Is Hillary Clinton Honest?

11/05/2016 12:21 | Updated 11 May 2016

Is Hillary Clinton honest? It is the question that has haunted the Democratic contest, a spectre never quite out of sight in the debates and on the campaign trail. Recently, her defenders, led by Jill Abramson in the Guardian, have begun to insist that contrary to the popular assumption, she in fact is fundamentally honest (and, rather more worryingly, they have also taken to tainting those who question her honesty with accusations that they are dancing to the Republicans' tune). Often their evidence for their claim is her rating on the website Politifact, which rates a formidable 71% of her statements varying degrees of 'True' (True, Mostly True, or Half True), of which 49% are Mostly True or True.

I have no intention of criticising Politifact, which has after all a Pulitzer Prize at its back. Nor do I have Jill Abramson's personal acquaintance with Clinton to support my impressions. But it does seem to me that a summary of Politifact's ratings is not sufficient to assess Clinton's honesty. That summary includes impersonal statements of fact, and Clinton, the most intelligent of either presidential field, very rarely gets her facts wrong. The more pertinent question is whether she twists the truth to defend herself or to discredit opponents.

As such, I have analysed Hillary Clinton's statements, as listed on Politifact, to filter out those statements that relate to a perceived electoral weakness of her own - namely trade agreements, Wall Street and big money, Benghazi, e-mails, allegations of fixing the primary schedule and avoiding public appearances, the environment, moderation on healthcare, and electability - and those statements that relate to the records of her opponents. This therefore cut out statements in her record like "Arizona schools rank 45th in the nation, dead last in funding per student" (Mostly True), about which she has no reason to lie, and from which she would reap no significant political gain if she were to do so. I have taken statements from her 2008 campaign as well as her 2016 campaign. The weakness of this approach is that some statements occupy a grey area between attacks on opponents and simple expressions of fact. For example, when she says that "Gun violence is by far the leading cause of death for young African American men, outstripping the next nine causes of death combined" (True), this might be a simple factual statement to press upon listeners the necessity of tightening gun legislation, or it might be an indirect slight on Sanders, whose chequered record on gun control she has repeatedly attacked. In these cases, I have tried to judge from the context whether she intended to draw a comparison between herself and another candidate or otherwise make reference to them. I have generally included only those statements in which it is clear that she was attacking another candidate, but those who disagree with my classifications are welcome to investigate the contexts themselves and reevaluate my conclusions. For the sake of transparency, I shall add other caveats: I am not an American; I am too young to remember the last Clinton presidency; and I am a supporter of Bernie Sanders, though obviously from a distance. All of these might have subconsciously biased my conclusions. My methodology is, at any rate, available for scrutiny.

Among the 23 statements defending perceived weaknesses in her record, 4 were True (17%), 3 were Mostly True (13%), 6 were Half True (26%), 5 were Mostly False (22%), 4 were False (17%) and 1 was given a rating of 'Pants on Fire', indicating a truly outrageous falsehood (4%). This would give her a respectable, but significantly diminished, total rating for the top three 'True' scores of 56%, but of just 30% for the top two. Among the 61 statements on the website in which she attacked opponents, 13 were True (21%), 14 were Mostly True (23%), 14 were Half True (23%), 11 were Mostly False (18%), 8 were False (13%), and once again 1 was rated 'Pants on Fire' (2%). This gives her top three Truth scores and top two Truth scores of 67% and 44% respectively, both impressive figures.

The other element of Clinton's trustworthiness raised by her opponents is her supposed penchant for flip-flopping on important issues, allowing her political positions to be shaped by public opinion. Politifact once again has us covered: it has verified three flip-flops by Clinton in the last eight years. To those I would add this statement that she made in 2008 castigating Barack Obama for his criticisms of her healthcare plan, in which she demanded to know, 'Since when do Democrats attack each other on universal healthcare?', since she has been casting doubt on Sanders' plan for a single-payer system throughout this campaign. I would also add this allegation by Elizabeth Warren that she changed her mind on a bankruptcy bill as a senator (Clinton's rebuttal is here).

This analysis suggests that Clinton is rather more disingenuous than usual when defending herself from other people's attacks, but only slightly more so when attacking the positions of her political opponents. It qualifies her supporters' defence more than it overturns it. However, this conclusion is not satisfactory. An examination of some of Clinton's 'Half True' statements reveals that she is adept at omitting vital context from an accusation in a way that makes it entirely misleading but not entirely false.

