Polman: Clinton makes history, Trump's a mess
If you want an accurate reading on the 2016 presidential campaign — who's up and who's down, who's ascendant and who's a clown — look no further than last week's speeches. Because it's all about the optics.
Hillary Clinton spent her time making history. Donald Trump spent his time doing damage control.
And Bernie Sanders — history's roadkill, crushed in California and New Jersey — did his best impression of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier who hunkered in the jungle for decades, refusing to accept the reality that World War II had ended.
There's no denying Clinton's achievement as the first female presidential nominee. Hopefully we're not so jaded or cynical or hateful or just plain weary that we can't open ourselves to the witnessing of history.
A sizeable share of women won't vote for Clinton, but the historic nature of her candidacy should not be underestimated. Every campaign needs a narrative, and Clinton's has a built-in emotional component. As she remarked last week, "I really wish my mother could be here... I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic party's nominee."
By contrast, Trump's optics were — how shall I say this charitably — wretched.
For 10 long days, the Republican nominee had splashed in the sewer, damning a federal judge for his Mexican heritage and insisting the judge is unfit to handle a massive case in which Trump is being sued for fraud. The backlash from his own party reached a crescendo when Paul Ryan said Trump's attacks were the "textbook definition" of racism.
Temporarily chastised, Trump surfaced in presidential mode, or at least some facsimile thereof. After ridiculing Clinton for using a Teleprompter, Trump duly read from one (except for the moment when he ad-libbed a toilet joke). The aim was to demonstrate that he's capable of talking for 30 straight minutes without saying anything racist, sexist, or faintly fascist, and, yes, he cleared that low hurdle. ("I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle.") But it was like lashing a wild beast to a stake in the hope that he won't break free.
Most of his lines were old stump chunks ("We are only going to have great trade deals, OK?" and "We will make our country strong again, we will make America great again") — and how noteworthy it was that he said nothing about the burgeoning Hispanic electorate (Hispanics are likely to cost him at least four states — Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Florida). His sole remark about blacks dripped with paternalistic condescension: "We are going to take care of our African Americans."
Indeed, Clinton in her own speech assailed Trump's treatment of minorities: "'Make America great again' is code for 'Let's take America backwards.' Back to a time when opportunity and dignity was reserved for some, not all."
Anyone who thinks that Trump's Teleprompter speech signals a "new Trump" should bone up on human nature. A narcissistic demagogue who knows nothing about policy is simply who he is. Lots of Republicans and conservatives realize that. Which is why Bill Kristol calls Trump "a roaring jackass" and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt dismissed Trump's speech by saying, "The plane is still heading toward the mountain."
Or, as nonpartisan analyst Larry Sabato said, "This year's GOP is living with both its feet planted on banana peels."
The next opportunity for slippage may come when Trump delivers a speech about the Clintons — in his words, "all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons." Will he limit himself to legitimate questions about, say, the work of the Clinton Foundation, or will he steer the plane into the mountain, ranting on the intercom about Vince Foster and other 1990s nothingburgers?
Mitch McConnell said, "We're all anxious to hear what he may say next." I bet he is. Because each spasm of Republican anxiety could bring Clinton closer to her ultimate historic achievement.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.