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Confessions of a Campaign Insider: Can It Really be Hillary vs. Trump?

Wondering if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will remain their party’s nominees through the conventions, I reached out to an old friend on the campaign trail and got the enclosed response:

“It’s a pleasure to send you my thoughts on the campaign, although just because I have spent the last seventy-two days eating those shrink-wrapped blueberry muffins for breakfast and talking to local anchormen doesn’t make me an expert on Trumpism (the Republican Party in the early stages of a bad hair transplant) or The Clintons! (a political sitcom now in its 24th season but still coming up with new girlfriends for Bill).

“On paper—which, may I remind you, nobody uses any more—Trump and Hillary have their respective nominations locked up. Donnie hasn’t lost a primary since Cruz won in Wisconsin on April 5th, and after Hillary won in California and New Jersey, she went the route of Napoleon and put the nomination crown on her own head, since the miserly Bernie wasn’t in a ring-kissing mood. (He thinks the Clintons are Republican.)

“With both nominations settled, you would think we might get down to the short strokes of a national election. Instead all anyone feels on the campaign trail is buyer’s regret. Both parties would dump their respective nominees in a heartbeat, if the rules allowed it.

“Now that Trump has pushed over the 1,237 threshold of needed delegates, the Republican hierarchs (Paul Ryan et al.) are having second thoughts about their standard bearer. Possible GOP campaign motto: ‘Trump for President: Okay, Maybe We Fucked Up.’

“At the same time Democrats are spending days trying to come up with a Hillary bumpersticker that doesn’t read: ‘Not As Guilty As You Might Think: Clinton 2016!’

“What amazes me in this campaign is how unprepared both parties are for the general election. The Republican coffers are essentially empty—why nominate a chest-thumping billionaire and then ask your rank-and-file to pony up $200? And the Democrats still have two candidates in the race, because no one can convince Bernie that he’s lost.

“But the problems go deeper for both parties. On the Republican side, Trump has offended nearly all the constituencies (women, Hispanics, African-Americans, etc.) that the party has labored to cultivate in recent elections. Alas, no major party has yet to win an election based on biker gangs, birthers, gunners, and a few luxury condo associations in Florida.

“At least the Republicans are facing a Democratic party that has yet to reassemble Franklin Roosevelt’s grand coalition around Hillary, who practically ran unopposed in the primaries and still almost managed to lose.

“Both candidates should be asking: what happens if we have an election and no one shows up?

* * *

“I have been involved with political campaigns since 1960 (I did love in 1968 the pregnant woman in a swimsuit with a sash proclaiming, “Nixon’s the One”), but I can never remember an election when both major parties nominated candidates who came with so many self-destruct buttons.

“The Republicans probably could have found a stronger candidates than Barry Goldwater in 1964, Bob Dole in 1996, or John McCain in 2008, but they had their followers among the party faithful.

“Same too among the Democrats with Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and John Kerry in 2004; all were weak, but none were reviled, at least not to the extent of Hillary and Trump.

“Fast forward, however, to 2016, and it’s as if both the Republicans and Democrats have chosen third-party candidates.

“Trump sounds like a rerun of George Wallace (American Independent Party) while Hillary could be an odd cross between Victoria Woodhull (Equal Rights Party in 1872) and Ulysses S. Grant trying to buy the election for his cronies in 1880. (Earlier he had served two terms from 1869 to 1877, much the way Bill Clinton was in office 1993-2001. Both managed to avoid conviction, but it was a near-run thing.)

“Don’t get me wrong: third-party candidates can make useful contributions. Robert La Follette Sr. and Eugene V. Debs might have lost big-time, but they did influence subsequent legislation. On the downside, so did Strom Thurmond.

“The problem with Trump and Hillary is that, sadly, one of them has to win, which will leave us, day one, with a deeply unpopular President who may serve in office with the articles of impeachment taped up menacingly to the White House fence.

