If recent polls from more than half a dozen reputable polling organizations are to be believed, of the six leading Republican candidates for president Donald Trump is the one least likely to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election.
Polling can be and has often been wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, but Trump’s electability gap has been a consistent feature of his primary campaign as a fire-breathing self-funding willing-to-say-anything non-politician politician.
However, even if you believe (as I do) the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton is “clearly itching to run against Mr. Trump,” he nevertheless poses a substantial threat to her presidential aspirations in advance of November’s elections.
The Donald has a remarkable ability to break through conventional restrictions on acceptable political conversation and to make people think about issues in ways opponents call “extreme” but which resonate among much of the American public. Beyond his base, he is having this effect, whether for good or for ill, on millions of Americans who would not consider voting for Mr. Trump in a general election.
It’s not so much that Donald Trump breaks new ground in his pronouncements; rather he amplifies what many are already thinking even if in some cases, such as his persistent denigration of free trade as “America losing” or the suggestion that most Mexican illegal aliens are dangerous criminals, the Trump base and their brash human amplifier are wrong.
When Trump wonders aloud about American weakness overseas, about America not being respected anymore by world leaders, and about the wisdom of allowing thousands of unvettable Syrian Muslims into the country, he is putting words to worries that nag at millions of Americans including many outside of his base and outside of the Republican Party. Indeed, any rational voter — which is to say anyone who does not think that President Obama is doing a good job — should be concerned about these issues.
A large part of Trump’s appeal is his willingness to say things that other politicians won’t say. In that willingness he comes across to many, especially the lightly informed, as a noble truth-teller. And even for those who would not vote for an arrogant often-wrong blowhard, Trump nevertheless plants in their minds toxic seeds that have roughly the same effect on his opponents’ favorability ratings that Roundup has on the weeds in your lawn.
He’s done it to Jeb Bush, he’s done it to Ben Carson, he did it early on to Rick Perry and then to Scott Walker — feats that he isn’t shy to remind us about. And now his aim has turned toward Hillary Clinton. Unless she is some sort of GMP (Genetically Modified Politician) who is immune to political Roundup, she should be very worried.
In Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate (the timing says a lot about whether the DNC actually wants anybody watching), Hillary Clinton claimed that Donald Trump “is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter” and that “they are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
Even the liberal-leaning Politifact.com rated Clinton’s claim as false, concluding that “Clinton has turned speculative left-of-center rhetoric into fact” and that “evidence does not exist” to support her slanderous accusation.
As NBC’s Chuck Todd put it on Sunday, “no fact checker has been able to back up her claim on that.”
Trump often says that he rarely hits first, that instead he is a “counter-puncher.” And so the counter-punching against Hillary Clinton begins.
During a Monday morning telephone interview on NBC’s Today show, Trump took a big swing: “I will demand an apology from Hillary.…She lies about e-mails. She lies about Whitewater. She lies about everything. She will be a disaster as president of the United States.” (On Monday, a Clinton spokesman said “Hell, no” when asked whether Hillary would be offering an apology.)
This follows a similar Trump conversation with Todd on Meet the Press: “It’s just another Hillary lie. She lies like crazy about everything. Whether it’s trips where she was being gunned down in a helicopter or an airplane, she’s a liar and everybody knows that.”
And, in typical Trump style, he got personal, referring to Hillary Clinton’s returning late from a break in the debate and walking across the stage while cameras were rolling: “Hillary’s not strong. Hillary’s weak, frankly. She’s got no stamina. She’s got nothing.” Chuck Todd tried to interject with “Let me stop you there” but Trump continued: “She couldn’t even get back on the stage. Nobody even knows what happened to her. It’s like she went off and went (unintelligible).”
Todd asked incredulously, “Why do you keep going with this?” Trump stayed on message: “Because we need a president with great strength and great stamina. And Hillary doesn’t have that.”
The Boston Globe reports that Mrs. Clinton was probably late because she refused to use a stall in a university bathroom while someone else — who happened to be a female staffer for former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley — was using another stall. How about that for haughtiness?
On Monday night in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump said he didn’t want to talk about why Hillary was late to the stage because it was “too disgusting.” The implication of the comment makes me wonder, yet again, why there are any women would even briefly consider supporting this schoolyard bully.
Still, it’s a tactic that has worked well for Trump in the past: When in mid-August he began painting former front-runner Jeb Bush as “low-energy,” Bush’s poll numbers cratered. And although Trump had surpassed Bush’s polling numbers prior to attacking Bush’s personality, the former Florida governor has never again even held second place (and he’s now in fifth place) among the GOP field.
A few months later, Trump’s aggressive attacks on Dr. Ben Carson’s energy and honesty marked the end of Carson’s brief moment as GOP front-runner once Trump tarred him in the very same way he is now tarring Hillary Clinton.
With a record of success in rhetorically going places that credible candidates rarely go, there is no reason for Donald Trump to back off his very personal critiques of Hillary Clinton. Not only can he reasonably expect the barbs have their desired effect but there is another tactical benefit for Trump: Targeting Hillary allows him to move away from the constant anti-Republican sniping that has even the Donald admitting he’s been “a little bit divisive.”
On Monday, Mr. Trump said “I haven’t started with Hillary yet.” I’m sure he’s absolutely serious, and for reasons with substantial political merit:
Lambasting a Democrat rather than fellow Republicans (to the extent that you actually believe Trump is a Republican) is a smart move for a front-runner who wants to be taken seriously by those outside his current core of support.
Hillary’s most committed fans won’t be swayed by Trump’s analysis of her (dis)honesty — one that is already shared by many Americans. But this campaign isn’t about them any more than it is about those deeply committed to Donald Trump or to the Republican Party. It is about those who are loosely attached to a party or loosely attached to the idea of voting at all. The risk to Hillary is not that Donald “Roundup” Trump gets millions of Americans who are slightly leaning Hillary’s way to vote for him (or for another Republican); her risk is that Trump gets them not to vote at all.
There is another aspect of the Trump phenomenon that threatens the Clinton candidacy: His are the politics of the outsider and of inexperience as a virtue. Her campaign is, more than any other candidate in recent memory, that of an ultimate insider running with a mantle of unmatched experience.
The more Trump can convince moderate and independent voters that Hillary’s strongest arguments for herself are somewhere between irrelevant and disqualifying, the harder it becomes for her to carry those swing voters who now determine American elections.
The current presidential cycle is perhaps the strangest of my lifetime; that is not going to change anytime soon. Among its strangest aspects is that the Republican candidate most able to harm Hillary Clinton prior to the general election is the one least likely to beat her in that election.
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