Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Hillary Clinton’s historic moment, potential Republican defectors, and Dick Morris’s return.
Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination for president, the first woman to be a major-party nominee in U.S. history. How will her election campaign be different from her march through the primaries?
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the headline here: Hillary Clinton is the first woman to secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. That is an honest-to-God historic achievement. And she got there even though she is (as she herself puts it) “not a natural politician.” The question now: Can she become more of a natural politician as she steps into a cage match with an attention-commanding bully who doesn’t even speak the same political language she does? Clinton’s hallmarks as a candidate — civility, substance, caution, a strong work ethic, and a proclivity for fudging or hiding her actual views on tough issues — are the antitheses of Trump’s. He is crude, unprepared, reckless, and lazy, and full of strong (if often self-contradictory) stands on every issue. They represent two different American cultures even more than they do two different parties or ideologies.
Last week, in a “foreign policy” speech that was less about policy and more about Trump, Clinton at last showed signs that she gets it. Her dismissive, borderline-funny belittling of Trump was overdue. The more she does of this, the better. She has to get under his skin daily. She needs more surrogates like Meryl Streep, who, at a Central Park gala for the Public Theater on Monday, painted her face orange and strapped herself in a faux belly to savage Trump at the lowest burlesque level. After all, we’ve learned that angry, self-righteous sermons against Trump only backfire and make him stronger: Just look at how little of an impact months of spittle-filled op-ed pieces from the left, center, and right have had on his rise. Humorous ridicule of his persona — if executed by those with more skill than, say, Marco Rubio — rattles him.
Clinton is also going to need a message of her own that is more commanding than her thousand bullet points in a thousand position papers. She cannot be Bernie Sanders, and she sounds phony when she tries to emulate his populism. But she is going to have to speak to the anger out there, and she is going to need Sanders’s voters, especially the young ones, to turn up as they did for Barack Obama’s two victories. In this, her greatest ally will not be Sanders (assuming he stops pouting and folds his tent), or her husband, or her running mate, even should her vice-presidential pick come from the Sanders-Warren wing of the party. (Really, does anyone ever vote for a veep?) No, her most important ally by far is Obama himself. He is brilliant at skewering Trump (remember that White House Correspondents’ Dinner?) and matchless at rousing the Democratic base. The single most significant difference between Hillary’s primary campaign and her campaign in the general election will be the active, impassioned involvement of the president, upstaging Trump in every news cycle as Clinton has often failed to do, and giving Trump hell every day.
Surveying the damage that Trump is doing to the GOP by his racist vilification of the Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Lindsey Graham noted that if any of his colleagues were “looking for an off-ramp” from his party’s Trump bandwagon, “this is probably it.” Are we close to seeing pockets of explicit Republican support for Hillary?
I doubt we’ll see much more than tiny pockets of Clinton support among the powers that be in the GOP. It has been astonishing to watch one Republican leader after another call out Trump’s racism this week and yet say they still support him because they hate Hillary more. Keep in mind that these are some of the same so-called leaders — typified by Paul Ryan — who were in a tizzy months ago when Trump didn’t immediately disavow David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. They are the same leaders who had to wait several days to see which way the political winds were blowing before they called for the Confederate flag to come down in the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre. You have to wonder: Do Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, et al, have even a single testicle among them? It doesn’t seem that way. McConnell’s cowardly strategy for criticizing Trump, for instance, was to demand that he “get on message.” What the hell does that mean? Trump is on message: It’s the nativist, birther message that the GOP has embraced throughout the Obama era, and that John McCain (who also continues to endorse Trump) legitimized by putting Sarah Palin on his ticket eight years ago. Trump’s misogyny is also consistent with a party whose favored Establishment candidate this year, Rubio, opposed abortions for victims of rape and incest. It may be only a matter of days before Trump declares that his idea of an impartial judge is Aaron Persky, who presided over the Brock Turner rape case.
But we are beginning to see a few signs of panic, if not courage, among GOP elites this week. They are starting to remember history. The Republican Party lost African-American voters in seeming perpetuity from the moment it nominated an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater, for the presidency in 1964. In the 1990s, the GOP lost California — once Ronald Reagan’s secure domain — after the Republican governor Pete Wilson unleashed the forces of bigotry on Hispanics by campaigning for Proposition 187, a punitive strike against undocumented immigrants. It’s finally beginning to dawn on the party elites that, yes, Trump could drive away America’s fastest-growing demographic group for as many decades as Goldwater drove away black people. Trump could turn red states blue just as Wilson did in California.
What are the party factotums going to do about it? Endorsements of Clinton aren’t happening. Bill Kristol’s farcical effort to launch a third-party candidacy around a right-wing blogger named David French was aborted by the would-be nominee before it began. And so we are starting to hear some whispers — mainly on The Wall Street Journal editorial page — that maybe there will be a contested convention after all. Certainly there are ways that the party can connive to “steal” the nomination from Trump — though such a conspiracy is still hobbled by the lack of an alternative candidate, by the prospect of Trump’s promised “riots,” and by the aforementioned lack of balls among Republican leaders. But in an election cycle when anything can happen, and anything has, we can’t rule out fireworks in Cleveland just yet.
Gabe Sherman reported Monday that Clinton friend turned critic Dick Morris is in talks to join the Trump campaign. Morris is perhaps best known for incorrect political forecasts and questionable ethics — a perfect fit?
To put it mildly! Writing in Slate four years ago, Dave Weigel said, “no single human made as many wrong, botched, bogus, and stupid predictions about the 2012 election as Dick Morris.” Among other things, he predicted that Mitt Romney would win 325 Electoral College votes. (Actual tally: 206.) Only last week, Morris had been hired by Trump’s favored publication of record, the National Enquirer, to cover the 2016 race. Whether there or in the Trump campaign, Morris will be doing the same thing: spewing dirt as spitefully as he can about the Clintons. Much of it may be no more credible than his electoral prognostications.
Let us also remember that, along with his sorry track record as an analyst, Morris’s résumé also includes the 1996 revelation (in the Star, not the Enquirer) that he enjoyed toe-sucking escapades with a Washington prostitute. At the very least, this credential puts him on the short list for Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.