The Campaign We Didn't Deserve
American political campaigns have a familiar rhythm to them. They begin with a rollout “introducing” the candidate to voters. If the candidate is a familiar old hack, this process can seem superfluous. In that case, the political handler’s challenge is to choreograph a campaign event evoking the feelings Samuel Johnson ascribed to second marriages -- “a triumph of hope over experience.”
In the campaign manager’s playbook, this introduction (or reintroduction) is followed by a process of “defining” the opposing candidate. This ploy consists of stressing policy differences between the two camps, while emphasizing any perceived character flaws in said opponent.
The ensuing battle unfolds for many months. Finally, in the campaign’s waning days, each candidate makes a closing argument summarizing the opponent’s negative qualities while repeating the candidate’s most optimistic message, packaged around upbeat music and nostalgic films clips of family, hearth, and Americana.
Not this year. Nobody’s going out on a high note. The 2016 contest is the ugliest presidential campaign in modern U.S. political history, and we can’t blame those hated “special interest groups.” This year, the rotten tone comes directly from the two nominees, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Such a nasty woman,” Trump said, astonishingly, of Clinton during their last debate. Oddly, she’s determined to prove him right. But, remember, Trump’s own nastiness was never in question. What a pair. What a year.
I shouldn’t over-sentimentalize the “normal” political campaign. “Introducing” oneself to the electorate is another way of boasting about yourself while taking credit for the achievements of others. “Defining” your opponent is just another word for slander. “Contrast” ads are propaganda. Yet 2016 has taken these tactics to a whole other level.
“When they go low, we go high” is the stated mantra of the Clinton campaign. The sentiment, uttered to acclaim at the Democrats’ summer convention, was Michelle Obama’s. It’s a nice line, and Hillary has repeated it—she just hasn’t followed it. For that matter, neither has Michelle’s husband, who goes around saying that Trump is “not fit in any way, shape or form” to succeed him in office.
The real strategy of Clinton, her campaign team, and her surrogates is: “When they go low, we go lower.”
In August, days after the Democrats’ convention ended, the Clinton campaign spliced together video clips of Ku Klux Klansmen, white nationalists, and other haters extolling Trump. In September, Clinton allies in the movie business produced an anti-Trump video featuring, among others, actor Don Cheadle, who asks voters if they want to elect a “racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society.”
By October, the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, was trotting out the mother of one of the victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando. “We have to continue moving forward as an inclusive society,” says the aggrieved mom. “If you love a gay person, if you know someone who’s gay, and you truly love them, I don’t know how you could justify a vote for Donald Trump.”
How could someone sympathetic to gay rights vote for Trump? I can think of a reason: He invited an openly gay man to speak at the Republican convention. It happened once before, in 2000, when Rep. Jim Kolbe spoke, but he dared not mention his sexual orientation. Trump-supporting Peter Thiel sure did:
“I am proud to be gay,” he told the Cleveland delegates. “I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American.” Republicans rose to their feet cheering and chanting, “USA! USA!”
Trump spoke later that night, stressing his support for the “LGBTQ”—yes, he used that phrase. “As president, I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” he said. As the GOP delegates applauded, Trump ad-libbed: “I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”
After poll-testing 85 different campaign themes, the Clinton campaign settled on “Stronger Together,” so when Trump forcefully nudged his party in the direction of inclusion, Hillary was left with three choices: (a) praise Trump for seeing the light; (b) ignore him; (c) attack him.
If you have to ask which course she chose you haven’t been paying attention. And as November dawned, Hillary found herself in Florida where she responded to a heckler by pointing at the man and shouting, “I am sick and tired of the negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision and the anger of people who support Donald Trump.”
That’s undoubtedly true. She prefers the negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision and anger of the people who support Hillary Clinton. I should point out that the heckler who angered Hillary raised his voice first. “Bill Clinton is a rapist!” he shouted, while waving a placard with the same words. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign was airing ads with a narrator intoning, “Decades of lies, cover-ups, and scandal have finally caught up with Hillary Clinton. Her emails were found on pervert Anthony Weiner’s laptop.”
The narrator added, “Think about that.”
Speaking as a reluctant swing voter, I don’t want to think about Anthony Weiner—any more than I want to think of the dozen women who say Trump sexually harassed them or the roster of women who say the same about Bill Clinton, or the woman who scheduled and then canceled a press conference in which she was apparently going to claim that Trump tied her up and raped her when she was 13.
It’s November, so I wanted feel-good TV ads bathed in white light or filmed in sepia tones. I want string music, “Morning Again in America,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a chicken in every pot, and “I Like Ike.”
Instead each campaign came to the same conclusion: Whoever is being talked about last may lose. They want the attention on the other candidate—negative attention, naturally—and although this might be sound strategy, the only “mandate” Hillary Clinton can legitimately claim if she wins is that she isn’t Donald Trump. And vice versa.