For candidates in 2016, transparency is expected

(Photo credit: Chad J. McNeeley/Dept. of Defense)

Hillary Clinton’s response to the controversy swirling around her use of a private email account and server to send and receive email as secretary of state can be summed up in five words from her brief press conference yesterday: “The server will remain private.” When the Clintons came to Washington 22 years ago, that might have been a viable response to legitimate public concerns over what are, after all, the public’s records. But in 2015, such opaqueness on the part of a politician seeking higher office does not reflect the new realities of politics in the digital age.

It’s not 1993 anymore, after all. Back then, Federal Election Commission records were not online, and the Center for Responsive Politics released information on donors to politicians in giant books. To find the names of lobbyists, their clients and their Washington wish lists, one had to visit the basement office in the Capitol complex of the House Clerk and review them in person. To find detailed information on government spending, one could visit a public library that was part of the Federal Depository Library System. Access to government information was far more remote, far less immediate.

That’s a far cry from where we are today. We now have tremendous amounts of online disclosure, all of which has created in the public an expectation for transparency. Records related to the official work of public servants — whether elected to city councils, state legislatures or Congress, or serving in the White House, a gubernatorial mansion or a mayor’s office — are increasingly available for review by the public and the press to keep government accountable. A politician who promises in no uncertain terms to withhold information is immediately suspect, and earns far more skeptical scrutiny from the public and the press.

When there is a whiff of impropriety or the smoke of scandal, the only acceptable response by a candidate — or elected official, for that matter — is full disclosure. After news that New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s political appointees had closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor, he held a lengthy press conference, hitting many of the right notes. But Christie still came up short, because the question in the public’s mind was, “What did he know, and when did he know it?”

Similarly, had Hillary announced in her press conference that the secret email server was already in the hands of the Department of State, and she deeply regretted not fully complying with federal regulations by making the official correspondence it contains available to the government on an ongoing basis, she would have shown that she’d learned something from problems previous administrations, including her husband’s, have had with email in particular, and transparency generally.

She’s made clear that she prizes her privacy, and is willing to go to great lengths to protect it — even if it leads to, at the very least, delays in releasing public records. The real question is, “Does she also accept the public’s expectation of openness and accountability?” Should she become a candidate for president, that question will be among the first asked at many press conferences to come.