Clin­ton stag­gers af­ter self-in­flicted po­lit­i­cal wounds

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is “The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power” (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­

There’s a cer­tain irony in Hil­lary Clin­ton, well known for cau­tion and se­crecy, now find­ing her­self on the de­fen­sive for an in­cau­tious smear of Don­ald Trump’s sup­port­ers and si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­der fire for fail­ing to dis­close a health prob­lem that tem­po­rar­ily knocked her off the cam­paign trail.

The dou­ble whammy to her shaky lead in most of the polls may well be fleet­ing. But the phe­nom­e­non well demon­strates the way unan­tic­i­pated fac­tors can skewer the most con­ser­va­tive pre­dic­tions of the out­come of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Only four years ear­lier, Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney seemed headed for a tight show­down in his bid to deny Pres­i­dent Barack Obama a sec­ond term. Then, at a sup­pos­edly pri­vate fundraiser, Mr. Rom­ney ut­tered a sim­i­larly in­cau­tious slap at “the 47 per­cent of Amer­i­cans” on fed­eral wel­fare he said would never vote for him.

Un­for­tu­nately for Mr. Rom­ney, an at­tendee caught the re­mark on cam­era, and in un­friendly hands it went vi­ral. The com­ment might not have de­ter­mined the elec­tion out­come, but it obliged him to try to ex­plain away the un­for­tu­nate im­pli­ca­tion that he was writ­ing off nearly half of Amer­i­can vot­ers.

Ms. Clin­ton’s com­pa­ra­ble dis­mis­sive ob­ser­va­tion was made in tele­vised re­marks at a Demo­cratic fundraiser. She said “half” of Mr. Trump’s back­ers be­longed in “a bas­ket of de­plorables.” She added sar­cas­tic in­sult to in­jury by defin­ing them as “racist, sex­ist, ho­mo­pho­bic, xeno­pho­bic, Is­lam­o­pho­bic — you name it.” Worse, she made the re­mark “in the clear” via tele­vi­sion, giv­ing the Trump cam­paign a gift with a big bow on it.

At a rally in Asheville, N.C., a few nights later, for­mer New York Mayor Rudy Gi­u­liani, one of Mr. Trump’s loud­est and most vis­i­ble sup­port­ers, chided Ms. Clin­ton for men­tion­ing “some pho­bics I’ve never heard of.” Mr. Trump there­upon called some other back­ers to the stage, crow­ing: “These are not de­plorable peo­ple. That I can tell you.”

A car­di­nal rule in pol­i­tics is never to give your op­po­nent am­mu­ni­tion with which to rally his own troops and fol­low­ers. The Clin­ton slur gives the Trump cam­paign a new ar­gu­ment of party loy­alty with which to lure back many long­time Repub­li­cans who al­ready are hos­tile to her but not quite ready, at least up till now, to swal­low the Trump can­di­dacy.

As for Ms. Clin­ton’s fail­ure to dis­close what her doc­tor sub­se­quently de­scribed as pneu­mo­nia, that de­ci­sion un­wisely com­pounded vot­ers’ con­cerns over her pen­chant for self-pro­tec­tive pri­vacy, which is at the core of the email con­tro­versy that clings to her.

Con­se­quently, she re­turns to the cam­paign trail amid sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased skep­ti­cism not only about her “lik­a­bil­ity” but about her trust­wor­thi­ness as well — her twin po­lit­i­cal al­ba­trosses.

With the first tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bate be­tween Ms. Clin­ton and Mr. Trump only days away, and the cam­paign al­ready deeply per­son­al­ized and bit­ter, a record view­er­ship is more likely than ever. The mod­er­a­tor, Lester Holt of NBC News, a rel­a­tive new­comer on the na­tional stage, will have his hands full.

Mr. Holt seems a most pro­pi­tious choice, based on his calm, in­formed and even­handed per­for­mance since re­plac­ing the dis­cred­ited Brian Wil­liams as the NBC nightly an­chor. Mr. Holt in a sense will have an op­por­tu­nity to re­deem his net­work in the wake of the crit­i­cal roast­ing suf­fered by Matt Lauer of NBC’s “To­day” show re­cently for not call­ing Mr. Trump on his false claim to have been against the Iraq war be­fore the 2003 in­va­sion.

The is­sue is es­pe­cially per­ti­nent be­cause Ms. Clin­ton her­self as a se­na­tor voted to au­tho­rize use of mil­i­tary force by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, and Mr. Trump now in­sists he was right and she was wrong on this crit­i­cal is­sue af­fect­ing U.S. for­eign pol­icy ever since. In any event, the stage is al­ready set for a mo­men­tous show­down at Hof­s­tra Uni­ver­sity on Long Is­land be­tween these two con­tentious ri­vals who share un­prece­dented pub­lic un­fa­vor­a­bil­ity in the polls.

In all, the last few days have been a sharp re­minder that off­hand re­marks by pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, and unan­tic­i­pated hu­man frail­ties, can al­ter the best-laid plans of the most cal­cu­lat­ing of them.

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