Sometimes, these half-truths serve to muddy the waters and prevent anyone from taking a clear shot at her. This tactic was particularly prevalent in the latter stages of the 2008 campaign, when Clinton justified her decision to continue her campaign by comparing her position to that of Bill Clinton in 1992 and those of Robert Kennedy's opponents in 1968, implying that both races had held late surprises which she might emulate. She neglected to mention that in the former case, Clinton was the presumptive nominee by March, and in the latter, the presidential race began considerably later than the 2008 race. Probably the greatest fudge of that year was her claim that she deserved the nomination on account of her victory in the popular vote, ignoring the complications of results from caucuses and the invalid Florida and Michigan primaries. To be fair, Politifact noted these discrepancies, but it remains the case that in public statements designed to afford herself political advantage, Clinton was deliberately misleading. In the current campaign, she has sought to present herself as an opponent of Wall Street by indicating her statements of support for more banking regulations before the financial crisis. Her precise quote was, "I was alarmed by this gathering storm and called for addressing risks of derivatives, cracking down on subprime mortgages and improving financial oversight." However, she is recorded as having spoken on the subject in the Senate only in March of 2007 - certainly before the crisis struck, but certainly too late to stop it. This is hardly the record of a perspicacious Wall Street sceptic. Nonetheless, the statement was technically true and was given that rating by Politifact.

Perhaps more seriously still, Clinton employs the same tactic against her opponents, willingly neglecting essential context in order to discredit them. In 2008, she attacked Obama over his support for an energy bill with entirely inaccurate figures - it was a smear, but its veracity was sufficient that it was rated Half True. In the current campaign, she has repeatedly twisted Sanders' record in such a way as to be technically truthful but nonetheless misleading. She claimed that Sanders "voted... with hard-line Republicans for indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants" and that he also supported Minutemen; in truth, Sanders voted the same way as several Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, and the legislation in question did not apply to all undocumented migrants but only those facing deportation (she later amended that statement, but the damage, arguably, was done). In Michigan, Clinton accused Sanders of having opposed a bailout for the auto industry. It turns out that the bill to which she was referring was a bill which allocated most of its funding to the financial institutions. Her implicit argument, therefore, was that Sanders should have voted to inject vast quantities of money into the financial institutions that were culpable for the crash, in order that a small portion of it would find its way into the hands of the auto industry. Sanders did in fact vote for a previous bill that would have given money directly to the industry. Clinton has claimed that Sanders called Obama "weak" and "a disappointment"; in fact he has described Obama's deals with the Republicans weak, and suggested that the American people are disappointed in his performance. Obviously, Sanders' comments about Obama, and his votes on bailouts and migration, all need to be scrutinised. Many might feel that there is no excuse for his real language and actions on these issues. But Clinton has chosen to misrepresent his views in order to discredit him in the eyes of primary voters, and this has contributed to the impression that she is fundamentally disingenuous.

Another factor in this impression is her penchant for promulgating falsehoods which offer obvious political gain. Of course these are very rare, but they are also staggeringly cynical. Last year, she told a group of Iowans that all of her grandparents had been migrants - this was false. She has insisted that she and her husband were broke when they left the White House - false, but with obvious political utility. Most famous of all in this category of statement was her bizarre claim that she was threatened by sniper fire landing in Bosnia in 1996, which she used throughout the 2008 to bolster her foreign policy credentials. Ironically, as has been consistently pointed out, her immense intelligence and formidable experience already give her all of the credentials that she needs to be a competent, if likely technocratic, president; she does not need to falsify her record. Yet on occasion she has been caught propagating outright lies for the sake of her own political advantage.

Of course, Clinton herself has been the constant target of outrageous lies, from political opponents and from random internet graphics, so it would not be surprising if she had developed a siege mentality that encouraged half-truths and exaggerations on her own behalf. Supposed female two-facedness is also an enduring and pervasive sexist trope of which she has no doubt been the victim. Is she any different from any other politician? I do not know; certainly, in an election year which has featured Donald Trump, for whom truth and falsehood simply have no meaning, and Ted Cruz, whose natural element is misinformation, Clinton looks quite straightforward. But the claim was that she is "fundamentally honest", whereas an analysis of her actual statements reveals that she has manipulated factual details to discredit opponents and even resorted to outright falsehood to enhance her record. I rate the claim 'Mostly False'.