“Missing from this race are nominees who actually inspire the voters. How did we get in this mess?

* * *

“Let’s start with the Democrats, because it’s the only race, in theory, with two candidates: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

“If you add the super delegates (577) to those she has won in the primaries (2,203), Hillary has more than is required for the Democratic nomination (2,383). Bernie has 1,828 delegates.

“Technically, the problem with Hillary’s self-proclaimed nomination is that super delegates arrive at the convention not pledged to any one candidate. They might express a preference for one or another candidate, but only when they cast ballots will we know for sure to whom they are committed.

“Alas, only 48 of the 716 super delegates who will attend the Democratic convention in Philadelphia have so far backed Bernie. But he is staying in the race (for now) on the hope that lightning might strike Hillary and that he will get many of the super delegates, if not the nomination.

“If Bernie were 52 years old, he would have quit the race after losing California and pledged to support Hillary. That he hasn’t, however, says more about her vulnerable campaign than it does about Bernie’s stubbornness.

“Why is he soldiering on, if only symbolically?

“Put simply, Bernie doesn’t like the Clintons, Bill or Hillary. He doesn’t like their billion dollar slush fund, a.k.a. the Clinton Foundation; nor does he like their Wall Street pandering to companies like Goldman Sachs for about $500,000 an hour (private plane and hotel suite extra).

“Nor does Sanders like Hillary’s militarism. In one debate he said: ‘Let’s talk about judgment. And let us talk about the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country. I led the opposition to that war. Secretary Clinton voted for it. Let’s talk about judgment.’

“And he’s convinced that if she ever released the transcripts of her speeches to the financial industry, she would put herself in the same big league as Joe DiMaggio when he was fronting for the Bowery Savings Bank. On camera the Yankee Clipper as pitchman asked: ‘Is there anyone who couldn’t use a bundle of cash?’

“Plus while Bernie has stated that he doesn’t care about Hillary’s ‘damn emails,’ he’s enough of a Washington politician to know that the criminal investigation of Madame Secretary’s stay-at-home server could possibly forward on to him the Democratic nomination. Why have such a message end up in spam?

* * *

“Hillary has scoffed at the notion that she will ever be indicted (‘That is not going to happen’), but the chances are good that one of these days the long arm of the law may tap on the shoulder of a non-immunized Clinton underling. Initially the charges could relate to the Chappaqua self-server, but the prosecution could be after bigger game

“Among federal prosecutors, there is a feeling that the Clintons have been playing fast and loose since Hillary cashed in a $100,000 profit trading pork bellies (on a $1,000 margin) in Arkansas in 1978-79. Add in Travelgate, Whitewater, Monica, impeachment, Vince Foster’s private papers, the other Clinton women who were roughed up, etc., and in 2016 more than few FBI agents would not mind adding their $500 haircuts to their scalp collections.

“Booking Hillary on email racketeering charges (‘you have the right to make one Twitter’), however, is not the goal of the snooping feds. What would make their careers is to take down the Clinton Foundation as a pay-to-play pyramid operation, in which foreign governments (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc.) bought influence with the Secretary of State (and possibly future President) with millions of dollars in donations to a foundation that operates more like a government-in-exile than a charitable organization.

“Have a look at these numbers: In 2014, the foundation took in $177 million, presumably to be recycled into worthy deeds. Instead it spent $91 million, mostly on maintaining the vast Clinton shadow government (salaries, rent and travel amounted to more than $50 million). In the end only $5.1 million was distributed as charitable gifts, which sound like an afterthought, unless it was old clothes sent off to the Sanders campaign. (His suits do have the air of thrift-shop fitting.)

“In the 1952 election, Richard Nixon had to defend himself with the so-called Checkers Speech for operating a slush fund worth about $18,000. Even if that figure is adjusted for inflation, I doubt it comes out now as $91 million, which is probably the reason Bernie is staying in the race. In-the-money options for major party nominations are as hard to find as stylish vicuna coats.

