by Neil H. Buchanan
Before disappearing from the news for the past week or so, Hillary Clinton delivered a widely discussed speech attacking the so-called Alternative Right. Clinton wanted to hang that previously obscure and especially toxic subset of the conservative movement around Trump's neck. Because the alt-right is so openly bigoted, and because Donald Trump's new campaign manager is a leader of that movement, this was an easy task.
Clinton's speech was widely praised, and although it did elevate the alt-right in the public's consciousness, it had its intended effect of making it clear that Trump's most fervent supporters are most definitely out of the mainstream of American political thought. Clinton clearly wanted to make Trump guilty by association with hate groups, and she succeeded.
The problem is that she might have set in motion a narrative that will do immediate damage to Democrats -- herself included -- in November, as well as potential long-term damage to liberalism.
Rather than following a now-familiar narrative in which Trump's rise is (correctly, in my view) seen as the logical result of decades of increasing extremism in the Republican Party, Clinton instead described Trump's views as utterly inconsistent with Republican values. Why would she do that?
In the 1990's, starting with his presidential campaign and continuing throughout his presidency, Bill Clinton infamously tarred members of his own party as nutty extremists who needed to be held in check by his center-right vision of an insurgency of New Democrats. He separated himself from Republicans and Old Democrats, placing himself not in the middle but at an angle to both groups, in his lamentable "triangulation" strategy.
Has Hillary Clinton now followed a similarly self-serving strategy that damages her supposed allies? She is not directly vilifying her own party, which is a clear improvement on her husband's strategy, but she is missing the opportunity to help her party to win more Senate and House races. The more Republicans are able to say that they can be true Republicans but reject Trump, especially in the purple states where the Democrats have the best chances to pick up Senate seats, the worse for the Democrats.
I do not doubt that Clinton's people think that her isolation of Trump was a good electoral strategy. In fact, it could be seen as part of a (probably unplanned) one-two punch with the White House, with President Obama playing bad cop and Clinton playing good cop, the combination of which arguably puts Republicans in a nearly impossible position.
We can think of Obama playing bad cop in the sense that he knows that he is utterly despised on the right, even among never-Trump Republicans, so that his calls for Republicans to reject Trump are sure to cause the vast majority of Republicans to dig in their heels in support of Trump. Had Obama never spoken out, it might have been possible for more Republicans to reject Trump (and maybe even support Clinton, although that is very unlikely); but no one with any future ambitions in the Republican Party can afford to agree with Obama.
In that context, Clinton's attempt to say, "Republicans, we know that you want to be better than Trump," is a way to cajole Republicans by appealing to their sense that they are not racists. Even though the pre-Trump history of the Republican Party is rife with barely veiled racist appeals (running from Reagan through both Bushes, as well as Mitt Romney's dismissal of people who just want "stuff" from the government), Clinton gives them an out.
If Obama is shaming Republicans into rejecting Trump, Clinton is flattering them into it. And even if Obama had never said a word, Clinton's approach might arguably be the best way to win the election -- her election, that is. It still undermines her party's candidates, which is why this feels so much like triangulation.
By contrast, while Obama's approach might cause more Republicans to dig in their heels, it seems clear that there are not enough of those people to win the election for Trump. Much like Bill Clinton's gratuitous movements to the right to run up the score in his 1996 reelection bid against the doomed Bob Dole, Hillary Clinton is giving aid and comfort to her congressional candidates' enemies to win an election that is already hers to lose.
I should note that I am hardly the first person to observe that Clinton's speech was a missed opportunity to go for the throat. William Saletan in Slate referred to her speech as "Hillary's Lifeboat to the GOP," and Rick Perlstein provided a very good analysis of "Hillary's GOP Sympathies" in The Washington Spectator.
Both are excellent reads, and both make clear that Clinton has made life easier for Republicans. Saletan argues that Clinton seems to be angling for a better relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the election, describing the speech as "the first gesture of her presidency. If you want a government that works, it bodes well."
That, unfortunately, is wishful nonsense. Perlstein usefully reminds us that "if the eight previous years have taught us anything, it’s that the
Speaker of the House (if the Republicans hold on to their majority) will
not believe he needs to work with her." After election day, gestures will mean nothing. When Republicans have the votes, they will indulge their base's deepest desires by bashing Hillary Clinton and obstructing everything that she tries to accomplish.
