Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Return of the Swift Boats


The prevailing logic among many political pundits - indeed among many establishment Republicans - is that the shakeup in the Trump campaign won't work. That letting Donald be Donald is really the crux of the problem. Doubling down on a failed strategy would only makes things worse, not better.

And while I would tend to agree with that reasoning, what concerns me most is what's coming. Back in May my fear was that we could be looking at a repeat of the 2000 election. That was the year progressives sat on the sidelines sucking their thumbs and feeling sorry for themselves over the fact that Al Gore wasn't the second coming of FDR. The result was we got stuck with George - numb nuts - Bush for eight years.

Since wrapping up the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton has mended fences with the majority of Bernie Sanders's supporters and solidified her position with Democratic voters. She's now at 91 percent with her party compared to Trump's 73 percent among Republicans. And with Breitbart head Stephen Bannon running the show, it wouldn't surprise me if that percentage goes down a bit, at least temporarily.

I say temporarily because the real reason Bannon was brought on board has nothing to do with letting Donald be Donald. Face it, he's been his own man for 40 years. No force in the universe is going to keep him from behaving like the asshole he is. Bannon's talent lies elsewhere, in the work his sleazy publication Breitart has done over the years, and if I'm the Clinton campaign I'd take notice right now.

That's because this campaign is about go from the ridiculous to the tragic. It's clear to everyone that the difference in the polling - the reason Clinton enjoys a 6 point lead nationally, and substantial leads in many swing states - comes down to the perception by most voters that Trump is not fit to be president. On matters like trustworthiness and who's better on the economy, the race is basically a push.

So Bannon's job ostensibly is to bring Clinton down to Trump's level and make this race a tossup. How will he do that? By doing to her what the GOP and Bush did to John Kerry in '04. If you remember, Bush and Kerry were neck and neck in the polls that year. It was clear the Iraq War wasn't going as expected and Bush's popularity was sinking fast. Something had to be done or Kerry was going to win.

That was when the swift boat ads started appearing, falsely accusing Kerry of being unpatriotic. The Kerry campaign didn't take the ads seriously, believing that the majority of voters would see through the charade. They were wrong. The ads began to gain traction and a slight Kerry lead turned into a slight Bush lead. By the time Kerry finally responded, it was too late. Enough of the electorate had already made up their minds and Bush narrowly won reelection to a second term.

On the surface it would seem Bannon has his hands full. He not only has to swift boat Clinton, he has to do it while making sure Trump's poll numbers don't plummet any further. The latter could prove impossible, but the former is well within his grasp.

Already the innuendos have started. Crooked Hillary is now Tired Hillary. Did she suffer a stroke? Is she fit to handle the duties of commander in chief? Out of nowhere a doctor - some quack Breitbart dug up - has seen fit to cast aspirations on her health. There's a photo circulating of her stumbling while walking up some stairs. Of course plenty of people have stumbled while walking up or down a flight of stairs. And the overwhelming majority of them are in perfect health.

But for some, just the mere appearance of an imperfection allows them to make the most outrageous claims without providing a scintilla of proof. An old college professor of mine used to say that if you throw enough shit at the blackboard, some of it will stick. Bannon will need to throw a ton of shit and he's just the sort of creep to do it.

And that, sadly, is politics 101. Seek out the one advantage your opponent has and neutralize it. Can it work? It already has. True, it'll be a tall order. Over the last 15 months, Trump has managed to piss off every possible demographic group with the exception of while males. Bush, at least, reached out to minorities. He actually managed to get 44 percent of the Latino vote. At present, Trump is polling in the teens among Hispanics and the single digits with African Americans.

But if I'm Hillary Clinton, I don't sit around waiting to see if history can repeat itself. She and her campaign need to be proactive on this and strike back hard. When Trump comes at her with health "concerns," she should go at him with a psychological profile that lays out the case that he's unhinged. It won't be a hard case to make. There are already dozens of professionals who've commented on his erratic behavior. Run a few ads on the Dr. Strangelove angle. It'll be funny AND true at the same time.

The big difference between 2004 and 2016 is that the Republican nominee is hardly in a position to question the fitness of his opponent. It's incumbent upon the Clinton campaign that they drive this point home until it sticks with the electorate. Assuming the voters will somehow parse out the bullshit from the truth was how John Kerry lost.

In my opinion, Trump has about five weeks to make this election a horse race. If he goes into October trailing by 5 or 6 points nationally, and if Clinton maintains her big lead in the swing states, I frankly don't know how he can come back. That's why he and his campaign will pull out all the stops between now and the debates. If you thought you'd seen it all, trust me, you haven't. We are about to go into unchartered waters.

Over the years, Hillary Clinton has had to endure a series of relentless attacks, many bogus, but to be fair some legit. She's sat through a grueling eleven hour Congressional committee investigation over Benghazi, and had to contend with a damning FBI report over her email server. And after all that, she's still standing and comfortably ahead.

But the shit storm that's headed her way will be her greatest test yet. How she handles it will ultimately end up determining whether she becomes the next president of the United States.

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