Clinton Sought -- But Only Trump Found -- a Message
You wouldn’t know it from the way he talks these days, but Donald Trump was the candidate with a galvanizing message, yet Hillary Clinton is poised to win the presidency without one.
Clinton, who is not only saddled with scandals of her own making but is a lackluster candidate/campaigner overall, has what appears to be an insurmountable lead over Trump in polling less than three weeks before Election Day but no defining vision for her presidency. The WikiLeaks email release shows the campaign was still struggling with the defining issues of Clinton’s candidacy as late as this year, and had Trump not become her opponent she may never have found one.
Oh, sure, you can point to the “Stronger Together” slogan on her podium and the cover of her unpopular new book, but it’s a joke. Simply put, Clinton is the un-Trump, and believes because of her vast government experience she deserves the job, and because she lost to President Obama in 2008, it’s her turn.
But Clinton essentially has been running for president since 2005, and in the 11 years hence the electorate has convulsed with change. While Trump flirted with presidential runs many times for more than a decade, his launch in 2015 was girded by a thorough reading of what voters desired and disdained.
Trump, a former Democrat who held mostly liberal positions, employed political operatives to strategically mine the GOP base for hot spots, then devised a message tailored to the moment. Onetime consultant Sam Nunberg told New York Magazine earlier this year that in 2013 and 2014 “I listened to thousands of hours of talk radio, and he was getting reports from me.” Trump’s message was soon about immigration, trade and corrupt, out-of-touch elites in Washington who could no longer grow the economy.
While Clinton assembled teams of experts -- elites -- to consult with on policy plans and a message, she clearly was not only out of touch with the center of the electorate, but never saw the energy that fueled the insurgency of Sen. Bernie Sanders coming.
WikiLeaks-released emails show Clinton’s most trusted aides struggling to identify the meaning of her candidacy. In an effort to choose something for the candidate to show passion about, longtime confidante Neera Tanden wrote to Campaign Chairman John Podesta: “maybe there’s a battle she can take on that is authentic to her? Drug companies? Not just for a day but for a long time. Fighting a particular injustice and showing she’s on the right side. Of course I’d love it to be Wall Street. But that means being on endless calls w gene which I have little stomach for. But she hates (or at least used to hate) the drug companies and people know she’s been into health care for a long time.”
As late as this year, pollster and adviser Joel Benenson noted Sanders’ clear anti-Wall Street message and asked Podesta of the former senator/secretary of state/first lady in an email, “Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?”
A list of 85 cringe-worthy and milquetoast slogans, circulated in August of 2015 -- four months after launching her campaign -- show the team focused mostly on the themes of “families” and “fighting” and “strength,” including “strength you can count on.” Ultimately Clinton morphed from being the “champion” for “everyday Americans” to “breaking down barriers” before landing on “Stronger Together,” which at least contrasted with Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
Trump patented “Make America Great Again” shortly after Obama’s re-election in 2012, even before he had decided what policies would restore such greatness. What he would choose was surely customized for the primary campaign but could have easily been adapted for the general election as well. Trump is an outsider businessman in a year when Americans are desperate for change, someone who promised to fund his own campaign, beholden to no one, and to prioritize jobs and economic growth while overhauling a failed bureaucracy.
Trump of course stepped on his own message with toxic statement after controversy after conspiracy theory and angry grievance. He made racist and misogynistic comments that have alienated women, non-white voters, Muslims and Mormons in unprecedented numbers. His Muslim ban is unconstitutional, his deportation force to eject 11 million people is impractical and unaffordable. And polls show strong majorities of Americans believe his temperament disqualifies him to be commander-in-chief.
Trump seems to have abandoned his original message in favor of warning voters of a rigged system that will allow Clinton, Mexican billionaires, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the media and international banks to steal the election from him. And while even close allies of Clinton’s have urged her to make a closing argument about her strengths -- instead of making the campaign solely a referendum on her opponent -- she will spend the remaining days speaking mostly of him. At this point, it will likely be enough.
In a change election, when most Americans crave a viable outsider, it appears the ultimate insider, and de facto incumbent, will win. Because, despite his message, Trump is Trump.