Clinton, then, at best is sacrificing winnable down-ballot races in an effort to appeal to opinion makers like Saletan, who have not taken on the reality of the modern (Trump aside) Republican congressional strategy. And because Clinton is very, very smart, I find it hard to believe that she thinks that Ryan and McConnell can be sweet-talked into cooperating with her.
Clinton must, therefore, believe that she needs to do everything possible to defeat Trump. For those of us who believe that Trump really is the biggest danger to the Republic that has been seen in decades if not since the Civil War, this can certainly seem like a very necessary -- even urgent -- strategy.
After all, as bad as it is to imagine another four or eight years of a Democratic president being dragged down by rabid Republicans in both houses of Congress, a 99 percent chance of keeping Trump out of the White House coupled with a five percent chance of taking at least one house might be better than a 90 percent chance of beating Trump accompanied by even a 60 percent chance of flipping the Senate. Trump really is that dangerous.
But that ignores one important problem with Clinton's new type of triangulation. Beyond the down-ballot strategic issues, there is also an immediate downside for Clinton's own electoral chances. By trying to hold out an olive branch to Republicans in Congress, she elevated Ryan as a leader with a sincere desire to solve problems for poor people and minorities. As Saletan described it, "In negotiations on budgets and poverty, expect Clinton to play the Catholic social justice card" against the supposedly devout Ryan.
This is a reference to Ryan's positioning himself as the sincere face of a Republican Party that worries about the social safety net becoming a "hammock," which is merely an update of Ronald Reagan's complaint about "strapping young buck" welfare recipients who were gaming the welfare system. (As I noted above, Reagan's racialized language was hardly subtle.)
Ryan supposedly has a plan to end poverty by ending "dependency." His supposedly big new approach is hopeless as a policy matter, but it has the effect of making white conservatives feel that they are not racists when they complain even about what little remains of the American welfare state. (Establishment Republicans like Ryan also complain about "entitlements," but those are actually programs for the middle class.)
Ryan has been assiduously trying to sell the idea that he has a plan to offer a path out of poverty by rejecting Democratic policies. And as Perlstein put it, Clinton's speech allows Republicans to say, "I’m a Ryan conservative, not a Trumpite. We Ryanites are normal, respectable folk." How can you call them racists if they say they care about black people -- no matter that the policies on offer from Ryan and his party would only make matters worse?
And do you know who else has figured out how to sound like Paul Ryan? Donald Trump. As ham-handed as it has been, Trump's make-white-voters-more-comfortable strategy of well-scripted outreach to black voters is an exact copy of the Ryan game plan: Go to a poor neighborhood, look humbly into the camera, and say that you care.
Given how many people have said that they reject Trump's bigoted statements, while still saying that they are hoping for a "change of tone" from the Republican nominee, Trump's transparent insincerity does not matter. He has changed his tone (for now, anyway). And the media reports it all with pictures of Trump at a black church in Detroit.
Clinton has, if anything, thus made Trump's cynical repositioning even more dangerous. She said to the Republican voters who she thinks could vote for her, "Ryan's an OK guy, but Trump's horrible. Vote for me." What can she say when Trump starts acting like Ryan?
In other words, having made it easier for down-ballot Republicans not to associate with Trump, Clinton has also made it possible for Trump to disassociate himself from Trump. She cannot say, "Look, Trump is a Republican, and the fact that he has moved from his own con game to Paul Ryan's con game does not matter." Ryan is a serial liar, and his party treats him as their Big Ideas Guy, but Clinton deliberately left him standing.
The more Trump sounds like Ryan, especially by adopting his dishonest racial outreach rhetoric, the more Trump himself can adopt Perlstein's take on the anti-Trump mantra: "I’m a Ryan conservative, not a Trumpite. We Ryanites are normal, respectable folk." Trump might not have Ryan's big eyes or his Eddie Haskell-like pathological need to ingratiate himself, but Clinton has eased Trump's path away from Trump.
Last month, I wrote that it matters how and why the next President Clinton will infuriate her supporters. Any president will disappoint her supporters, because of the realities of governing. But what matters are strategic blunders and unforced errors. It appears that Clinton's desire to win her own election will hurt not just her party's candidates. It could contribute to a surprise win for Trump in November.