Politics & Policy

Hillary’s Hellish Week

Clinton back on the campaign trail in Greensboro, N.C., September 15, 2016. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
After the worst seven-day stretch of her campaign, Mrs. Clinton looks weaker than ever.

Hillary Clinton just had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

Last Friday night, speaking at a private fundraiser, Clinton said that “half of Trump supporters” could be put in a “basket of deplorables.” They are, she said, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” By the following evening, she had expressed “regret” for her “gross generalization.” Then, on Sunday morning, she rushed for the exits in the middle of a 9/11 memorial service in New York City, and video footage showed her buckling as she tried to step into a waiting van; Secret Service agents had to heave her inside. Over the next 24 hours, the Clinton campaign bungled its response, suggesting, by turns, that Clinton had overheated, that she was fine, and that she was suffering a bout of pneumonia. The episode played seamlessly into months of insinuations by the Trump campaign that Clinton is seriously ill, and years of questions about Clinton’s seemingly knee-jerk reluctance to tell the truth.

The fallout has been stunning. Polls released this week show Trump overtaking Clinton in several swing states, including Ohio and Florida. Trump is up by eight points in Maine’s Second Congressional District, which President Obama won by that margin in 2012. In national polls, Rasmussen shows Trump ahead by two points, and Fox News by one (in a two-way race). Trump is ahead six in the LA Times/USC tracking poll. Not all of that is attributable to Clinton’s missteps, of course; Trump really does appear to have pivoted, tempered ostensibly by his latest campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. But for Clinton, it was arguably the worst week in the course of this 17-month campaign.

How did this happen? Donald Trump, recall, was supposed to be a bush-league candidate. Hillary Clinton is a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady with a global reputation and a claim on electoral history. Trump is a narcissistic game-show host, a name-caller and schoolyard bully, a faux-mogul with a history of scams, a quasi-bigot with an autocratic streak.

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Perhaps it’s not so surprising, though. It’s a reliable rule-of-thumb in the world of psephology that people don’t like voting against a candidate; they want to vote for one. And Hillary Clinton has not given Americans anything to vote for. Clinton has said that she will serve Barack Obama’s third term, cementing his most significant achievements and offering more in the same vein. But she has spent most of the campaign shying away from policy in favor of emphasizing that she is not Donald Trump. Unfortunately for her, that is only compelling as long as Trump remains unpalatable. If Trump pivots, as he has, or Clinton falters, as she has, then the warning loses its punch. That’s what happened this week.

Democrats not named Clinton should consider this an urgent wake-up call, a sign of the weakness not just of their candidate but of their party. In healthy circumstances, there is a national-party apparatus operating semi-independently of the presidential nominee. It complements the candidate as appropriate, and provides a check as needed. The Republican party’s apparatus did much of the former in 2012; it has done more (though not nearly enough) of the latter this year. This structure represents something independent of, and more enduring than, any given year’s standard-bearer.

Democrats not named Clinton should consider this an urgent wake-up call, a sign of the weakness not just of their candidate but of their party.

There has been much talk about the potential collapse of that structure on the right, thanks to Trump. But it goes generally unremarked that that structure has entirely broken down on the left. With the brief interlude of the Obama years, the Democratic party has for nearly a quarter-century existed to serve the interests of one couple, the Clintons, not the other way around. All things Democratic work together for the good of Bill and Hillary. Consider the relative ease with which the cast of reprehensible characters from the 1990s — Sid Blumenthal, David Brock, et al. — has slithered back onstage two decades later. Or consider the manipulation of the Democratic-primary process to encourage Hillary’s nomination.

That Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was forced out of her position for that offense is an indication of the seething resentment of the use to which the party has been put. Bernie Sanders’s success in the primary and Elizabeth Warren’s success as the voice of a more outspoken progressivism are signs of an effort to erect a new Democratic structure that isn’t designed to buttress the Clintons’ personal ambitions. But even Sanders and Warren are on the campaign trail stumping for Hillary. So a post-Clinton party — or, put differently, a party that aims to offer a particular vision — is, at the moment, mainly a fantasy.

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The Republican apparatus, despite its grievous faults and damaged though it has been by Trump, is not completely subservient to him. House Republicans’ “Better Way” agenda is an offering that has nothing to do with Trump, and is intended to become the party’s guiding vision, whether he wins or loses. That agenda is something to vote for.

And while Trump, too, is emphasizing what he’s not — viz., the First Lady Macbeth who spent her most recent stint in public office doing the online equivalent of hanging classified national-security intelligence from a Foggy Bottom clothesline — he is also offering something positive (albeit, vague): “Make America Great Again” is far more concrete than “I’m With Her,” or even Obama’s “Hope & Change.” There is something there to vote for.

#related#Hillary Clinton does not seem to understand the need for this. On Friday morning, trying to turn the news cycle away from her health scare and this week’s abysmal poll results, she resurrected Donald Trump’s birtherism. Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about President Obama’s birthplace (and even about the official birth certificate Obama ultimately produced) was repugnant. But Hillary’s strategy again focuses on why to vote against Donald Trump, not why to vote for her. And since the only way to continue to make that case compelling is to escalate the accusations, Hillary risks creating a caricature of Trump that makes it much easier for the real Donald Trump to outperform expectations when they meet on the debate stage later this month. That will hurt her, not him.

Needless to say, this election offers two rotten major-party options, and most voters will cast their ballots for whoever they think is the less rotten. But voters want to vote for someone, so the edge will likely go to the candidate who can make the best case for themselves, not just against their opponent. At the moment, that’s not Hillary.

— Ian Tuttle is the National Review Institute’s Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow.


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