Were you surprised by the way the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails ended? If so, you either did not live through the 1990s or have mercifully suppressed the memories.

The probe into the private email server the presumptive Democratic nominee used back when she was secretary of state had all the makings of a vintage Clinton scandal from that bygone era of Spice Girls CDs.

There was the unrealistic expectation among Republicans that this would finally be the scandal that did the Clintons in, maybe even put them behind bars. There was the over-the-top indignant Democratic defenses ignoring the billowing smoke, much less denying all possibility of fire. Then, finally, there were the people with the power to make a difference ultimately deciding to lecture the Clintons, but not to impose any real consequences. Here James Comey was just following in the footsteps of Joe Lieberman circa 1998.

Of course, there was one big difference then: Lieberman was making a moral judgment of Bill’s conduct. Comey was laying out a series of findings that might have gotten lesser mortals in a bit of a legal jam or at the very least jeopardized their jobs and security clearances.

But when it comes to Clinton scandals, Republicans always manage to seem a little too eager, a little too partisan. They pursue serious allegations against the Clintons and more frivolous ones with equal vigor. In this, they are almost enablers of the Clintons’ most shameless defenders.

Republicans either overreach, such as pursuing an unpopular impeachment despite no realistic path to conviction in the Senate, or miss the forest for the trees, such as never expanding the Benghazi probe into a full-fledged look at the catastrophic Clinton-led Libya intervention.

Against such unsympathetic antagonists, after all, it is easy to keep insisting blithely that it is “time to move on” (how the progressive group MoveOn.org got its name) or that Republican witch hunters are just getting in the way of the Clintons focusing like a laser beam on the economy.

Clinton scandals have almost become woven into the political fabric. Conservative consumers may flock to mugs and T-shirts saying, “I’m ready for Hillary to go to prison” or showing her in an orange jumpsuit, but to everyone else, it’s just ambient sound.

Even when reasonable people can disagree about the utility of throwing the book at the Clintons over the underlying scandal, the controversies often become defined by disingenuous catchphrases: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman;” “no controlling legal authority;” “it depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

At a minimum, Clinton’s key email defenses appear to be false. She said no emails on her server were classified at the time when she sent or received them. The FBI found otherwise. She said there was no chance her server was hacked. Comey acknowledged it was at least possible, while “[w]e do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account.”

Clinton insisted that she did turn over all work-related emails, but that’s not what the investigation found. Moreover, Comey’s statement included this: “It is also likely that there are other work-related emails that they did not produce to state and that we did not find elsewhere, and that are now gone because they deleted all emails they did not return to state, and the lawyers cleaned their devices in such a way as to preclude complete forensic recovery.”

Even her claim that this whole unusual arrangement was prompted by the simplicity of using a single device didn’t survive FBI scrutiny.

Since Clinton wasn’t indicted, her supporters will claim she was exonerated and they are vindicated, despite “extreme carelessness” in handling sensitive government data, “evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information,” situations where “any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position… should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”

“To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences,” Comey said. “To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions.”

Congressional Republicans will still try to ensure there are consequences for Clinton, with a series of hearings and outraged statements. But these efforts will go nowhere, because they will not be taken seriously by many people who are neither partisan Republicans nor dedicated Clinton loathers.

Take it from anybody old enough to have seen Clueless in the theaters when it first came out: If you’ve seen one Clinton scandal, you’ve seen them all.

The Week

W. James Antle III