There’s a rea­son the pres­i­dent keeps at­tack­ing Clin­ton

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - David.VonDrehle@wash­post.com

Win­ners, when they reach the end zone, are sup­posed to act like they’ve been there be­fore. So why is Pres­i­dent Trump still wag­ing war on Hil­lary Clin­ton? Why tweet about miss­ing emails and ties to Ukraine when he’s the one in­side the White House? Why send press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders be­fore the cam­eras — nearly nine months af­ter the elec­tion — to read what amounted to a multi-count in­dict­ment of Trump’s de­feated foe?

In this, as he does so of­ten, Trump serves as a magic de­coder ring for our seem­ingly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble 21st-cen­tury pol­i­tics. With rep­til­ian clar­ity — hope­less on strat­egy, but in­stinc­tively keen — he seizes on the bi­nary ba­sics of our end­less com­bat: To sur­vive, one must have a foe.

Down deep, Trump surely knows he owes his pres­i­dency to Clin­ton. His vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties as a can­di­date were pre­cisely the spots where Clin­ton was too weak to land a blow. The murk­i­ness of his fi­nances was off­set by the shadi­ness of the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion. Her out­rage at Trump’s boor­ish be­hav­ior rang false given her in­fi­nite tol­er­ance for her hus­band’s. If Trump’s first im­pulse was al­ways to dodge the truth, well, where had we seen that be­fore? Clin­ton had to col­lapse in public be­fore she was will­ing to ad­mit to a mild case of pneu­mo­nia. Her story about her emails had more holes than Trump National Golf Club. As for the empty slo­gans of his cam­paign (“Build that wall”), they were hardly less sub­stan­tial than hers (“Stronger to­gether”). His ig­no­rance of pol­icy and his­tory de­manded a cam­paign about noth­ing. She gave it to him.

So it hap­pened that one of the most un­pop­u­lar can­di­dates in our his­tory won his nar­row vic­tory. Vot­ers in the key states of the elec­toral col­lege dis­liked his op­po­nent a lit­tle bit more.

Democrats look­ing ahead to 2018 might want to keep this his­tory in mind. Ap­proval rat­ings are a mi­rage. They ask the public to com­pare the pres­i­dent to some the­o­ret­i­cal stan­dard or ideal. Do you ap­prove or dis­ap­prove of the way the pres­i­dent is do­ing his job? Com­pared to what? Lost in a desert of bal­lot-box in­ep­ti­tude, the Democrats are crawl­ing to­ward the false oa­sis of Trump’s low rat­ings — as though blind to the fact that Trump was never pop­u­lar to be­gin with, and still he won.

Or rather, he sur­vived the elec­tion, a feat man­aged by mak­ing it a se­ries of head-to-head com­bats, against Low-En­ergy Jeb, then L’il Marco, then Lyin’ Ted and fi­nally Crooked Hil­lary. Trump’s con­tin­u­ing fo­cus on Clin­ton serves to re­mind all the peo­ple who held their noses while vot­ing for him that elec­tions aren’t about the­o­ret­i­cal stan­dards or ideals. They are about this one or that one. Too of­ten, Amer­i­can vot­ers feel like they’re din­ing at Hell’s Café, where the menu of­fers two dishes only: boiled work boots or road­kill tartare.

To win next year, Democrats will need to of­fer some­thing more ap­pe­tiz­ing than the plate they served up in 2016. But their re­cently un­veiled ef­fort, called “A Bet­ter Deal,” ain’t it. While the na­tion is hurtling into the fu­ture, they’ve rolled out a recipe from the past, yet another “deal” to go with the Fair, New and Square deals of yes­ter­year. As for the va­pid cor­po­ra­tion-bash­ing at the core of the doc­u­ment, it feels like a ride in the DeLorean with Marty McFly, the timer on the Flux Ca­pac­i­tor set for 1901. What failed for Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan is un­likely to suc­ceed to­day.

Be­hind the an­tique fa­cade lay the same old poli­cies. The $15-an-hour min­i­mum wage, which may al­ready be killing jobs where pro­gres­sives have started adopt­ing it. The $1 tril­lion in­fra­struc­ture pledge that merely echoes Trump’s own pie-in-the-sky prom­ise. The vague ges­ture of con­cern about re­build­ing “ru­ral Amer­ica” — which Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi keep tabs on by jet­ting over it at 38,000 feet. And so on.

If Amer­ica wanted this agenda, the Democrats would not be out of power from state­house to White House. You can’t beat Trump by coin­ing more vac­u­ous slo­gans than his, or launch­ing flim­sier pol­icy bal­loons. You can’t con­quer his straw men with an army of your own. Trump’s op­po­nents will only beat him with some­thing new and bet­ter than the can­di­dates, tac­tics and poli­cies of the past.

These won’t be found in mi­nor­ity cau­cus rooms or the stu­dios of MSNBC. To win a head-to-head against Trump, a party of to­mor­row must turn its fo­cus from Wash­ing­ton to the coun­try — where it is go­ing and how best to get there. For­get about Repub­li­cans. For­get, even, about Trump. Have an hon­est, hope­ful con­ver­sa­tion with Amer­ica.

He’ll never see it com­ing.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton dur­ing their third and fi­nal de­bate in Oc­to­ber.

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