When people act out-of-character, there’s usually a reason. And when intelligent people do stupid things in strategic situations, one must wonder what the strategy was. We previously explored why Hillary Clinton said that “half” of Donald Trump’s followers were “a basket of deplorables.” Some people thought it had been a case of honesty in private, like Mitt Romney’s 2012 claim that 47% of Americans (ie, Democrats) were, well, deplorable.
The trouble with that interpretation is that Romney’s comment was made at a private, fundraising event, surreptitiously recorded—a one-time event. Hillary had been making her charge of “deplorables” for weeks on the campaign trail. Why? It’s a political truism that you can attack your opponent, but it’s counterproductive to attack their followers—because your goal is to bring some of them over to your side.
So, why did Hillary purposely offend Trump supporters? I think there are two reasons. First, she was painfully aware that the entire campaign, for more than a year, focused on Donald Trump—and the outrageous things he said. I have my own experience with this. Years ago, I acted in a fundraising play for the local high school. In practices, the guys wanted to get the attention of the girls, because, well, that’s life.
One of the guys was crude and outrageous. The girls said the guy was obnoxious—but they laughed along with the jokes, too. Two other guys were civil at first, but soon joined in. They were also boorish and lewd, to more laughter. The girls said they were glad that I was the only holdout for civility, but at the same time, they treated me as an outsider, so I eventually joined in with the “fun.” The girls said they were disappointed, but we suddenly became a unified group of rogues.
Hillary’s “deplorables” comment was apparently her attempt to get a little media time, since for more than a year, the nightly news has been about what crazy thing Trump said that day. But I think there was a second reason for her comment. Let’s go back to 2004.
In the campaign of 2004, President Bush’s popularity had waned, because of the unending Iraq War. Some were complaining that Bush was sending “our boys” to die, when his own story was one of military deferments, special treatment to get into the National Guard (to serve stateside), and then, he seemed to have just stopped showing up. Some even called him a “deserter.”
This was a major concern for Bush, because his own father lost his election, even after reaching a 89% favorability in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. Just a year later, GHW Bush lost to Bill Clinton. Republicans did not want that to happen again.
Democrats saw an opportunity, so they dressed their nominee, John Kerry, in his military uniform, and pointed out that he was a war hero, mentioning his experiences in Vietnam. Milking the moment, Kerry even said, he was “reporting for duty” when he accepted the nomination. That was an odd gambit, since Kerry was better known for coming home from Vietnam and leading protests against the war. But that’s not the attack Republicans made. Instead of attacking Kerry on his weakness, Bush’s advisor Karl Rove stuck to his technique of hitting an opponent on his strength.
With an attack called “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth,” the Republicans didn’t even question that Kerry was a hero, and Bush was not.
The entire discussion became “HOW MUCH” of a hero Kerry was—and the rest of the campaign was doubt about the degree to which Kerry was really a hero, not about Bush’s non-hero past. Military.com did a report on Kerry’s real story.
The Rove attack was so effective, that we now have a verb to describe it: “swiftboating”
Of course, one should note that there was also charges of election fraud, according to the conservative Daily Caller.
A form of “swiftboating” was apparently what Hillary Clinton tried to accomplish with her “basket of deplorables” comment. It wasn’t just to get media attention, it was also to change the focus of the campaign. When there was immediate uproar, Hillary didn’t retract the statement, she only said that she was probably wrong to say that “half” of Trump’s supporters were deplorable. And the discussion began about “HOW MANY” of Trump’s supporters were deplorable, such as David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard.
Note that Hillary apologized for the word “half,” not the word “deplorables.”
With luck, the discussion would have made Trump supporters uncomfortable to be lumped in with the “deplorables,” peeling away his support—instead of the common wisdom that an attack on supporters is counterproductive. But her luck ran out. On the same weekend, she was seen fumbling, physically, and the entire media cycle focused on “Hillary’s Health.” And “deplorables” became an odd footnote of the campaign. Opportunity lost.
Up to that point, there was a lot of discussion about Hillary’s health and doubts about the credibility of those who were questioning Hillary’s health. In fact, while she was able to dispel the “health” issue, the new discussion was suddenly about her stupidity for not telling voters that she had pneumonia before it caused her to seem so weak.
Back to today. Last night’s debate was expected to be a “snoozefest.” Both men were known as “nice guys” who have not liked attacking an opponent. In fact, Pence wrote a sort of apology for a particularly negative campaign in which he had been involved.
Therefore, the vice presidential debate was expected to be “boring.” Because of that, the viewership was probably down. Two unknowns were expected to be as mutually complementary as the boring love-fest that was the Cheney-Lieberman VP “debate” of 2000.
In fact, the Daily Beast predicted that Kaine wouldn’t fall into the “nice guy” trap, warning him how Cheney had duped Lieberman.
As noted in our pages, Pence was expected to put a civil face on the Trump campaign, and his only problem was to explain why he (Pence) had joined the ticket, since the two Republicans had such divergent backgrounds and ideals. Pence spent years as a conservative radio talk show host, so he knew how to phrase things to his liking. He knew how to appear stable and sincere—two things Trump has problems with.
If the debate had gone on as expected, the reduced audience probably would walk away saying, “wow, Trump’s ideas aren’t bad at all. He just has a problem ’talking good.’” It would have been a solid victory, changing the public’s attitude toward Trump, giving them more patience and empathy for Trump, and making his second presidential debate easy.
I think that’s why nice guy Kaine acted like, well, an ass. Right from the beginning, he was interrupting and throwing out rehearsed lines. He sounded like Marco Rubio, whom Chris Christie called out in a primary debate—with his “memorized 30 second speeches.”
In the baseball post-season, let’s do a sports metaphor: Kaine was not trying to “hit a home run.” He was purposely doing a “sacrifice fly.” He sacrificed his own gentle image so that today’s discussion would not be about how reasonable Trump’s ideas sound. Most of the talk is about what a jerk Kaine is. And the argument is about “HOW MUCH” of a jerk Kaine was. The issues have been muddied. And that’s just what Democrats wanted.