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Politics & Policy

Hillary’s Opening Stumble

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Hillary’s Opening Stumble

At first glace, Hillary Clinton is the luckiest Democratic nominee in the history of the party. (Right now, Bernie Sanders supporters are screaming, “SHE’S NOT THE NOMINEE!” but that is really just a matter of time.)

How often do you compete against an opponent with a disapproval rating in the 60s and avoid a serious third-party option? (Note that even if someone jumps in, any independent will not appear on the ballot in Texas.)

And yet, here was her first shot at the likely Republican nominee Wednesday:

“We can’t take a risk on a loose cannon like Donald Trump,” said Clinton, who remains on track to be the Democratic nominee.

At one point, she criticized Trump for saying women should be punished for having illegal abortions. When Anderson Cooper reminded Clinton that Trump walked back those comments, she brushed that aside by saying, “Well, he’s a loose cannon.”

And for good measure, she added, “He is a loose cannon, and loose cannons tend to misfire.”

“LOOSECANNON LOOSECANNON LOOSECANNON LOOSECANNON HA HA HA HA!”

Later in the interview, she said that Trump had extreme views, mentioning his opposition to raising the minimum wage, skepticism about climate change, and abortion.

All past criticism of Trump stands, it’s just with an opening move like this, it’s easy to start wondering whether Hillary Clinton might just be bad enough to blow an easy layup against Trump.

Remember, historically, late spring and early summer is a much more decisive moment in a presidential race than may seem at first glance. In 1996, Democrats ran attack ads defining Bob Dole in the eyes of millions of Americans who didn’t pay regular attention to politics. Democratic Super PACs did the same thing to Romney in 2012. They already announced plans to do the same this year, too.

Few Americans don’t have an opinion on Trump already, and it’s unknown how many could be persuaded out of a negative opinion. And yes, it will be a long, ugly general election fight, so both candidates will have time to make more attacks. But this is each candidate’s moment to define each other before the general electorate, maybe the best, before the attacks become part of the general background noise of the election.

For all of his flaws, Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” shorthand is a pretty good one, because it covers so much territory. Hopefully he’ll expand on this in greater detail, focusing on the idea that when she was Secretary of State, the Clinton Foundation became a favor factory, trading American foreign policy decisions in exchange for donations.

Sure, the “loose cannon” charge is accurate, and Hillary may get some mileage out of reusing Lyndon Johnson’s attack on Barry Goldwater; she’ll contend that Trump is too impulsive, too temperamental, too reckless to be trusted with the powers of the presidency, including the authority to launch nuclear weapons. (At some point, some pro-Hillary group will offer a new version of the “Daisy Ad”, right?)

But calling Trump a “loose cannon” also reaffirms he’s unpredictable and his unpredictability, his constant ability to be saying something new, is one of the things that makes the media and his fans love him. This attack actually subtly reaffirms one  of Hillary’s weaknesses: everything that Hillary says feels like it was run through twelve different focus groups before being cleared by the lawyers and getting final approval from the Candidate Spontaneous Statement Approval Committee.

Remember when Obama clobbered Romney 81-18 on the question of who cares about people like you? If that lone quality was enough to put Obama over the top – Romney beat Obama on a range of other qualities – then if you’re Hillary Clinton, doesn’t that seem like the most natural and important area to hit Trump?

The defining identity of Trump in the eyes of his supporters is that he’s the rich guy who stands up for the little guy. He thinks America’s blue-collar workers are getting the shaft, and he’s willing to call out other rich people for exploiting them.

If you’re Hillary, don’t you want, as quickly as possible, to make the case that Trump doesn’t care about people like you? Don’t you want to define him as selfish and out for himself, the kind of man who treats less powerful and poorer people badly, who doesn’t share your values at all? Even if you can’t shake the faith of Trump supporters, don’t you want to make sure everyone else feels like Trump would serve his own interests, not the national interests?

And at a moment when so many independents are wavering about Trump, Hillary really wants her case against him to focus on the minimum wage, climate change, and abortion?

She really doesn’t want to run as the candidate of change from the Obama years, does she? She really isn’t willing to run as a candidate who thinks Washington has seen egregious mismanagement in recent years – at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at the lack of cyber-security at the Office of Personnel Management, the NSA handing Edward Snowden the keys to the kingdom… Fast and Furious. The IRS scandal. The $2 billion spent building Healthcare.gov.  Lying about Bowe Berghdahl. “Companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future.”

You don’t have to be a crazy right-winger to look at the American government and conclude it’s regularly failing at basic duties. And yet somehow, Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of the status quo and faith in the federal government.

Instead the argument is that Trump is a loose cannon, ready to misfire. Indeed, Madam Secretary, Trump would be the worst kind of cannon fire since… oh, I don’t know, Benghazi?

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