Saturday, September 3, 2016

September Rain

It was about 30 years ago and an unknown comic by the name of Andrew Dice Clay was appearing on stage at Dangerfield's in Manhattan. He was part of an HBO Young Comedian's special. For those of you not familiar with the Dice Man, I'll be as delicate as possible. He was the one who came up with all those dirty jokes like Hickory Dickory Dock and Little Boy Blew. I can assure you they were not nursery rhymes when Clay got through with them.

Anyway, he was almost done with his routine when he began a critique of Japanese drivers. "They're the worst drivers. I mean how do you drive with your eyes three quarters closed? You could blindfold these people with dental floss. You don't give 'em keys to a car."

Then he expanded his "critique" to include anyone who didn't look or talk like us Americans. He closed by saying he thought there should be a sign at the airport that read: "If you don't know the language, stay the fuck out of the country."

I remember the bit well; I also remember that of all the laughter and applause Clay got that evening, none was louder or more demonstrative than the response he got after that line. He seemed to strike a cord with the audience, most of it white. It resonated with them. The '80s, it should be noted, was the decade that saw the transition of road signs from the traditional English-written signs to what we now have. No left turn became a left arrow with a red slash through it. No parking was replaced with a giant P with a red slash through it. And so on and so forth.

Over the course of several years, virtually every road sign was supplanted with a sign that was language neutral; signs that anybody could recognize regardless of which country they hailed from or language they spoke. Latinos, Asians, Europeans, etc... For most of us, it was no big deal, but to a certain segment of the population, it was the beginning of Armageddon.

A lot of pundits have been pontificating about the flip-flop Trump did on his trip to Mexico. The softer, gentler Trump standing next to the Mexican president, followed by a return to his bombastic self only a few hours later at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona. He reiterated his insistence that Mexico was going to pay for the Wall [let's just capitalize it, shall we?] and that there would be no amnesty for illegal immigrants still in the country.

His mob - and, yes, they're a mob - roared wth approval, just like Andrew Dice Clay's audience roared with approval when he threw down on stage 30 years earlier. The message Trump was spewing, much like Clay's, couldn't be simpler: America has been too kind, too inclusive, too tolerant for far too long. Enough is enough. We're done being taken advantage of; we're done having to adjust to your inability to learn our language and customs; and we're definitely done watching you get away with murder while the rest of us get fucked.

As I watched Trump, I could see in my mind's eye a lot of people in the country who were probably nodding their heads in approval. Maybe they weren't as rabid as the mob that filled that hall, but they were astutely listening anyway. That's how it works. It's not the mob that gets you elected; it's all the other people in TV land that go along for the ride. And don't kid yourself; there were a lot of people who watched him that night who may not have liked his tone, but got the gist of what he was saying. You and me and most of the people who think like us may have been repulsed by it, as were a good chunk of his Latino surrogates, half of whom resigned over it, but I'll bet the ranch that he resonated with a majority of white people, especially those white suburban voters; the ones Hillary is banking on to get her elected.

And that's why I don't think for a microsecond that this race is over. Far from it. Think about it. Trump had the worst month of any presidential candidate in history, including Barry Goldwater, and he is now trailing head to head in the RCP polls by only 3.9 points. In a four-way race, it's only 3.2. Clinton's lead in Wisconsin is down to 3; in Florida it's down to 2.7. She's tied in Iowa and North Carolina. The only two states that haven't seen slippage are Virginia and Colorado where she holds commanding double-digit leads, but that could change, too.

If that frightens you, it should. Dr. Strangelove is almost within the margin of error. Based on his temperament and how his campaign has conducted itself, he shouldn't even be alive. Not only he is alive, he appears to be well. Indeed, far from imploding, he is surging. He still has a difficult path ahead of him, as would any Republican nominee simply based on the electoral map, but no longer is it analogous to climbing Mt. Everest.

Most of this is due to Hillary's handling of the email server and the Clinton Foundation crises, and they are crises. It's crystal clear from every poll that people simply don't believe her or her husband. It doesn't matter that the Foundation helps millions of people or that the FBI exonerated her of any criminal liability. The impression the electorate has of her is, for lack of a better word, baked in. She's competent, she's got the experience and she'd probably make a fine president, but, despite her resume, she's not connecting with voters. Her lack of transparency is costing her dearly.

