As everyone must have noticed, Donald J. Trump has nicknamed his general election opponent “Crooked” Hillary Clinton. If his history of attacking “Low-Energy” Jeb Bush, “Little” Marco Rubio, and “Lyin’” Ted Cruz is any indicator, this will be a major theme of Trump’s campaign. Indeed, nicknames are one of the few ways in which Trump displays message discipline.
Branding Hillary as “crooked,” however accurate, has limits. The most obvious limit is that the idea is largely baked into the voters’ low ratings of her honesty and trustworthiness. FBI Director James Comey’s condemnation of Hillary’s mishandling of classified information may hurt Clinton with swing voters, but the lack of criminal charges will limit the damage.
Hillary’s current poll lead suggests her scandals may not hand Trump victory, despite the economy and desire for change favoring the GOP. Aside from Trump’s own terrible unfavorable ratings, it is worth asking why scandals are not fatal to Hillary’s campaign.
Years of Experience Stage-Managing Scandals
Hillary, like her husband Bill, is adept at deflecting scandals because the Clintons have more experience doing it than any other figures in modern American politics. The Clinton blueprint for pivoting from a scandal is vividly described in “The Agenda,” Bob Woodward’s account of Bill’s 1992 campaign and the early days of his administration.
Ten days before the New Hampshire primary, Bill’s poll numbers had plummeted following news stories about his affair with Gennifer Flowers and dodging the draft. The campaign gathered in Arkansas to assess the damage. Bill reportedly went on a rant and appeared to be in denial. Hillary, however, followed with a pep talk, declaring they were going to “fight like hell” and go into every Granite State county to get people to know them.
The next day, the Clintons returned to New Hampshire, where Bill announced he would “fight like hell,” adding that “this election has been about me—or rather some false and twisted tabloid version of me—when it should have been about the people of this state.” Bill also blamed the “Republican attack machine,” although Woodward notes there was no evidence of GOP involvement with the coverage of his scandals. Thus was born the myth of Bill Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” (he came in second in New Hampshire).
These elements—brazen denial, shifting the focus to voters, blaming Republicans for a malicious distraction—comprise a key page in the Clintons’ political playbook. After the revelation of Bill’s affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, Bill gave a statement almost entirely about his education agenda, famously concluding:
Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time—never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.
The missing element was the invocation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” provided by Hillary within 24 hours on NBC’s “The Today Show.”
A Reaction Big Enough to Cover Their Scandal
The Clintons’ success with this political play tends to drive Republicans crazy. The Clintons have come to count on that. When Hillary describes ordinary partisan politics as a conspiracy, she could easily be seen for what she is: a conspiracy theorist. When a Republican House member shoots a watermelon in his backyard attempting to prove the suicide of Clinton Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster was suspect, Hillary looks less crazy by comparison.
Moreover, Hillary can depend on progressives in Big Media to dismiss even reasonable GOP reactions to Democratic improprieties as “overreach,” most recently demonstrated by the media’s treatment of the House hearing on the FBI decision to not recommend criminal charges against Hillary.
Thus, should Trump ever get around to a sustained attack on “Crooked” Hillary or raise it in a debate, everyone should know what to expect. There will be a brief, brazen denial of some obvious fact, followed by the counter-attack that Trump is savaging this poor grandma only because he has nothing to say about the issues Americans truly want addressed, such as Hillary’s plan for “debt-free” college education or the subsidization of unicorn farms.
Hillary will not be as good as Bill was at executing this play. She lacks his charisma and performance skills. But she is, at heart, a striver and a plodder. Hillary’s robotic delivery thus carries a certain weird strain of authenticity. When she claims she is just trying to get things done for the American people, the casual voter may buy it. Trump, and Republicans generally, would be well-advised to formulate a better response to this tactic than they managed in the 1990s. Publicly dissecting the tactic might be a good start.