Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now looking toward the general election, criticising each other with more vigour than ever now that they have all but dispatched of their primary challengers.
But while Trump has benefited from his tough-talking mudslinging, his opponents have had a hard time matching his bombastic style without getting dragged down into the mud themselves.
“It’s important that Clinton lays out a contrast that shows why you shouldn’t vote for her opponent,” Ben LaBolt, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, told Business Insider.
“The trap is to jump at the tabloid headlines that Donald Trump is trying to drive every day,” he added.
To that end, Clinton on Thursday delivered a blistering national-security speech in California, attacking Trump’s competency to serve as the nation’s commander in chief and blasting his foreign-policy positions. It was the latest in a line of policy-focused critiques of the Republican presidential nominee.
“It’s very challenging for Hillary to make a good foreign-policy argument against Trump,” Ian Bremmer, a geopolitical expert and president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider in an email after Clinton’s Thursday address.
“Most of what he’s arguing for is completely implausible (nukes for Japan; a trade war with China); some is unconstitutional (a Muslim ban, sending back immigrants). But he’s not in any way being punished for his policy agenda.”
Clinton tried to rectify that on Thursday — she went after Trump harder than ever before with zingers like this one: “He says he has foreign-policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.” But it remains to be seen whether she can command the kind of attention that Trump gets with his no-holds-barred attacks on his opponents.
Trump packed rallies during primary season and locked down the Republican nomination while mounting vicious attacks on other candidates. He came up with simplistic nicknames for those running against him, like Sens. Ted Cruz (“Lyin’ Ted”) and Marco Rubio (“Little Marco”). And he dominated news coverage with at-times outrageous pronouncements.
When one of his targets, Rubio, tried to beat Trump at his own game, he damaged his candidacy beyond repair. After weathering repeated personal attacks from Trump, Rubio went on the offensive, insulting Trump’s “spray tan” and “small hands” during a rally in February. But it didn’t help him at the polls — he lost even his home state of Florida weeks later — and he has since admitted that he regrets the attacks.
Stephanie Cutter, a political consultant who was Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012, advised hitting back at Trump, but carefully.
“I don’t think it’s possible to stay out of the fray,” Cutter said at a panel discussion at The Common Good Forum in New York recently. “… I don’t think you have to bite back in the same way, but I think that there’s a lot of ground that hasn’t been covered on Donald Trump.”
Clinton has acknowledged that while she’s looking forward to running against Trump in the general election, she can’t sink to his level.
“See, I don’t think it’s as fraught with complexity as some people are suggesting,” she told New York Magazine in a recent interview. “I think the trap is not to get drawn in on his terms. We saw what happened to those Republicans who tried.”
Cutter said the differences between Trump and Clinton will become apparent during the general election.
“We’re in a general election,” Cutter said. “We’re talking about a different set of voters” compared to the primary contests that help decide the party nominees.
“Now you’re talking about roughly 6% of the vote you’re going after, what we call ‘persuadables.’ Do they want to be hearing about Vince Foster?” she continued, referring to the former White House counsel in then-President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Trump has recently mounted attacks centered on Foster, who committed suicide in 1993 and whose death has been the subject of numerous internet conspiracy theories.
Clinton’s strategy to tear down Trump will likely be centered largely on economic issues, considering that the real-estate mogul emphasises his business background as proof he’d be a tough negotiator for the US. And economic issues are likely to be especially relevant this election cycle — a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that economic growth is the top issue voters think the federal government should address.
“Donald Trump is running on his record as what he says is a successful businessman, so the Clinton campaign is actually taking a look at that record and the findings are surprising,” LaBolt said. “I think one thing they found is rampant fraud.”
“This is somebody who ran what he called a ‘university’ that handed out nothing more than PowerPoint presentations and a participation certificate that didn’t look anything like a degree after a couple of days in a conference room,” LaBolt said of the controversial, for-profit school known as Trump University.
Clinton took aim at Trump University on Wednesday, accusing Trump of ” trying to scam America the way he scammed all those people at Trump U.”
And her campaign press secretary, Brian Fallon, said on Twitter that Trump University was “devastating” because it’s a “metaphor for his whole campaign: promising hardworking Americans [a] way to get ahead, but all based on lies.”
Cutter detailed other issues surrounding Trump’s business background that she thinks should be investigated:
Republicans were abysmal during the primary season for raising really important issues about Donald Trump. And not, you know, the size of his hands. I’m talking about … what are the consequences of shutting down all trade to the United States? What exactly is his business background? Why won’t he release his tax returns? Is he really as rich as he says? Or how really did he make his money? … Those are very important issues because it goes to an overarching trust, who can actually deliver the change.
Democrats seem to be rallying behind Clinton in her attacks on Trump’s business record.
Obama on Wednesday delivered a speech in Indiana that served as his first foray into the 2016 presidential race. Obama excoriated Trump’s proposals and focused on the economic recovery in Indiana, making the case that a Democrat in the White House will keep the country on a path to prosperity.
And the Democratic National Committee just launched a new micro website called “taxesbytrump.com,” which plays on the fact that Trump hasn’t yet released his tax returns. Whenever users attempt to click on a large red “see returns” box, it zips away from the cursor.
“This is somebody who multiple times paid a 0% tax rate and still won’t release his returns,” LaBolt said of Trump. “… So obviously that suggests he’d set up an economic system that would be rigged for him.”
Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has argued that Trump seeks to “pay the smallest amount of taxes possible,” arguing that “that’s the mindset you want to bring to the government.” And for his part, Trump has suggested a 0% tax rate for low-income people.
Clinton is also likely to continue to hit Trump on national security and foreign policy, with her speech Thursday serving as the latest salvo in her argument that she’s more suited to the job of commander in chief.
Trump, in contrast, spent much of a Thursday-night rally raising the bar of his attacks on Clinton. The former secretary of state, he suggested, has to “go to jail” because of the scandal involving her use of a private email server.
“All right, I said it,” he said. “She has to go to jail.”
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