By the time Hillary Clinton entered the 2016 race, the GOP had already tied several weights around her ankles. The right had been given two decades to paint the former First Lady as a soulless schemer whose professional ambitions were an affront to traditional families, and a threat to the republic’s survival — and eight years to brand Obama’s preferred successor as a corrupt self-dealer, whose illegal use of a private email server had jeopardized national security and/or killed our boys in Benghazi.
The Clinton campaign found no cure for these pounds of preemption. The Democratic nominee’s negatives were so high and durable, they enabled the most widely despised major-party nominee in modern memory to compete for the “hold your nose and pick a lever” vote.
It won’t be so easy for the GOP to preemptively poison the Democrats’ 2020 campaign. Team Blue boasts no presumptive front-runner. And Republicans are sure to have a thinner oppo file on whomever the party crowns than they did on Hillary.
Nonetheless, conservative groups believe that seeding damaging narratives about Team Blue’s leading lights will be critical to keeping America great again. And they plan to get to get that ball rolling in Massachusetts next year. As McClatchey reports:
Republicans are getting a jump on Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign. The Massachusetts Democrat is preparing to run for re-election to the Senate in 2018 and hasn’t said yet whether she’ll challenge President Donald Trump for the White House. But in-state and national Republican officials have decided to target the liberal icon anyway, saying they will try to inflict enough damage during the Senate race to harm any future presidential effort — and perhaps dissuade her from running altogether.
…“We learned from our experience with Secretary (Hillary) Clinton that when you start earlier, the narratives have more time to sink in and resonate with the electorate,” said Colin Reed, executive director at the Republican outside group America Rising.
Reed’s group launched an effort in April to catalog and promote Warren’s mistakes, announcing that it would try to defeat the senator during next year’s race while also trying to “continue developing the long-term research and communications angles to damage her 2020 prospects.”
The upshot of McClatchey’s report is that the right-wing donor class sees Warren as a clear and present danger — and is, therefore, willing to throw big money at the long-shot campaign of her 2018 challenger. The idea being: What doesn’t kill Warren will make her weaker.
Trying to bruise the other side’s top players in a preliminary round is a pretty standard gambit in American politics. And given how deep the right’s pockets are, it would be imprudent for it not to make a big investment in making Warren’s life less pleasant next year.
That said, the idea that the GOP can poison Warren’s image as effectively as it did Clinton’s seems suspect. And not just because Warren has fewer liabilities and the Republicans have less time to prepare.
In 2016, the GOP didn’t merely enjoy the benefit of an opponent who had alienated a segment of her own base by taking heretical stances on “super predators,” and the Iraq War — along with ungodly sums of money from Wall Street firms. Nor did the Republicans just have the good fortune to run against a candidate with little talent for retail politics, and a name that instantly stimulates red America’s amygdala.
For the right also had its narratives signal-boosted by both the Kremlin and FBI. And without those co-conspirators, it’s unlikely that the character assassination of Hillary Clinton would have been lethal.
Had federal law enforcement not given the right’s narratives about Clinton implicit validation (or, if you prefer, had Clinton not given the FBI the opportunity to provide such validation by using a private email server) it’s far from clear that a fight about personal character and judgement would have redounded to the GOP’s benefit in 2016.
Absent a federal investigation into Clinton’s email habits, the GOP would never have been able to manipulate the mainstream media into putting such outsize emphasis on the Democratic nominee’s IT-management practices. During the 2016 campaign, the three major networks devoted more than 100 minutes of their nightly newscasts to coverage of Clinton’s use of email while secretary of State — and just 32 minutes for all coverage of the candidates’ policy positions.
Without the efforts of Russian hackers and WikiLeaks, Clinton would likely have had a bit more success in consolidating the support of her party’s left flank — while the right would have had a bit more trouble keeping the words “Clinton” and “email” in the news, after the FBI investigation ran its course, and the Access Hollywood tape hit the airwaves.
And, of course, without the combined efforts of James Comey and Anthony Weiner, the GOP would never have been able to hit Clinton with an October surprise this damaging:
All of which is to say: The GOP’s “anti-Clinton strategy” was buoyed by enough improbable good luck to make liberal atheists wonder if someone up there hates them.
It’s difficult to imagine that Trump — or any alternative 2020 GOP standard-bearer — will benefit from talk of FBI investigations. And assuming the president does seek reelection, the burden of overcoming preestablished narratives will almost certainly fall heavier on the right side of the aisle.