* * *

“Knowing that she has the super delegates in her pocket, at this point Hillary could not care less whether Bernie stays in the race or drops out. Either way, when the nomination is settled, he will get a few meaningless planks in the party’s platform and a not-ready-for-prime time speech at the convention, and then he can Megabus it back to his Unabomber lifestyle in Vermont.

“For all his success at the polls, Bernie has less influence with the Clintons, right now, than Senator Elizabeth Warren. He will not get consideration as a vice-presidential running mate. Nor will his supporters get key appointments in the party’s hierarchy. In the Clintons’ view, Bernie has made them look bad. For that he’ll get the bum’s rush in Philadelphia, not the chance to hang around until the balloons float down on the Bill and Hill risorgimento.

“Nor do I think Hillary is spending all that much time vetting possible running mates. For sure, some staffer has drawn up a serious consideration list (Julian Castro, Tim Kaine, Sherrod Brown, Thomas Perez, yada yada yada), and when the Clintons are feeling confident they probably dust it off and try out the names on campaign insiders. You can believe that the list will define political correctness, so there will be no outliers such as Governor Jerry Brown or Senator Al Franken.

“In reality Bill is Hillary’s running mate. She’s already given him the economy, when she said: ‘I told my husband he’s got to come out of retirement and be in charge of this because you know he’s got more ideas a minute that anybody I know.’ Too bad many of those ideas involve hooking up with the Energizer.

* * *

“No, I do not believe for a minute any of the Elizabeth Warren for Vice President trial balloons that have been floated to a cable network near you. All of those leaks come from Warren’s people, who screwed up her chances by not endorsing Clinton in January. Heck of a job, Liz.

“It will not be lost on Hillary that Warren waited until Clinton had a numerical majority at the convention and President Obama had pleaded with Bernie to quit the race.

“Earlier in the race Warren’s support for Hillary might have slowed some of the Bernie momentum, especially in March and April when he took seven primaries in a row. Now it sounds like the endorsement of some Minnesota state senator petitioning for an interstate off-ramp in her district.

“Another reason Warren has no chance to become vice president—leaving aside that she sounds like a Clinton clone—is that the Internet is chock full of a televised 2004 interview in which an on-the-make Saint Elizabeth disses Hillary as a wholly-owned special interest of Wall Street, if not as someone who personally duped the do-gooding Massachusetts senator over a credit-card bankruptcy bill. Any of these Warren interviews would save Trump the time and trouble of stitching together negative ads against Hillary.

“And finally something tells me that the Clinton campaign doesn’t want to spend the fall listening to Trump’s jokes on Twitter about ‘Fauxcahontas,’ a reference to Warren’s claim of 1/32 Cherokee blood (turned out it was a stretch) when she applied for a job at Harvard Law and checked the Native-American minority box.

* * *

“Am I the only one who misses Ted Cruz and his painfully thin skin? I know his campaign was one entire whine—about immigration, New York values, the raptures, abortion, his fake Churchill tattoo, whatever—but without him Trump feels like Laurel without Hardy or Abbott without Costello. It’s been weeks since I have heard anyone on the campaign described as a “serial philanderer,” ‘pathological liar,’ ‘amoral’ or ‘narcissist.’ No wonder Trump is dropping in the polls. His Dr. Evil has gone missing.

“The end could not come fast enough for Ted. One moment he was vowing a fight to the finish in Cleveland and in the next instant, he was quitting, although he made it sound like an overdue loan. ‘From the beginning,’ he said, ‘I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory. Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed.’

“When we last heard from Ted, he was pushing his way onto that stage where his vice-presidential designate Carly Fiorina was his warm up band (‘Let’s welcome the next president of the United States. . .’). Then in a flash, Carly had slipped off the platform. (It looked like she had walked off a diving board.) Cruz, however, remained oblivious to the possibility that aliens might have seized his running mate, and he continued to shake everyone’s hand on stage, even those persons not paid to be up there.