The good news, if there is any, is that Trump doesn't appear to be picking up her votes; not yet, at least. He remains stuck in the high 30s to low 40s, depending on which poll you look at. And the presence of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein hasn't done the damage to her that most predicted it would. The RCP difference between a 2-way and a 4-way is only .7 points. The Ralph Nader effect doesn't appear to be repeating itself this year, which is a relief. In other words, if she loses, it won't be because of Stein.

But the greater concern now is how does she stop this downward slide? There's still two months to go before voters head to the polls and plenty of time to right the ship; but there's also plenty of time to wreck it. And right now, team Clinton seems to be doing the latter. To avoid disaster, it's clear that the campaign needs its own reset. Here's what I would do.

1. Don't wait for the debates. Trying to run out the clock was always a risky strategy, even when she was up by 8 points. Depending on Trump to continue to fall on his sword has worked throughout most of this campaign, but at some point, Hillary needs to make her case to the electorate for why she should be elected. She can start by making an argument that fair trade deals are good for America. So far, Trump has been kicking her ass over NAFTA. She needs to state unequivocally that NAFTA didn't cost the jobs its detractors say it did. If Johnson makes it to the debates, he will do just that. She can't afford to let a third-party candidate steal her thunder. It just reinforces the sentiment that there's no difference between her and Trump.

2. Hold a fucking press conference. Yes, the first question she's going to get will be on her emails, followed by one on the appearance of impropriety over the Clinton Foundation. What can I say? Life is tough. At some point, she's going to have to face these questions. The question is does she want to do it before the debates or during them? Putting this off isn't working anymore. It's driving up her unfavorables. She's now only 9.8 points ahead of Trump. Imagine that, she's only 9.8 points more likable than the most racist, xenophobic candidate since the Reconstruction Era. That's embarrassing. The best way to reverse that trend is to show the country she's not afraid to take her medicine. She can even use the conference to make another public apology and then remind the press that Trump has never once apologized for anything.

3. Spend some time in the suburbs of Philly, Raleigh, Milwaukee, Akron, Tampa, Cleveland. In fact, a lot of time. Trump's recent overtures to the black community and Hispanics were not directed at them; they were directed at moderate whites who live in these neighborhoods and, as any coach will tell you, the best defense is a strong offense. It's time for Hillary to start offending. The perception among many white voters is that she is pandering to minorities. Visiting the burbs will go along way towards quelling any fears they might have that they will be ignored in her administration, and, at the same time, deprive Trump of the one path he needs to win in November.

4. Get out front of the fake health scandals. Now that Trump has hired former Dan Burton aide David Bossie, the personal attacks on her will intensify. Between Alex Jones' Info Wars and Steve Bannon's Breitbart, it'll be a non-stop slime fest. Clinton cannot allow any of this bullshit to go unanswered and gain traction within the electorate. Simply saying she will release her medical records when Trump releases his tax returns isn't going to cut it. Like it or not, there are two sets of rules in this race: one for him and one for her. She needs to be proactive. Continue to be the adult and lead by example. The moment she releases her medical records, the attacks on her health may not stop but they will cease to have any impact.

5. Let Joe Biden talk as much as he wants at her events. Biden is everything she isn't: genuine, forthright, believable and popular. When he blasts Trump, he's doing it in a language the average Joe on the street gets. "He's a scam artist, he's not one of you." Face it, those words have a lot more weight coming from his mouth than they do coming from hers. That's not necessarily her fault, so much as it's his strength. Throughout his storied career, Biden may have had his fair share of misspeaks, but he's still one of the few politicians in the country who resonates with a wide swath of the electorate. He can help seal the deal for Clinton in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

I'm sure there are a few other things team Clinton can do, but I would start with these. Above all they should stop with all the landslide talk; put it out of their minds. It isn't just arrogant; it's potentially fatal. This might well end up being a close election in November. Many a football team dreaming of a blowout has found themselves on the wrong side of a close decision. The goal is to get to 270. To do that they need to hunker down and take care of business.

There'll be plenty of time to celebrate on November 9th. Or cry. The choice is up to them.

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