Friday, August 12, 2016

Playing With A Lead

One of the reasons I love football so much is because it's the ultimate battle between two fierce competitors. Both teams go at it mercilessly for four quarters, doing everything to win the game. And the one that comes up short has to wait seven long days to get back on the field and earn a shot at redemption.

In many respects, a political campaign is just like a football game. It's fierce and tough. Nothing gets held back and the losing team has to wait, in this case, four long years to make its case to the electorate again.

This year, team Clinton is ahead - way ahead. And that is certainly better than the alternative. But as any football coach knows all too well, getting off to a big lead is one thing; holding onto it is another. Many a team has seen a big lead vanish late in the game only to lose. As a Giants' fan I can attest to this. Last season, the Giants blew four fourth-quarter leads and lost every one of those games. It ended up costing coach Tom Coughlin his job.

So, knowing that, how does Hillary Clinton avoid her own fourth quarter collapse? Well, for starters, stay on the offense. Since the Democratic convention, Donald Trump has had one disaster after another, from picking a fight with the parents of a Gold Star veteran, to kicking a crying baby out of one of his rallies, to encouraging a second amendment remedy for Hillary, to accusing Barack Obama of being the founder of ISIS. From a football perspective, it's like playing against a team that keeps picking up personal fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct. Team Clinton started at their own twenty-yard line and now find themselves on the Trump twenty.

But no amount of penalties, regardless of their egregiousness, can push the ball over the goal line. That's where a good offense comes in. Face it, the Clinton campaign hasn't had to do much over the last two weeks. Basically, they've stood by and watched Trump pick up one red flag after another. They even managed to escape scrutiny over the latest batch of emails concerning the Clinton Foundation. While nothing in the emails appears criminal in nature, under normal circumstances, the controversy would've proven costly. Put another way, Hillary took the snap from center, fumbled the handoff, but then fell on the ball before team Trump could recover.

Lucky? You bet your ass, but then running against Trump has proven to be a goldmine for Clinton. Against a superior opponent, say John Kasich, she'd be trailing badly by now. So how do you play offense against an opponent that insists on committing suicide? By letting him, that's how.

I've seen enough football games to know that winning teams manage the clock well. They move the chains and come away with points whenever they can. But, above all, they avoid turnovers. It's an axiom that the team that has the fewest penalties and commits the fewest turnovers usually prevails.

It is crucial that Hillary do her best to avoid any further unforced errors. A good way to do that would be to give up this ridiculous insistence that James Comey said she was being completely truthful. He didn't and everyone with access to a computer and a flat-screen TV knows he didn't. Here's what she needs to say: "Look, I've said all I'm going to say on this matter. It was a mistake; I regret it; if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't and now I'm moving on." Period. No qualifying, no re-litigating, just cry uncle. Had she done that a year ago, this would be behind her now. Having said that, she can't afford to keep digging this hole. This will be one of the first questions she gets in the debates; how she handles it could still cost her the election.

Next, keep the pressure on Trump. When he isn't doing his impersonation of a kamikaze pilot, the Clinton campaign needs to stay focused on its message to the voters that Hillary has the temperament and the experience needed to be commander in chief. Be steady and be resolute. They can go on the attack but they should resist the urge to go gutter. Instead, they should borrow a page out of the president's playbook: No Drama Obama. It worked twice for him; it could seal the deal for her.

But above all else, they should avoid complacency. It's worth noting that at this point in 1988, Michael Dukakis had a huge lead over George Bush. We all know what happened that year. Don't think for a moment that lightning can't strike twice in the same spot. Remember, neither of these two candidates is well liked. They both have enough baggage to fill the cargo hold of a jet plane. It's up to Hillary to make sure her baggage doesn't end up bringing down the flight.

That's why if I'm the Clinton campaign, I'd continue to expand the electoral map as much as possible. Already there are signs that Georgia and Arizona, two reliably red states, are in play. The latest polling from Georgia shows Clinton with a slight lead. And in Arizona, it's basically tied. Even in dark red Utah, of all places, there are signs that Trump is in trouble. While I sincerely doubt Utah will flip in November, just having a presence in that state will force Trump to play defense, and that's what you want if you're Hillary.

And last, but never least, a good defense is vital. As the race begins to slip away from him, Trump will throw caution to the wind. He won't just throw the kitchen sink at Clinton; he'll throw the whole damn kitchen. If you thought that floating the possibility of an assassination attempt at her was beneath contempt, just wait until those 7 point leads turn into 10 or 12. We may well see him completely unravel.

But what if the opposite should happen. What happens if Trump, sensing he's got nothing to lose, actually manages to do an about face and start behaving like an adult. For almost a year we've been hearing that he is capable of controlling himself and acting presidential. What if, like Mitt Romney in 2012, he waits until the first debate to roll out President Trump to the nation. I still remember the expression on Obama's face as if he suddenly found himself on a stage with an imposter.

Obama was taken by surprise by Romney's pivot in that Denver debate. It is crucial that Clinton not make the same mistake. She has to prepare for the eventuality, however slim, that Donald Trump may pull a Romney when the two debate this fall. Why? Because Trump can win when he stays on message. Lost in this race is the fact that most of the country is either pissed off or worried or both. Like it or not, Trump's whole candidacy was built on tapping into that vein of discontent. It wouldn't take much to turn his train wreck of a campaign around.

Face it, the reason Hillary is ahead by such a wide margin is because of the way Trump has behaved rather than any particular position she holds. Contrary to past elections, this race is not issue-based. If it were, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz would be their respective parties nominees. I've said this before and it bears repeating: when the voters go to the polls this November, most of them will chose between a person with trust issues and a person who's certifiable. If they should come to the realization that the certifiable guy is just sane enough to be president, it could be game over for team Clinton.

So, yes, it's nice having a lead, but the only lead that counts, in politics as in football, is the one at the end of the game. T-minus 87 days and counting.

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