Politics & Policy

GOP Candidates Are Pulling Punches with Hillary Clinton, but They Need to Hit Her Hard

(Joe Raedle/Getty)

During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney gained a reputation as a man who was too nice to hit Barack Obama hard. The most glaring instance of this reluctance came on September 12, 2012, when the news broke that Benghazi had come under attack. Romney refused to go to the jugular. Later, it was reported that the Romney camp spiked an ad by the RNC attacking Obama on the events of that night. Anything Romney had to say about Obama’s incompetence (or even whereabouts that night) in a debate was effectively neutered. Candy Crowley’s interjection during the second presidential debate was simply the cherry on top.

Romney was too relaxed a candidate to get in the dirt and get bloody. His campaign’s preference for focusing on his policies and personal principles may have been noble, but his refusal to fight rough with Obama left voters with the impression that he was weak.

That impression was reinforced by Romney’s refusal to defend himself against Obama’s attacks. His campaign never really countered Team Chicago’s claim that he had given a woman cancer, nor did it effectively argue against the suggestion that as president he would delight in executing Big Bird live on PBS.

The Obama campaign was unrelenting against Romney. And in all likelihood, Clinton’s campaign against the GOP nominee will be just as ruthless. If Republicans do not learn to counter Democratic criticism — and hard — 2016 may yield the same result as did 2012 and 2008.

The Obama campaign was unrelenting against Romney. And in all likelihood, Clinton’s campaign against the GOP nominee will be just as ruthless.

At present, there is little indication that the current crop of Republicans has learned the lesson of the past two elections. At last weekend’s Kemp Forum in Columbia, S.C., several GOP candidates were asked about former president Bill Clinton’s past behavior — specifically, about allegations of sexual assault. Alarmingly, their answers were uniformly weak.

Asked about the “relevance” of Bill’s Oval Office antics, Jeb Bush said, “Doing what he did, was it appropriate? Heck no, it wasn’t. You know, of course it wasn’t. But that’s long gone. Bill Clinton’s not running for president. Hillary Clinton is.”

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have also hedged. Given an opportunity to comment on Bill Clinton’s transgressions in an interview with the Daily Caller, Rubio said only that “those are issues that in my mind are going to be discussed by others in this campaign. They want to raise them, they can raise them.” Ted Cruz struck a similar tone. “I am not interested in getting into personal attacks and innuendo,” he said at a recent news conference. “Hillary Clinton’s biggest liability is that her policies are a disaster.”At the same event, Ohio governor John Kasich expressed distaste for the question, telling MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, “If that’s what it takes for me to be president, I’m not interested.” Chris Christie added similar thoughts. “There’s a difference,” he said, “between discussing Secretary Clinton’s conduct and President Clinton’s conduct.”

Surely, these candidates cannot believe that their chivalry will be echoed by the Left. Does Jeb really think that if he refuses to hit Bill, Hillary’s Clinton campaign will leave George W. Bush’s presidency on the sidelines? Does Marco Rubio consider it likely that a press that made him public enemy No. 1 over his wife’s parking tickets and his brother’s drug conviction will back off? Does Christie think Bridgegate was the result of his abrasive personality? This past weekend on PBS NewsHour, a panel of New York Times columnist David Brooks and Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn suggested that Ted Cruz and his father participate in dark Satanic rituals. That sort of silliness will not be forestalled by playing nice.

Of course, there is one candidate who has refused to back down. His name is Donald Trump.

Every time a Republican pulls a punch instead of hitting hard, it increases the likelihood of a Trump victory.

It’s no coincidence that, with the exception of Ted Cruz, every candidate who has treated Bill Clinton with kid gloves is perceived as belonging to the “establishment.” Having watched both John McCain and Mitt Romney take the high road but lose their elections, can Republican voters really be blamed for wanting a representative who doesn’t steadfastly hogtie himself and watch as Hillary Clinton bulldozes over him on her way into the Oval Office? Every time a Republican pulls a punch instead of hitting hard, it increases the likelihood of a Trump victory.

Somewhere deep down, Trump understands this. During a recent appearance on Meet The Press, Chuck Todd warned Trump that his own marriages and divorces may soon become “fair game.” Trump laughed off the accusation. “It’s fine,” he said. “I wasn’t the president of the United States.” In the past month or so, Trump has turned such deflections into an art form. Each and every time that the Clinton campaign cries “sexist,” he has responded by holding up a mirror. There will be some voters who dislike this approach. Others, though, will take the flawed messenger who leaves it all on the field over the pedigree candidate who tells them, “I’m not going there.” Will there be enough of those kind of voters? Time will tell.

Since 2008, Hillary and her advisers have spent seven years watching Barack Obama drive Republicans and their voters into an emotional frenzy. Driven by the need to motivate its base, today’s Democrat party has perfected its “War on Women” narrative, and will hope to enshrine it even deeper into the conversation in the coming year. To this end, its leading politicians have weaponized rape and sexual assault, and attempted — sometimes successfully — to make “women’s health” into a partisan issue. Against these cynical ruses, Donald Trump has gone ruthlessly on the march, even going so far as to link Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby in an Instagram video that invited smiles from even Trump’s harshest critics on the right. Should they wish to win the White House, Republicans not named “Trump” will need to punch back just as hard and just as dirty as he has, and as Clinton inevitably will. So far, there is no sign that they are willing to do so.

— Stephen L. Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He publishes The Wilderness, which focuses on viral politics and social media.

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