Can Clinton take the top job or will Trump triumph? John Hewson takes stock of how the race to the White House is shaping up.
The most surprising aspect of the US Presidential election campaign, so far, is that Hilary Clinton is not miles ahead of Donald Trump, even at this still early stage.
On any objective assessment, she would appear as a much safer, more qualified, and believable candidate, running under the banner to be the ‘First Female President’, compared with the narcissistic, insular, xenophobic, and mostly policy ignorant, Trump.
However, Clinton is such a divisive character, even among women, who has had to better an anti-establishment, Trump-like competitor in Bernie Sanders, in order to win the nomination.
Clinton also carries a lot of baggage from her former roles in her husband’s administration, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State where, in all cases, her performance was mediocre, at best.
Of course, in an attempt to make her weakness a strength, Obama went to great lengths in his speech to the Democratic Convention to claim that because she had performed these three roles “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America” – better than either himself, or Bill.
Even though Clinton has moved somewhat to the left, effectively to combat the declared socialist Sanders, and even though she is mounting ever more virulent attacks on Trump, she is not yet really cutting through.
As a consequence, her campaign team is increasingly nervous and wary of Trump. This was most evident this week when Obama broke with normal protocol to argue that Trump was “unfit” to be President, and challenged the Republicans to “withdraw his nomination”, all in a press conference with a visiting national leader.
To win, Clinton will need all Obama’s campaign skills and patronage, particularly to keep the backing of the minorities that supported him, especially the African-Americans and Hispanics, and the broader independents. She would also hope to win over disgruntled Republicans, but that may be harder than she expects. Traditional Republicans may hate Trump, but choose instead to simply not vote, rather than switch to Hilary.
Trump has resonated with two key constituencies, low- to middle-income white males, who haven’t seen an improvement in their standard of living for some 15 years or more, and those that are basically sick and tired of politics, Congress and Washington in general, who are disengaged and feel isolated and disenfranchised.
This is especially the case to those in the so-called “rust belt States” who have been hurt by globalisation, free trade, and automation, coupled with those concerned by immigration, the excesses of Wall Street, and somewhat by America’s declining status in the world.
Trump’s excessive and, to many, alarmist rhetoric, promising a wall along the Mexican border, the unbundling of trade agreements and large tariff walls against the Chinese, a ban on Muslim immigration, a reasserted military, and so on, has been discounted, but seen, and accepted by many, as indicative of an essential shift in important policy directions.
However, Trump is all, and only, about Trump. He has raised little money, and has very poor on-the-ground campaigning capability. By comparison, the Democrats are a well-oiled, campaign machine. This should not only constrain him, but also adversely impact on Republican candidates more broadly. Notice how many significant Republicans either just didn’t attend the Convention, or have disowned Trump.
Two things may be the key to whether Trump can win. First, how he handles what we may call “off the wall” events as they unfold, such as Trump’s appalling mishandling of the Khan family’s appearance at the Democratic Convention. Their son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in combat in Iraq in 2004. Trump showed complete ignorance of the Muslim faith by belittling the mother who stood silent, still in mourning, and of the US Constitution, also having clearly not made a “significant sacrifice” himself. The father’s comment, that Trump was “totally unfit for the leadership of this beautiful country” cut through.
Second, voter turnout will be fundamentally important. Trump’s best hope is for a low overall vote, while consolidating the white male, disgruntled vote – perhaps even attracting some disgruntled Clinton supporters.
Rest assured that it will be a particularly nasty and unedifying run up to the second Tuesday in November.
This piece was also published in the Southern Highland News.