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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — Open letters are the next new thing, so let’s imagine Hillary Clinton sending a simple note to all voters:

Dear Fellow American,

I want to offer you what has always been the Clinton deal. You get peace and prosperity. I put up with endless scrutiny, countless attacks and bottomless mistrust. It’s a good deal for you, and I can handle the rest.

The controversy over Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State is an early skirmish in what will be one of the defining battles of her quest for the White House. Her success will depend in significant part on which aspects the 1990s voters choose to remember.

Clinton’s foes want Americans to recall the investigations, the political circus, and fascinating philosophical discussions over what the meaning of “is” is. Her supporters want every voter who casts a ballot to think about a period when the going was good, when every income group saw its standard of living rise, and when the world beyond our borders looked much safer and more stable.

Round One, the email saga, goes to Clinton’s opponents. Key Democrats outside her circle, realizing how badly this was playing for her, went public to push her hard to come forward, try to end the round, and move on. Many Democrats were thus happy to accept her explanation that she used a private server out of “convenience.” They were willing to trust that the emails she deleted really were about weddings, funerals, and yoga.

They know their party has no real alternative to Clinton. They also share her dim view of a Republican Party willing to pick up any rock to throw the Clintons’ way and remember a GOP that had been happy to push the country to an impeachment drama most voters plainly didn’t want.

It was thus shrewd of her to lead Tuesday’s news conference by assailing the 47 Republican senators who wrote an open letter to Iran’s leadership by way of undermining President Obama’s nuclear negotiations. Pointing to this outlandish move reminded Democrats (and the country as a whole) that she is still dealing with an opposition that scorns the traditional rules and norms of statesmanship and politics. She also gently nudged Obama to remember which side he needs to be on.

Rallying Democrats will likely get Clinton through this storm, even if her responses will not satisfy those who will always wonder which emails she deleted and whether her use of a private server was not only about convenience but also a way of shielding her electronic correspondence from Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests.

But those who say the episode is about Clinton’s alleged sense of entitlement have it wrong. This actually speaks to her hard-earned paranoia about what her opponents — and the media, which in her view so often play ball with them — are willing to do to destroy her. Her mistrust may be understandable in light of the past, but it is profoundly counterproductive.

It would be naive to suggest that being more open with the media always works in favor of the transparent politician. Clinton can highlight the fact that her much-praised answer-every-question news conference on Whitewater in 1994 failed to shut the story down. She also turned out to be right that no good would come the Clintons’ way from naming a special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

On the other hand, she was wrong to resist the earlier advice of then-advisor David Gergen that she and Bill Clinton dump all of the Whitewater documents and let the journalists judge. Gergen has argued that had this happened, “there would have been no Ken Starr, no special prosecutor, no Monica, and history would have been very different.”

Although alternative histories can never be confirmed, Clinton needs to ponder this lesson. To survive the next 20 months, she will have to find her way toward a less viscerally antagonistic view of press scrutiny that distinguishes between partisan muggings and the sorts of questions all presidential candidates inevitably confront.

It may be true that recent days showed she has enemies and harsh critics not only among Republicans but also in mainstream media circles. But focusing solely on them will only encourage her to delay responding to legitimate inquiries and to write off advisors who counsel her toward a less hostile approach to scrutiny.

Paradoxically, the email saga could be highly useful to Clinton’s campaign and her potential presidency — if she draws the right conclusions.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the press after attending the annual Women’s Empowerment Principles event at UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. The potential 2016 U.S. presidential contender defended her use of a personal email account for official communications, saying it was “for convenience.” (Niu Xiaolei/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)