In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss to Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election, it’s worth considering the undeniable role her campaign played in elevating him as the Republican presidential nominee. The bitter irony is that her team started out determined to face Trump rather than any of the other GOP candidates, drawing on the belief that the politically inexperienced, blustering business mogul would be the easiest to defeat.
The e-mails released over the past few months by WikiLeaks provide a number of examples of Clinton’s staff agonizing over the more qualified candidates such as Florida senator Marco Rubio and expressing the desire to face Trump in the general election. In fact, the Democratic nominee and her team seem to have been afraid of going up against nearly all of the other Republican primary candidates. Take, for example, this section from an e-mail from Brent Budowsky, a progressive blogger and former congressional staffer, to Clinton-campaign chairman John Podesta:
Right now I am petrified that Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating Trump . . . she has huge endemic political weaknesses that she would be wise to rectify . . . even a clown like Ted Cruz would be an even money bet to beat and this scares the hell of out me. . .
Several e-mails uncovered by WikiLeaks reveal that, when Rubio launched his presidential bid, Clinton’s staff immediately drew parallels between the Hispanic senator and Barack Obama, both fresh-faced leaders who cast themselves as the voice of a new generation. This comparison caused many staffers to think back to 2008, when Clinton lost the Democratic primary to just such a young and vibrant senator, but on her own side of the aisle. Christina Reynolds, who went on to become deputy communications director for the Clinton campaign, wrote of Rubio to Clinton’s staff, “He gives a good speech, and sounded much more reasonable, populist and accessible than much of the rest of the GOP field.”
Spring-boarding off these concerns, in April of last year, Clinton’s staff circulated an e-mail with a strategy guide for discussion within the Democratic National Committee, describing Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson as “Pied Piper candidates” whom the Democrats should seek to elevate and legitimize. More from the guide:
Many of the lesser known [Trump, Cruz, Carson] can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right. In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more “Pied Piper” candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party. . . . We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.
It seems that this argument resonated with the press, at least among progressive media figures; the longing to see Clinton face Trump rather than one of the more qualified GOP contenders wasn’t confined to the Democratic campaign. Progressives writers hopped on board with the Democratic strategy, legitimizing Trump at the expense of more traditional candidates such as Rubio and Bush, who, especially initially, were widely thought to have a better chance at defeating Clinton.
At Vox, for example, Matt Yglesias in February explained “why I’m more worried about Marco Rubio than Donald Trump,” noting, among other ridiculous arguments, that Trump was
actually running on a much less extreme agenda than his “establishment” rival Marco Rubio, who’s offering a platform of economic ruin, multiple wars, and an attack on civil liberties that’s nearly as vicious as anything Trump has proposed — even while wrapping it in an edgy, anxious, overreaction-prone approach to politics that heavily features big risky bets and huge, unpredictable changes in direction.
That same month, Jonathan Chait offered a similar take at New York magazine. In “Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination,” he argued that liberals should favor Trump primarily because “he would almost certainly lose” and because “a Trump nomination might upend his party,” assertions that clearly echo the Team Clinton strategy. He also claimed that “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.” And, he continued, “it might even, possibly, do some good.” Just one month later, Chait made a hasty 180-turn in his follow-up piece “Donald Trump Poses an Unprecedented Threat to American Democracy.”
#related#Last November, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie insisted that “Donald Trump is actually a moderate Republican,” the “median Republican” who, in stark opposition to the other GOP candidates, “stands at the center” of the party and was notable for his ability to be reasonable and to attract unique pockets of voters within the Republican base. Then, just yesterday, Bouie determined that Trump is actually not a moderate Republican but rather a racist demagogue and white nationalist whose supporters deserve no empathy.
These stunning feats of rhetorical backtracking are somewhat dizzying, and it seems that they began, among progressive writers and pundits as well as within Clinton’s campaign, as more people began to realize that Trump could win the nomination. But no one seemed to realize, especially in the closing months of the general-election campaign, that Trump had a decent chance to win the presidency, too. If Clinton and her staff had been able to see the future, no doubt they would’ve shifted their strategy quite a bit.