In a bushel of Colin Powell’s private emails released by a website thought to have connections to Russian intelligence, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff excoriates Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as a racist “know-nothing” and a “national disgrace and international pariah.”
Yawn. This from the “Republican” who voted twice for Barack Obama.
While Powell’s aggressive criticism of Trump is what most “mainstream” media headlines are trumpeting, his comments about Hillary (and Bill) Clinton are far more interesting and surprising.
Clinton should be the default candidate for Powell. Yet Powell says of Hillary, “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect.” The retired four-star general describes Mrs. Clinton as “a 70-year person [sic] with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational, with a husband still dicking bimbos at home (according to the NYP).”
The many obvious jokes about Slick Willie aside, Powell’s characterizations of Hillary are potentially politically significant. But those who focus on his correct analysis of Clinton as tremendously ambitious and greedy are missing the point. The truly devastating descriptor is “not transformational.”
In my lifetime, the only less transformational candidate than Hillary Clinton — and this is a close call — was George H.W. Bush. But Bush was running in a peacetime year that notched 4.2 percent GDP growth; being a status quo candidate was an asset rather than the enormous liability it is today. Instead of transformation, Hillary Clinton stands for raising the taxes Barack Obama has raised, socializing the health care system Obama has socialized, deeper entanglements in Middle Eastern wars that Americans have long been weary of, and a raft of stale, failed ideas that litter the recent and not-so-recent Progressive past.
In politics, as in financial markets and so much else in life, what is both interesting and important is what is changing and, by extension, how to cause change.
It is a truism that the Democratic base will vote for Hillary no matter her flaws; the same for most Republicans and the Donald. “Motivating the base” is an important part of a campaign, particularly this year when Democrats are so uninspired by their candidate.
It is equally a truism that elections are determined by those centrist, independent, unaffiliated and often lightly informed citizens who aren’t voting for a team and aren’t voting (or refusing to vote) based on years or decades of commitment to principle. Since these voters are, by definition, swayable, the political game is mostly about swaying them.
Let’s consider Powell’s adjectives for Clinton.
First, that she is ultra-ambitious. Is there anybody who hasn’t known this about her since she stuck with her husband through his bimbo-dicking back in Little Rock? And since she agreed to become secretary of state for a man she clearly despised — and from whom I trust the feeling remains at least slightly mutual? And, to be fair, aren’t most politicians and especially candidates for president full of “unbridled ambition”? In short, everybody knows this of her and nobody cares.
Next, that she is greedy. This is a bigger problem for Mrs. Clinton. Although there is not yet proof of “pay to play” in the sense of her ordering the State Department to act to benefit a donor to the Clinton Foundation, the entire organizational structure combined with Hillary’s deletion of tens of thousands of e-mails stinks of corruption.
But this, like her ambition, is well known. On a good day for Hillary, one third of poll respondents say she is honest and trustworthy. Almost nobody does not have an opinion about Clinton’s mendacity and self-dealing. Therefore, while the occasional reminder to American voters about it is worthwhile, this issue is no longer an opinion-changer.
But “not transformational,” the description that most Hillary critics will pass over in favor of the superficially juicier “greedy,” this is what the Republican Party and the Trump campaign should amplify at every opportunity. Because this is the message that still has the power to swing voters.
Young idealistic voters bought into Barack Obama’s “hope and change”; they looked forward to his “fundamentally transforming” the country. They didn’t laugh out loud when he said that his nomination represented “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Even Jesus could only walk on water; he didn’t claim to be able to change sea level.
Young voters today, although still idealistic, are somewhat more cynical about government and less inclined to vote Democratic as a reflex, perhaps even less inclined to vote at all. They distrust a government that they see leaving them with no job opportunities, no opportunity to pay off huge debts for wildly overpriced college degrees; a government which has them living, embarrassed and unfulfilled, in their parents’ basements.
They see bureaucrats trying to control the Internet, the digital world that represents so much of their daily lives, which developed into the marvel that it is specifically because government officials hadn’t gotten their hands on it. More than half of their young lives have been lived with America at war. And they are sick of politicians who seem incapable and remarkably uninterested in changing any of it.
They are desperate for a political transformation, a less harmful version of Bernie Sanders’ remarkably successful call for a “political revolution.” And I don’t blame them.
For such a voter, “not transformational” is about the worst insult you can hurl at a candidate. This voter will probably not support Donald Trump, but keeping her from voting for Hillary, and perhaps from voting, period, in November, is half as good, which is to say it’s very good indeed for Republicans.
Similarly, on what we might loosely call the political right in this unusual year, many older voters feel, as Hillary correctly noted in her “basket of deplorables” speech, “that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures.”
These people, particularly blue collar workers across the Rust Belt, have felt this way for years. And, again, I don’t blame them.
For reasons entirely different from those of young grad-school idealists, they are desperate for a transformation of both politics and economics. Putting aside whether the changes they want, particularly in the economic sphere, are actually beneficial for the nation, the intensity of their disdain for “the system,” for incumbents, for the status quo is the thicker-every-day reed upon which Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions rely.
Many of these Americans have long voted Democratic, with an occasional flirtation with the GOP creating, for example, the memorable “Reagan Democrats.” In this strange campaign, however, the Republican candidate is the party of the “working man” while Hillary Clinton represents the white-shoe Goldman Sachs elite.
Donald Trump speaks with the syntax and diction of an eighth-grader while Hillary makes elitist speeches which cause even liberals to grimace. Seth Meyers, the uber-liberal host of NBC’s “Late Night” who has banned Donald Trump from his show, asked of Clinton, “What’s the matter…You couldn’t think of an insult that made you sound like a richer, whiter lady?”
The former steel worker in Pittsburgh, auto worker in Detroit, coal miner in Kentucky or West Virginia, for these people, Trump represents hope and change and transformation. For these Americans, in 2016, few things can disqualify a candidate more than being “not transformational.” However, with the inertia of thirty years of supporting Democrats, some of these voters still need a nudge. Colin Powell just nudged them.
With polls tightening, with betting odds on Donald Trump’s becoming president having moved from 20 percent to 30 percent during Hillary’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad month, Secretary Powell has inadvertently — and entirely unnoticed by most in the media — given Donald Trump his best new message.
Voters young and old who might typically support the Democratic candidate for president are eager for not just change but political (and, to an only slightly lesser degree, economic) transformation.
By emphasizing the fact that Hillary Clinton is “not transformational,” the Trump campaign can dissuade the young from voting for her and push that particular segment of older voters into his column.
Everybody knows about Hillary’s ambition and greed. You won’t change any minds by staying focused on those issues. But “not transformational” is a near-perfect and barely used description, one which can change the minds of millions of still undecided voters.