There is a lot of chatter going on right now about how Hillary Clinton will take on Donald Trump. Of course, everyone has an opinion on that. Phillip Rucker identifies the challenge.
Plotting a general election strategy against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s advisers joke that their challenge feels like Lucille Ball’s in the famed chocolate factory episode of “I Love Lucy.”
As truffles fly down a conveyor belt, Lucy frantically tries to wrap each one before they pass. Falling behind, she stuffs some under her hat, down her blouse and in her mouth. For the Clinton campaign, the conveyor belt is Trump’s mouth and Twitter feed — and the chocolates are his inflammatory statements.
Rucker goes on to describe the campaign’s overall message:
Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.
“Our thesis is that this isn’t just a difference in world views akin to, say, a policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008. This is somebody who’s uniquely dangerous and disqualified,” said Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary.
That second paragraph is critical because, as I’ve said before, Trump is the epitome of post-policy nihilism. A focus on his policies would not only give them a credence they don’t deserve (after all, we’re talking about virtual walls and rhetorical deportations), he’ll simply change them if they present a problem for him (i.e., minimum wage).
As I’ve read some of the advice people are giving Clinton about how to do this, one question keeps coming up in my mind: who is the audience and what are you trying to accomplish with them? I suspect that one of the reasons liberal pundits have applauded the way Sen. Elizabeth Warren has gone after Trump is that she does a tremendous job of saying the things liberals want to hear. That is an important role in any campaign because it revs up the opposition to Trump and gets people invested in the election.
As we’ve seen over the course of the primaries, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything anyone can say about Trump that will dissuade his most loyal supporters. But there is probably a pretty large swath of the electorate that falls between them and committed Democrats. That includes independents and yes, even some Republicans. Framing Trump as “uniquely dangerous and disqualified” to be president will be an important message for that audience.
But the other question all of this raises is: who is the messenger? Clinton herself will need to balance this focus on Trump with her own affirmative case about what she wants to do as president. That will pose an interesting challenge when it comes time for the debates. Getting under Trump’s skin and igniting an ignorant response from him while maintaining her own composure will be one part of that. But she will also want to talk about her own policy proposals and not get dragged into the gutter the way Rubio did with his “small, ummm… hands” comment. That was great theater – but bad for his campaign.
Clinton surrogates, be they other politicians like Sen. Warren or outside groups like Priorities USA, won’t face that problem. They are free to simply focus on Trump – and will likely do so pretty effectively from what we’ve seen so far.
Rucker got an interesting quote from Trump himself about all of this:
Trump, who prides himself on campaigning from the gut, argues that Clinton’s attacks come across to voters as overly programmed and political. He said he watched Clinton’s interview last week with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo — where she said for the first time that she thought Trump was not qualified to be president — and thought she looked “totally scripted.”
“A president has to have great instincts because oftentimes a president won’t have time not to have instincts,” Trump said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “You have to be able to move decisively after your brain and your instinct have made a decision. You have to rely on yourself more than your people. Hillary relies on all of these people that have her perhaps going in 15 different ways.”
That is Trump’s spin on things. What he’s really saying is that he will campaign as the hare (System 1 thinking) to Clinton’s tortoise (System 2 thinking). As President Obama might say: “Please proceed, Trump.” Because we all know who won that race.