Now that Bernie Sanders has all but dropped out of the race and with Barack Obama’s endorsement Clinton can turn her full attention to what at first might seem to be a simple question: What exactly is wrong with Donald Trump?
It is, many of us would be tempted to conclude, obvious why Trump should not be president. Surely his bigotry, sexism, egomania, incoherence and ignorance clearly make this an easy one to answer? But those are five different responses to the question. For the Clinton campaign victory requires a single answer – a line of attack against Trump and the Republicans that is both sustained and specific.
The 2008 Democratic primary demonstrated the importance of a single message. When running against then Senator Obama, the Clinton campaign experimented with several different arguments. She could do the job from day one. She would fight for the ‘invisible America’, women and lower-income groups whose voices were ignored. She alone was ready to answer that 3am call in the situation room. She was breaking the ultimate glass ceiling. Each was a powerful, convincing idea but the failure settle on just one – especially against a Democratic opponent with a consistent, albeit vague, message of ‘change’ – ended in failure for the candidate previously considered to be inevitable.
In 2016 Trumps flaws are certainly not ‘obvious’ to the American electorate, 47 per cent of whom according to recent polling consider him ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ qualified to be president. That does not mean he really is the preferred candidate or that the demographic and electoral college obstacles to his victory are not severe. But it does mean that independents and persuadable Republicans do not yet share the absolute certainties of Trump’s detractors.
There are at least five distinct ways of answering the ‘What exactly is wrong with Donald Trump?’ question, all of which have been used at various points by his opponents in both parties with each one requiring a different kind of campaign.
- Trump is divisive. His attacks on Latinos, women and Muslims have been well publicised. Highlighting Trump’s apparent disdain for anyone other than white men is intuitively appealing not only because such groups represent the majority of the electorate but also because increasing numbers of Republicans find his rhetoric, especially his recent attacks on Judge Gonzalo P Curiel, particularly unappealing.
- Trump represents the worst of corporate America. See also: Obama’s 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney. Bragging about his wealth may have won Trump a plurality of votes in the Republican primaries but the electorate is a much larger group who are likely to see things differently. Clinton has already seized on footage from 2006 in which Trump apparently welcomed a downturn in the housing market, something that sounds particularly unfunny in states like Florida. The ongoing case against his company Trump-U also helps to paint this picture given growing hostility to for-profit colleges in the United States.
It is notable that Elizabeth Warren has tended to stick to these first two approaches and if indeed she became Clinton’s running mate it would indicate the future direction of the campaign. Hours before formally endorsing Clinton, Warren gave a speech at the American Constitutional Society in which she labelled Trump ‘racist bully’ and ‘a guy who inherited a fortune and kept it rolling along by cheating people.’ The usefulness of this tack in reaching out to moderate voters, however, is less clear.
- Trump is a maverick. In an unsafe world American cannot risk a dilettante in the White House. This is closest to Clinton’s current message. In last week’s foreign policy address she warned that Trump’s ‘thin skin’ was a major national security risk, an attack that does well to blend concern about Trump’s temperament and ignorance of foreign policy in language appealing to large numbers of Republicans. Highlighting his affection for autocrats or idle speculation about South Korea and Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons is also likely to play well.
- Trump is dishonest. Trump appears to hold few opinions without previously having taken the opposite view. Going after his trustworthiness has the advantage of going after his supposedly non-PC, speaks-his-mind image. Unfortunately, given public perceptions of her honesty, it would be hard to find a candidate less well placed to do this than Clinton.
- Trump is unfit for office. If Trump’s campaign has a theme it is that policy and experience matters less than the fact that he would make a capable president. A simple if inelegant approach would be to attack this issue head-on, denying Trump the standing to seek the presidency. One of Clinton’s most powerful attacks on Trump was in exactly this vein. Hours after it became clear he was to be the GOP nominee her campaign released a video of his fellow Republicans questioning his suitability for office. The part of the ad that sticks in the mind is the particularly ugly footage of Trump mocking the disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. Far more than rebuttal and counterarguments, promoting footage like this – of which there is plenty – can undercut Trump’s ability to get a hearing from plenty of swing voters.
Voters are generally busy people who lack the time and inclination to listen to multiple diagnoses of a candidate’s flaws. Happily for Clinton there are many compelling reasons why Trump should not be president. Pick one.
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda
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