If Campaign 2016 needed some shorthand to capture the way many Americans see the competition between the two major-party candidates, Hillary Clinton may have unintentionally supplied it this weekend. For much of the electorate, this could be remembered as a deplorable election.
Candidates are often stamped by seemingly offhand statements. Mitt Romney never escaped his “47 percent” comment in 2012, and President Obama found the same when he said many culturally conservative voters “cling” to their guns and religion. Donald Trump has a laundry list of them. After Friday, Clinton now has hers to regret.
Clinton stumbled as Romney and Obama did, seemingly with her guard down and before the friendliest of audiences, an LGBT fundraiser in New York. If there isn’t a page in campaign manuals labeled “Beware of Fundraisers,” there should be. It’s where mistakes are easily made and not so easily undone.
Unlike Romney and Obama, Clinton spoke at a fundraiser that was open to the media, which should have made her more careful. Although she has said similar things in the past, she clearly went further than before, raising the question of whether this was intentional.
Here’s what she said that caused the uproar: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that, and he has lifted them up.”
She went on to talk about others who support Trump, saying they are worthy of empathy and understanding. She described them as people who feel “that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re desperate for change.”
That latter characterization aptly captures an important part of the dynamic of the 2016 campaign, and it is one important reason Trump became the Republican nominee and remains competitive in the general election. But Clinton so muddied the focus on the grievances of many Americans who feel left behind with the first part of what she said that she has landed on the defensive, and understandably so.
The word “deplorable” no doubt captures how many Americans see the overall competition between Clinton and Trump. Last week’s 50-state survey by The Washington Post and SurveyMonkey underscored the concerns that voters have about both major-party candidates. Nationally, 55 percent of registered voters say Clinton would threaten the country’s well-being, while 61 percent say Trump would threaten the country’s well-being. Overall, 95 percent say either Trump or Clinton — or both — would do so.
These attitudes come after a campaign of insults and petty, personal attacks as well as a clash over some of the most fundamental questions facing the country. This is a campaign that could be about big issues but instead often has been fought at the most base level.
On that score, Trump has led the way. He started his campaign by branding illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and criminals. He has never let up, denigrating people of all kinds. In addition to Mexican immigrants, his targets have included women, Muslims, a Vietnam POW named Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the disabled, a federal judge of Mexican heritage and a Gold Star family. At NBC’s commander in chief forum last week, he inexplicably beat up on the generals advising the president.
There has been a truism about this campaign. Trump has taken his opponents down to his level, and they have paid a price for it. Throughout the Republican primaries, he insulted any political rival he deemed a threat, such as “low-energy Jeb” Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. When they tried to play his game, they ended up scarred.
Bush never could find the formula to fight back effectively and was diminished and eventually destroyed politically by it. Rubio’s campaign unraveled when he descended into a round of petty insults that mimicked Trump. He, too, never recovered and has found himself in an awkward embrace with Trump since he got out of the race.
Cruz could not find the right calibration between initial chumminess with Trump (when he believed he could inherit the Trump coalition) and his eventual indignation at what Trump said about his wife and father as he was losing the nomination. Cruz’s ultimate refusal to endorse Trump during his speech in July at the Republican convention brought a chorus of boos from the audience and possible long-term problems.
Trump has never recanted his birther campaign against Obama in 2011. In the past week, surrogates have claimed that he now accepts that Obama was born in the United States. He has yet to say so himself. When asked recently, he simply said he doesn’t like to talk about the issue anymore.
Trump has the support of white supremacists and the alt-right of the conservative movement. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Trump’s attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel amounted to “the textbook example of a racist comment.”
What is also known about some of Trump’s supporters is their discomfort with changes, whether cultural or demographic, that are reshaping the country. This is part of what has so divided the country and made this campaign a dialogue about what it means to be an American.
Clinton has sought to make Trump an unacceptable candidate, arguing that his temperament and views should disqualify him in the eyes of a majority of voters. Those attacks have been tough and relentless and unsurprising.
Why Clinton concluded there was something to be gained by shifting her focus from Trump to some of his supporters with her shorthand characterization is inexplicable. Attacking symptoms is one thing, but branding an entire class of voters is another, as Romney and Obama learned.
This was a self-inflicted wound. Her supporters might cheer her, and those at the fundraiser laughed as she made her comment. Ultimately it might have little effect on the polls. But it is a damaging moment that Republicans will use to sow even more distrust about her candidacy.
Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, seized on Clinton’s comment. Trump called it “SO INSULTING” in a tweet. Speaking Saturday at the Values Voter Summit, Pence said, “No one with that low opinion of the American people should ever be elected president.”
By Saturday afternoon, Clinton was trying to clean up from Friday. She issued a statement saying she regretted saying that “half” of Trump’s supporters were deplorables. But she did not back down on her criticism of Trump and added, “I won’t stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign.” She clearly thinks that, ultimately, is a winning position.
At various stages, Campaign 2016 has been waged in ways that have left voters with a sense of despair at their choice. Based on the first week of campaigning in September, it threatens to stay there. Perhaps the debates will take the campaign back up to a different level, but that seems doubtful.
Eventually, one of these two candidates will be elected president. Unifying the country will be exceedingly difficult, to say the least. Clinton has talked about wanting to find common ground with Republicans where possible. She also has been urged repeatedly to find a more positive message, to give people an affirmative reason to vote for her.
In her Saturday statement, Clinton focused again on Americans left out or left behind and said, “I’m determined to bring our country together.” But her comments Friday have provided her opponents with fresh ammunition to distrust her desire to work across party lines and could cause them to resist those overtures in the future. If she becomes president, she has made the job of governing all the more difficult.