In our soundbite culture, memes develop about politicians that become almost impossible to break. We’ve seen that over the last few years with regards to Paul Ryan. Much of the media defines him as a “wonk,” no matter how unserious his policy proposals actually turn out to be. In the 2000 election, George Bush was the affable guy people wanted to have a beer with, while Dick Cheney was the adult with gravitas.
This is likely why Hillary Clinton is spending so much of her time talking about Donald Trump lately. She is defining him for the public and the press in a way that his Republican rivals during the primary couldn’t. It’s not just that they were afraid of offending his supporters (although I’m sure that was a big part of it). But it’s also because challenging him meant taking on things that also made them vulnerable. When Trump became so extreme about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, it was all based on policies and rhetoric that Republicans had been relying on themselves. The case they were left with was to suggest that they would simply be either a little bit more or less extreme than Trump. None of them could successfully challenge the very basis of his extremism.
Hillary Clinton and Democrats face no such limits. Over the last couple of weeks, she and her surrogates have mounted blistering attacks on the presumptive Republican nominee. It is almost as if you can hear a collective sigh of relief from those who kept silent during the Republican slugfest of a primary. The challenges to Trump are not unfounded in the way attacks can sometimes be in elections. They are all things we’ve been noticing for a while now, but haven’t seen articulated very well.
It is also interesting to observe Trump’s response to all of this. He is doing the only thing he knows how to do – dive into the gutter and lash out. For example, after Clinton’s speech yesterday in which she challenged Trump’s fitness to be commander-in-chief, he said that she should go to jail over the email issue. That kind of thing will play very well with his rabid supporters – but when it comes to addressing his fitness for office, it simply reinforces Clinton’s message about him. This tweet sums it up pretty well:
@HillaryClinton pulling off what no GOP Trump challenger could: Taking him on in a way that makes her seem bigger, not smaller, than he
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) June 2, 2016
I’ve heard some people suggest that Clinton is spending too much time talking about Trump and not enough on her own vision and proposals. My response to that would be that there are still five months left in this campaign. She has plenty of time to do that. But at the outset, she is setting the meme in place that will define Donald Trump throughout the election season.