“Cruz had hoped that by naming Carly early as his vice presidential running mate he might convince undecided voters that he was more sensitive to women than Trump. It could have worked, except that by this point in the campaign Carly, in her shrill attacks on Hillary, had begun sounding like the Wicked Witch of the West (‘I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!’).

“Nor did it help Cruz that he rolled out Carly just about the time he had to deal with the Trump allegation that Ted’s father, Rafael Cruz, had helped Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s alleged assassin, pass out Fair Play for Cuba Committee literature in New Orleans in summer 1963.

“For those not dwelling in the knolls of conspiracy (‘Back and to the left’), Oswald went to Louisiana in summer 1963 to establish street cred as a friend of Cuba. His signature moment came when he was passing out pro-Castro literature (‘Hands Off Cuba!’) on a New Orleans sidewalk and he got into a scuffle with some anti-Castro Cubans. It was all captured on film that has been preserved and discussed ever since.

“Fifty-three years later, several tabloid newspapers, using facial recognition software, identified Ted’s evangelical father, Rafael, as one of the pro-Castro Cubans (sic) who was helping Oswald to leaflet in New Orleans, an allegation that became music to Trump’s campaign, as he’s a card-carrying birther, truther, denier, and conspiracist of the first rank. Finally here was a campaign issue that Trump knew something about.

“Whether the New Orleans allegation is true or not—if you compare the pictures, it’s not completely far-fetched and Cruz’s father “cannot remember” when he was in New Orleans in the 1960s—by this point the Cruz campaign had become a 24/7 Internet meme, with Ted having to deny not just his father’s connections to Oswald, but also that his phone number was not listed with a Washington, D.C. escort service and that he had not fallen to the temptations of various campaign vixens. It was all too much. No wonder he snapped: ‘Dad killed JFK, he’s secretly Elvis, Jimmy Hoffa’s buried in his backyard.’ (The Hoffa news could have helped him in New Jersey, but by then Cruz was out of the race.)

“Ted thought he was running to purify the American soul but instead his only associations were with the temptations of evil, and when it came time to ‘suspend’ his campaign he accidentally elbowed his wife in the head, yet another embrace gone wrong.

“If he goes at all to the Cleveland convention, it will be to position himself to run again in 2020.

* * *

“One of the hardest jobs on the campaign has been to convert Donald Trump into someone who is easily modified with the adjective ‘presidential.’

“Left to his own devices Donnie thinks of politics as call-in radio or a Don Rickles TV roast, and he’s at his best (this is a relative term) when he’s calling in to some shock jock to rip into an opponent. He spoke of Rubio’s brittle nerves at one debate: ‘He wanted a full-length mirror. Maybe to make sure his pants weren’t wet.’

“On these occasions Trump is ‘Donnie from Queens,’ and the subjects that interest him are the same as those that readers of New York Post find compelling: hence, the mistresses of Bill Clinton, Hillary throwing her high heels at Secret Service agents, Chelsea’s $10.5 million apartment and her ne’er-do-well money-manager husband, the saga of the Clintons’ speaking fees, or whatever is floating in the gutter.

“All Trump needs to do for his campaign each morning is to skim Page Six (the gossip section) and open up the phone lines. The rest comes naturally, as he thinks and sounds like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly. (‘Why would anybody listen to @MittRomney? He lost an election that should have easily been won against Obama. By the way, so did John McCain!’)

“After winning the majority of the delegates, however, his aides decided to buff up his image to ‘presidential’ status and toward that end they bought him a few Teleprompters and uploaded some speeches on foreign affairs, which Trump read with all the enthusiasm of a seventh grader talking about climate change in the school’s annual speech contest.

“To think that Trump has positions they way other candidates do is to miss entirely Trump’s political appeal. Other than to build a few walls on the Mexican border, Trump has no fixed ideals. At best he’s a nihilist, happy to destroy a few things (ISIS, the EPA, etc.) but devoid of a political faith.

