon admitted last week,

Forecasts like the one from FiveThirtyEight are often based on a combination of polls, economic conditions, and factors such as the popularity of the incumbent president. They clearly don’t include the inevitable “x factors” in a campaign, such as the performances in presidential debates, possible terrorist attacks, and mega gaffes by one or more of the candidates. They also ignore the impact a late-breaking scandal can have on a race. Donald Trump has to worry about a potential leak from his IRS tax returns (it happened to Mitt Romney in 2012). Hillary Clinton has known since the Democratic convention in Philadelphia just how disruptive a WikiLeaks revelations can be — the leaks of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee cost chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz her job.

Clinton must also remember what happened exactly 20 years ago during her husband’s campaign for reelection. That campaign has so far been recalled this year mostly for the skillful decision by Haley Barbour’s Republican National Committee to put some distance between GOP congressional incumbents and presidential nominee Bob Dole. The RNC urged voters not to “hand Clinton a blank check,” in the event he won reelection, by turning control of Congress over to the Democrats. It worked: Democrats actually lost two seats in the Senate and gained only two seats in the House.

But another story emerged from the 1996 election, centering around how Bill Clinton had to run out the clock on a growing campaign-finance scandal that in the last month of the campaign changed the dynamics of what had been a complete cakewalk of a race. Clinton ended up winning by eight points over Bob Dole (49 percent to 41 percent, with Ross Perot taking 9 percent of the vote). But that loss was not nearly as bad as Republicans had feared. Six final pre-election polls had Clinton winning by anywhere from eleven to 16 points. The New York Times/CBS poll was the most off-base, showing Clinton beating Dole 53 to 35 percent. CNN’s final tracking poll had Clinton ahead by 16 points. The respected Pew Research Center issued a final poll showing Clinton ahead 52 percent to 38 percent, a 14-point lead almost double the actual results on Election Day. 

RELATED: House Clinton and the Wages of Corruption

Those bad numbers prompted political experts Michael Barone and Everett Ladd to call for an investigation into how the polling industry had bungled the numbers so badly. Bill Clinton had his own answer. He told journalist Elizabeth Drew after the election that negative coverage of the fundraising scandal involving DNC finance vice chairman John Huang allowed Republicans to keep Congress and tighten the 1996 election.

A former Commerce Department official, Huang was a top fundraiser who scooped up suspect foreign cash for Team Clinton. Throughout October 1996, Huang dodged subpoenas and reporters. The dimensions of the scandal became clear only after the election, when reporters uncovered ties between Huang associates and the Communist regime in Beijing. 

A 1998 Senate Government Affairs Committee report on the scandal found “strong circumstantial evidence” that a great deal of foreign money had illegally entered the country in an attempt to influence the 1996 election. Johnny Chung, a bagman for the Asian billionaire Riady family, confessed that at least $35,000 of his donations to the Clinton campaign and the DNC had come from a Chinese aerospace executive — a lieutenant colonel in the Chinese military; Chung said the executive had helped him meet three times with General Ji Shengde, the head of Chinese military intelligence. Mr. Chung testified that General Shengde had told him: “We really like your president. We hope he will be reelected. I will give you $300,000 U.S. dollars. You can give it to . . .  your president and the Democratic party.”

RELATED: The Boston Globe Comes Dangerously Close to Holding Hillary Clinton Accountable

The sprawling fundraising scandal ultimately led to 22 guilty pleas on various violations of election laws. Among the Clinton fundraisers and friends who pleaded guilty were John Huang, Charlie Trie, James Riady, and Michael Brown, son of the late Clinton commerce secretary Ron Brown. But a lot was never learned, even after the revelations that Clinton had personally authorized offering donors Oval Office meetings and use of the Lincoln bedroom. A total of 120 participants in the fundraising scandal either fled the country, asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, or otherwise avoided questioning. The stonewalling worked, just as Hillary Clinton hopes it will with the Clinton Foundation, her private e-mail server, and Benghazi.

#share#But there is one change that might undermine the stone wall: The Internet is ubiquitous, as it was not in 1996. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told CNN on August 1, “We have quite a lot of material (from the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the Clinton Foundation), so I think we will stagger it in different batches when we are ready to publish each batch.” Assange has told reporters he plans to detonate his e-mail bombs at key points during the campaign, such as just prior to each of the three presidential debates.

We already have extensive evidence that special-interest donors to the Clinton Foundation sought favors from a responsive State Department when Hillary Clinton was U.S. secretary of state. We know from Peter Schweitzer’s movie (and the book of the same name), Clinton Cash, that the State Department helped move along an infamous deal that granted the Russians control of more than 20 percent of the uranium production here in the United States. (Clinton Cash is available for free viewing online.) The company involved in acquiring the American uranium was a very large donor to — you guessed it — the Clinton Foundation.

#related#What more could we learn from WikiLeaks in the weeks leading up to the November election? Just having the tip of the John Huang fundraising scandal surface before the 1996 election changed the dynamics of that race, reducing the size of Dole’s loss and altering the congressional outcome.

Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister in the early 1960s, was once asked what he most feared in politics. “Events, dear boy, events,” he replied. 

Whether it’s leaks from Donald Trump’s tax returns or Hillary Clinton’s e-mail, there are a lot of possible “events” between now and when we will finally learn the results of the November election.

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