If you want an accurate reading on the ’16 presidential campaign — who’s up and who’s down, who’s ascendant and who’s a clown — look no further than last night’s speeches. Because it’s all about the optics.
Hillary Clinton spent her time making history. Donald Trump spent his time doing damage control.
And Bernie Sanders — history’s roadkill, crushed last night in California and New Jersey — did his best impression of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who hunkered in the jungle for decades, refusing to accept the reality that World War II had ended.
The Clinton-Trump rumble will take many twists and turns, but all we can do is assess the present moment. To freeze the frame, as it were. And despite Trump’s rote boast last night about his awesomeness as a candidate (“It’s going to be beautiful”), the reality right now is that Clinton has the upper hand – because she’s seizing the high road.
For starters, there’s no denying her achievement as the first female presidential nominee. Hopefully we’re not so jaded or cynical or hateful or just plain weary that we can’t open ourselves to the witnessing of history. Last night, in the opening section of her speech, she stressed the gender theme — harkening back to the first equal rights parlay in Seneca Falls in 1848 — as well she should have. And if that helps her at the ballot box in November, all the better. She’s running against a notorious misogynist, and women typically comprise 52 or 53 percent of the voting electorate.
Obviously, a sizeable share of women won’t vote for Clinton anyway, but the historic nature of her candidacy should not be underestimated. Nicole Wallace, the Republican commentator and veteran of the Bush and McCain campaigns, said of Clinton last night that “women will show this speech to their kids.” Every campaign needs a narrative, and Clinton’s has a built-in emotional component; as she remarked last night, “I really wish my mother could be here… I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic party’s nominee.”
By contrast, Trump’s optics last night were… how shall I say this charitably… wretched.
For 10 long days, the Republican nominee had splashed in the sewer, damning a federal judge for his Mexican heritage and insisting that the judge is thus unfit to handle a massive case in which Trump is being sued for fraud. The backlash from his own party reached a crescendo yesterday when Paul Ryan said that Trump’s attacks were the “textbook definition” of racism, and Mitch McConnell pleaded with Trump via the media: “It’s time to quit attacking various people you competed with or various minority groups in the country….Start talking about the issues that the American people care about and start doing it now.”
Temporarily chastized, Trump surfaced last night in presidential mode, or at least some facsimile thereof. After having ridiculed Clinton last Thursday for using a Teleprompter, Trump duly read from a Teleprompter (except for the moment when he ad-libbed a toilet joke). The aim was to demonstrate that he’s capable of talking for 30 straight minutes without saying anything racist, sexist, or faintly fascist, and, yes, he cleared that low hurdle. (“I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle.”) But it was like lashing a wild beast to a stake in the hope that he won’t break free.
Most of his lines were old stump chunks (“We are only going to have great trade deals, OK?” and “We will make our country strong again, we will make America great again”) – and how noteworthy it was that he said zip about the burgeoning Hispanic electorate (Hispanics are likely to cost him at least four states – Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Florida). And his sole remark about blacks dripped with paternalistic condescension: “We are going to take care of our African Americans.” (They’re not his to “take care of.”)
Indeed, Clinton in her own speech assailed Trump’s treatment of minorities: “‘Make America great again’ is code for ‘Let’s take America backwards.’ Back to a time when opportunity and dignity was reserved for some, not all.” That was a shout-out to the racially pluralistic Obama coalition that delivered two victories. You can’t win an election, not in this century, with just a subset of white voters who yearn for yesteryear.
And anyone who thinks that Trump’s Teleprompter speech signals a “new Trump” should bone up on human nature. A narcissistic demagogue who knows nothing about policy is simply who he is. Lots of Republicans and conservatives realize that. Which is why Bill Kristol calls Trump “a roaring jackass.” Which is why Senator Jeff Flake said yesterday that “‘Meet the new Trump’ is a lot like the old Trump….That’s not somebody who can win the White House.” Which is why conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt dismissed Trump’s speech by saying, “The plane is still heading toward the mountain.”
Or, as nonpartisan analyst Larry Sabato said today, “This year’s GOP is living with both its feet planted on banana peels.”
The next opportunity for slippage may come early next week, when Trump is promising to deliver a speech about the Clintons – in his words, “all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons.” Will he limit himself to legitimate questions about, say, the work of the Clinton Foundation, or will he steer the plane into the mountain, ranting on the intercom about Vince Foster and other ’90s nothingburgers?
Mitch McConnell said yesterday, “We’re all anxious to hear what he may say next.” I bet he is. Because each spasm of Republican anxiety could bring Clinton closer to her ultimate historic achievement.