 

“In the course of a day, or even in the same speech, he can condemn George W. Bush for the war in Iraq (‘We should have never been in Iraq’) and then pledge new battles against ISIS in the same country (‘I would bomb the shit out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes. . . . I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left’).

“On other days he equates American politics with resort development, as when writes: ‘I have built an incredible company and have accumulated one of the greatest portfolios of real estate assets, many of which are considered to be among the finest and most iconic properties in the world. This is the kind of thinking the country needs.’ Sounds like he would fix unemployment with room service.

“But one thing Trump does not do well is ‘presidential.’ He’s too impatient with ceremony, and he’d rather ramble on like some Scotsman closing down a pub than read a formal speech to a chamber of commerce.

“Obama, as Reagan did, defines the presidency as a one-act play that is choreographed and produced each day for the evening news and cable feeds. (Visit Cuba, inspect a solar panel company, etc.) Trump, however, approaches the White House as a reality show with one star, endless apprentices, and audience points awarded for cutting one-liners.

“For example, despite needing Ohio to win the election, he hosed Governor John Kasich with these words: ‘What people don’t know about Kasich – he was a managing partner of the horrendous Lehman Brothers when it totally destroyed the economy!’ Come September, Trump may be wondering why no one is meeting him at the Columbus airport.

* * *

“Denied the chance to write about Trump’s politics (whatever they might be), the press has been reduced to analyzing peripheral issues in the campaign, such as Trump’s treatment of women. I trust you saw that long New York Times article, Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private. Would that they had written something as exhaustive about his real estate empire or how he dealt with the mob in Atlantic City.

“The point of the long exposé was to make Trump look like a star on Playboy After Dark (Hef with an ascot in the 1960s) or SNL’s Leon Phelps, a.k.a. “the Ladies Man.” The Times article cratered when several women interviewed for the story said they had been misquoted and that Trump has treated them ‘with respect.’ Even his ex-wives seem to like him.

“Nor was Trump brought low when a tape recording was released in which he calls a former Penthouse Pet of the Month ‘a fucking third-rate hooker.’ She said they had dated, and he denied it, but then he went on at length as if the reporter had called for his views on monetary policy or the Middle East.

“Finally speaking in sentences that his supporters could understand, Trump told the reporter: ‘You think I am going out with a Penthouse Pet?. . . . I never took her out. . . . Take a look at her picture. It’s all bullshit. . . . It’s just so fucking false. . . . Penthouse? Who the hell wants a Penthouse Pet? Penthouse is garbage, it’s bankrupt, it’s over. She’s a 35-year-old Penthouse Pet? That’s pretty pathetic.’

“So much for making Donald appear presidential.

* * *

“Having established (in the interests of national security?) that he would never date a Penthouse Pet, Trump’s bigger problem becomes his non-existent relationship with the Republican political establishment.

“All former Republican presidents and nominees said they will not be attending the GOP convention in Cleveland, and Ronald Reagan’s son Michael wrote: “This most likely would be the 1st time if my father was alive that he would not support the nominee of the GOP.”

“For a while it looked as though Trump had found a way to work with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has said he will ‘vote for’Trump but then, on another occasion, denounced him as racist. So much for the party of accommodation.

“Does it matter that the Republican establishment hates Trump? I would say it does, because it puts Trump out there on his own, running a campaign that only has roots in the sidewalks of Trump Tower. And it denies the his campaign third-party funding, if the Koch brothers and other heavy hitters are sitting on the wallets, which they are.

“Even Trump might not want to part with a billion dollars of his own money in a losing effort for the presidency. As Trump himself has said on many occasions: ‘Sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make.’

“Hillary is already $200 million ahead in fund raising while Trump is exchanging insults with the party chiefs.

Strangely, Trump used the filing of his Personal Disclosure Statement to boast of his endless wealth (‘in excess of $10 billion dollars’) and an annual income of $557 million, not exactly the words his fund raising team want in the file when they go door-to-door looking for $2,000 checks.

