If you are the status quo candidate in a change election in which the national mood is sour and two-thirds of the electorate think the country is on the wrong track, what do you do? Attack. Relentlessly. Paint your opponent as extremist, volatile, clueless, unfit, dangerous. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s latest national ad, featuring major Republican politicians echoing that indictment of Donald Trump, ends thus: “Unfit. Dangerous. Even for Republicans.”
That was the theme of Clinton’s famous “alt-right” speech and of much of her $100 million worth of ads.
Problem is, it’s not working.
Over the last month, Trump’s new team, led by Kellyanne Conway, has worked single-mindedly to blunt that line of attack on the theory that if he can just cross the threshold of acceptability, he wins. In an act of brazen rebranding, they set out to endow him with stature and empathy.
Stature was acquired in Mexico, whose president inexplicably gave Trump the opportunity to stand on the world stage with a national leader and more than hold his own. It’s the same stature booster Sen. Barack Obama pulled off when he stood with the French president at a news conference in Paris in 2008.
That was part one: Trump the statesman. Part two: the kinder gentler Trump.
Nervy. Can you really repackage the boasting, bullying, bombastic, insulting, insensitive Trump into a mellow and caring version? With two months to go? In a digital age in which every past outrage is preserved on imperishable video?
Turns out, yes. How? Deflect and deny — and pretend it never happened. Where are they now — the birtherism, the deportation force, the scorn for teleprompters, the mocking of candidates who take outside money? Down the memory hole. Orwell was wrong. You don’t need repression. You need only the sensory overload of an age of numbingly ephemeral social media. In this surreal election season, there is no past.
Clinton ads keep showing actual Trump sound bites meant to shock. Yet her numbers are dropping, his rising.
How? Trump never goes on the defensive. He merely creates new Trumps. Hence:
1) The African-American blitz.
It’s a new pose and the novelty shows. Trump is not very familiar with the language. He occasionally slips, for example, into referring to “the blacks.” And his argument that African-Americans [have difficult lives] and therefore have nothing to lose by voting for him hovers somewhere between condescension and insult.
But, as every living commentator has noted, the foray into African-American precincts was not aimed at winning black votes but at countering Trump’s general image as the bigoted candidate of white people.
Result? A curious dynamic in which Clinton keeps upping the accusatory ante just as Trump keeps softening his tone — until she finds herself way over the top, landing in a basket of deplorables, a phrase that will haunt her until Election Day. (Politics 101: Never attack the voter.)
2) The immigration wobble.
A week of nonstop word salad about illegal immigration left everyone confused about what Trump really believes. Genius. The only message to emerge from the rhetorical fog is that he is done talking about deportation and/or legalization. The very discussion is off the table until years down the road.
Case closed. Toxic issue detoxified.
Again, that’s not going to win him the Hispanic vote. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to soften his image in the Philadelphia suburbs, pundit shorthand for white college-educated women that Republicans have to win (and where Trump trails Romney 2012 by 10 points). Which brings us to:
3) The blockbuster childcare proposal.
Unveiled Tuesday, it is liberalism at its best, Big Government at its biggest: tax deductions, tax rebates (i.e. cash), and a federal mandate of six weeks of paid maternity leave. The biggest entitlement since, well, Obamacare.
But wait. Didn’t Trump’s acolytes assure us that he spoke for those betrayed by the sold-out, elitist, GOP establishment that for years refused to stand up to Obama’s overweening mandates, Big Government profligacy and budget-busting entitlements?
No matter. That was yesterday. There is no past. Nor a future — at least for Ivanka-care. It would never get through the GOP House.
Nor is it meant to. It is meant to signal what George H. W. Bush once memorably read off a cue card. “Message: I care.”
And where do you think Trump gave this dish-the-Whigs cradle-to-college entitlement speech? Why, the Philadelphia suburbs!
Can’t get more transparent than that. Or shameless. Or brilliant.
And it’s working.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group