And Vice President Joe Biden remains ready to hop in the race if Clinton fully implodes. The nomination is still Clinton's for the taking but there are fallback options.
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Beyond the email scandal—which is likely to drag on throughout the campaign—Clinton keeps getting hit by revelations of unsavory donations to her family's charitable foundation. The Wall Street Journal reported that while Clinton was secretary of state, the foundation accepted large donations—as much as $68 million—from foreigners with ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes with major interests before the U.S. government. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that the foundation's biggest arm, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, in 2010 reneged on a pledge to the Obama administration to disclose all donors.
On top of all this, Clinton was still out on the road this week taking big money for a paid speaking engagement, in this case to a national camping group. Clinton earns hundreds of thousands of dollars for these paid speeches, and her remarks came as other would-be 2016 candidates, including Scott Walker and Rick Perry, were out talking to voters, for free. It was to be Clinton's last paid speaking gig, but it will only add to criticism that since leaving office she has been out vacuuming up millions—including from big banks like Goldman Sachs—in ways that could leave her out of touch with the now populist-leaning Democratic Party, not to mention the rest of a nation that is still struggling with minimal wage gains and slow economic growth.
To be sure, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would face many of these same questions. But Bush gave up paid speaking gigs a while ago. And he is by no means a lock for the nomination.
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None of these current issues will be fatal to Clinton's candidacy. She remains among the most formidable nonincumbent candidates in recent history. But they all argue for one thing: Clinton should get over her fear of the campaign trail and announce her candidacy right away.
Right now she is getting defined as an above-the-law elitist who seems to have something to hide. An announcement would allow her to immediately change the subject and start to make the case for why she should lead the nation after President Barack Obama leaves office.
Because the biggest problem Clinton faces is not the email scandal, the foundation issues or the big money speeches. It's that it is not at all clear why she wants to be president, other than to make history as the first woman to hold the office. That's no small thing, of course. It will draw huge numbers of women to her cause. But to win over men in sufficient numbers and bring in younger and minority voters who don't always show up at the polls, she has to be about something else.
How will she propose to kick-start a sluggish economy and reverse the trend of wealth accruing mainly to top earners? She can't just run on the economic policies of the Bill Clinton years because they are both long gone and are now widely distrusted on the left, as witnessed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren's successful demonization of anything associated with the "Bob Rubin wing" of the Democratic Party. Rubin, a long-time Wall Street executive, served as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary.
Clinton has very strong credentials on foreign policy, an issue area likely to take up much of the 2016 debate with the expansion of ISIS, tenuous relations with Israel and the ongoing nuclear threat from Iran, among other hot spots. But even there, Clinton will have to articulate a fresh set of policies that soften her hawkish edges for a public weary of war and eager for new approaches to Russia and the Middle East.
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All of these are big, meaty issues, and Clinton obviously has the background and intellectual firepower to take them on in ways many candidates do not. But for her sake, the sooner she does it—and stops fending off ugly stories about her email and fundraising habits—the better.
—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.