“Without mainstream Republicans or the Bush family on his side (that cigarette boat has sailed), Trump may have an uphill battle in Florida, a must-win state for him. At one point recently, Donald posed with a Mexican dish and tweeted over it, “I love Hispanics!,” but to carry such swing states as Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico he will need to do more than order out from Taco Bell.

“And Trump cares so little about his potential running mate (often a sop to the party) that all he has done in that direction is to ask Dr. Ben Carson to keep his eye out for some suitable candidates.

“I see even Newt Gingrich has volunteered to become Donnie’s prime minister so that he can run the government while Trump sticks to social media, but I doubt the White House has enough bandwidth to accommodate both egos.

* * *

“I know guys like you live in the forecasting world, and from me you want to know, from the inside, what will happen. But please keep in mind that insiders get this just as wrong as the newspapers:

—Trump will do better at the convention than predicted, but still leave Cleveland with the party underfunded and divided, and maybe with someone like Chris Christie or Ben Carson as his running mate. What can I say, they all like each other, and Donnie doesn’t hire strangers.

—Bernie will vanish into the good night long before the Philadelphia convention, and on the second night, when the rules committee is debating time limits for the next convention, a Sanders video will run in the background (like some airplane safety announcement), but not get picked up by network television.

—Hillary will play it safe with her vice presidential candidate, and go with a centrist who can at least deliver one of the swing states. Hence Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Tim Kaine of Virginia. She will not pick another woman or someone from the Northeast, and whoever she picks will come with Bill’s blessing, whose raspy voice in the campaign will increasingly start to sound like the Godfather’s. (‘In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.’)

—I still don’t think that Hillary is out of the email woods with her server issues but most likely it will simmer (as Watergate did during 1972) and not reach a rolling boil until later. Time is running out for FBI director James Comey to perp walk some of her aides.

—Trump’s campaign will be a ceaseless attack on the character of the Clintons: his philandering, her greed. In turn, they will attack Trump as Lyndon Johnson went after Barry Goldwater, as someone too unstable to have his finger on the bomb. Economics will be an afterthought, provided the markets don’t dissolve.

—Each will use the word cesspool to describe the other’s finances, and voters will not care; I can’t tell you why, however.

—Hillary will run on the assumption that she is starting just short of a majority in the electoral college and focus all of her time on several swing states, notably Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio.

—Trump will ignore the advice of his professional staff (‘If they are so smart, how come they’re not running for President?’), and go after the Clintons in places where they should be most comfortable—in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and even California. Think of Robert E. Lee marching on Gettysburg.

—His only chance to win will be to attack her in the Clinton heartland and hope that she stays focused (ever the good Democrat) on the peripheral swing states.

—Because he’s a bad listener, Trump will be more prone to gaffs, not a good position to be in with the electorate in 2016. In turn, Hillary will remain teleprompter bland. (‘I want to give America a raise…’)

—Hillary’s risk will be if her demeanor suggests that the campaign is more a Clinton coronation than an election, and her poll numbers will remain abysmal among middle-aged men, young women, and working class voters.

—Hillary will stay strong among African-Americans, older women, labor unions, government workers, and Latinos. She will also be the entitlement candidate, no small thing in entitled America.

—Trump will do “better than expected” at the debates but not sufficiently well to move ahead in the polls. Overall he will win among white men, and lose among most other constituencies. By the end of the campaign voters will be “done” with Trump and tune out his rantings. He’ll start sounding like Austin Powers. (‘Behave, baby. . . yeah.’)

—Come election day, since you asked, I predict the Democrats will win 337 electoral votes to 201 for the Republicans. She will keep New England, the Upper Midwest, and do well on the West Coast. He will lose in Virginia (all those federal employees not keen on pink slips), North Carolina, and Florida. Game over.

“Will I see you in Cleveland?

Your friend,

_____________________”

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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