Belmont Club

The Hillary Defense

Greg Sargent, channeling the Democratic establishment’s fear that Donald Trump is unstoppably advancing like the Blob on the capital,  has laid out Hillary Clinton’s defense plan against him.  The first thing Hillary will do is fire up the liberal base and circle the wagons.

Today’s New York Times delivers the most comprehensive report yet on the evolving Dem strategy. It’s worth dividing the Dem approach into two categories: First, there are the attacks that are designed to tear Trump down in the eyes of core Dem constituencies (minorities, single women) and groups of gettable swing voters (suburbanites and college educated whites).

The other component of her defense is to deploy a yet to be announced set of firebreaks in the path of what is now recognized as incandescent angry white males. “The Clinton operation .. and other Democrats are poring over polling data to understand the roots of Mr. Trump’s populist appeal.” From this hope to deduce how best to neutralize the angry demographic they’ve ignored and reviled all these years. Sargent quotes a New York Times article which explains.

Mrs. Clinton’s uneven performance with male voters so far, especially white men, could create an opening for Mr. Trump to attract Democrats and independents who are socially and culturally moderate and open to his call for a strong military, fearless foreign policy and businessman’s approach to the economy. Those voters could give him an edge in places like North Carolina, which Mr. Obama won in 2008. But Clinton advisers also worry about Ohio, Florida and Democratic-leaning states in presidential elections that Mr. Trump has vowed to contest, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Clinton’s idea is to throw a few sops at the malcontents in the hopes they’ll go home. The Republicans are also belatedly realizing they must outbid Trump on key issues like immigration, jobs and national defense to stop his advance.  In both cases the problem will be whether anyone will believe them this time.  Hillary’s credibility problems need no explanation.  But the GOP must also outbid Trump in a way that unambiguously binds them to their pledges. This time the promises need collateral.  James Hohmann, writing in the Washington Post, observed that the most threatening aspect of the rebellion has been its surprising vehemence, almost bordering on kamikaze determination.

“It’s like Dr. Strangelove,” said a tip-top Republican who is closely aligned with the GOP establishment and supported Chris Christie until he dropped out. “People are saying, ‘I’m not gonna tell my friends and family I’m voting for Trump,’ but then they’re pulling the trigger for Trump. I might as well be like Slim Pickens at the end of the movie and just ride the atomic bomb down and see what happens.”

Up until now the political elite always believed that discontent could be bought off.  But by backing Trump, voters have echoed Sherlock’s famous defiance to Moriarty, this time as dialogue between the middle class and the establishment. That’s when you know it’s serious.

Moriarty: It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.’

Holmes: ‘You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty,’ said I. ‘Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.’

Commitment is a powerful weapon in the theory of deterrence. “Precommitment is a strategy in which a party to a conflict uses a commitment device to strengthen its position by cutting off some of its options to make its threats more credible. … For instance, an army can burn a bridge behind it, making retreat evidently impossible. A famous example of this tactic is when Hernán Cortés had his men scuttle the ships in order to eliminate any means of desertion. Alternatively, in the context of the Cold War, fail-deadly retaliation systems such as the Soviet Dead Hand make a response to a sudden attack automatic, regardless of whether or not anyone is left alive to make decisions.”

Supporting Trump is equivalent to burning the bridges. There’s no way back.  It’s a very potent strategy for those with nothing to lose.  Whether the Republicans or the Democrats, whose response so far has been a day late and a dollar short, can call and up the ante remains to be seen. The establishment, unlike the voters, is risk-averse.  They are too used to gambling with other people’s money to go for broke. They are more likely to offer the appearance of reform rather than its painful reality and hope smoke and mirrors suffice to halt the blaze.

The two threats to Hillary’s planned defense are that her radical shift to the Left to beat off Sanders will now hamper her ability to steer hard a-starboard to meet the threat of the angry white voter. Having twisted her policies like a pretzel to mollify the followers of Sanders, it will be difficult for her to pander to the supporters of Trump.  Like a World War 2 battleship trying to comb the tracks of torpedoes, the good ship Hillary may find itself dodging one spread only to run into another.

The second threat to Hillary is the significant probability that some major foreign policy or economic catastrophe will strike before election day thereby ruining her carefully crafted messaging. In the words of Fred Hiatt in his Washington Post article: everything went south for the administration because the world failed to cooperate with Obama.  Will it cooperate with Hillary?

Foot soldiers of misery, they tumble out of buses and their first request is not for water, food or diapers. They have been on the move for weeks, in some cases months, and they need to connect — with relatives they’ve left behind and may never see again, with comrades who can relay rumors on the dangers of the road ahead.

They are escaping the wreckage of entire countries. A million have washed into Europe in the past year, and another million are on the threshold. The continent’s leaders see the mass migration as their starkest test since World War II. Far-right xenophobic parties are on the rise. Longtime commitments to free speech, tolerance and open borders are eroding. Many of the leaders despair at the absence of U.S. leadership and the rise of Russian meddling. …

President Obama acted as though pulling back from the arc of conflict would end the conflict. “The tide of war is receding,” he proclaimed, as he announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Again the world failed to cooperate.

Given, as John Bosco writes in Real Clear Politics, that “Obama needs a JFK moment in East Asia” to beat back China. Given, as the Atlantic Council writes, that NATO is wilting under a “perfect storm” then clearly it is not safe to count on the world cooperating with either.

Hillary can circle her wagons, but the world can no longer be counted on to ride to her rescue.  The Design Margin is used up.  It may no longer be possible to steer a course between the irate domestic voters and the crony lobbies and foreign enemies. In their own way even the administration has admitted this.  Their goal is no longer to “build a world without nuclear weapons” or establish a “rule based international order” nor even “Hope and Change”. Its goals, like those of the refugees, become far more basic. All Washington wants to do now is survive.

The real problem with Hillary’s strategy of circling the wagons is the implicit assumption that if she can only make it to 2016 things will somehow get better.  They won’t: November isn’t the bell that ends the round.  It’s the start of 15 bare-knuckle rounds with Drago. In a manner of speaking the current political challenge is providential because it provides a chance for the American political system to adapt within the context of a democratic system.  If the political system cannot call forth the men who can meet the challenge now then what hope can there be of finding people with the mettle to face actual enemies later?

Hillary is in the process of failing to meet the underlying challenge by temporizing yet again.  Everyone must have guessed the day would eventually come when it wouldn’t be enough to kick the can down the road and wait for the cavalry to arrive.  Maybe that day is finally here.

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