The Blame Game: Two Clintons No Trump


Tired of the election coverage—who isn’t?—and the sound of Wolf Blitzer’s voice, I reached out to someone on the inside, to get another take, and received the enclosed email, which began: “I figured between WikiLeaks, John Podesta, the Russians, Judicial Watch, the NSA, and the Clinton work-from-home server that this ought to find you…”

I take it you watched the second debate? Or at least some of the beginning? Or at least the highlights? Or you read some of the press accounts that put it down as the “ugliest debate in American history?”

In general, these posts were written by those who would struggle to explain, without some CliffsNotes, James Callender, Mark Hanna, or the insults hurled at the 1856 Republican presidential candidate John C. Frémont. (A leading American newspaper summed up his platform as “Free n——s, free women, free land and Frémont…”)

And in 1864, here are some of the words that were used to describe Father Abraham Lincoln: “Filthy story-teller; Ignoramus Abe; Despot; Old scoundrel; big secessionist; perjurer; liar; robber; thief; swindler; braggart; tyrant; buffoon; fiend; usurper; butcher; monster; land-pirate; a long, lean, lank, lantern-jawed, high-cheeked-boned, spavined, rail-splitting stallion.”

Actually, I found the second presidential debate refreshing in that both candidates “hooked on” and fired broadsides at the opposing navy. Hillary went after Donald for racism, bigotry, misogyny, sexism, tax dodging, deceit, and wanting to scrap Obamacare, while Donald (yes, he often looked like a professional wrestler coming over the ropes with a chair) went after her for cookie-cutter liberalism, Wall Street pandering, her e-mail delete button, a tax-and-deficit spend mentality, talking the talk, and enabling her husband’s degrading of women.

Visually, the stage, with deep blue carpeting and subdued lighting, looked like a cross between a mortuary and the set of The Price is Right. (Monty Hall would be an improvement on the sanctimonious Anderson Cooper.) I guess everyone kept watching in the hope that behind door number three there might be a violated woman or 33,000 emails about Chelsea’s wedding or her yoga class. (Huma to HRC: “How come all we ever do is the Staff Pose?”)

Under the town hall format, the candidates were allowed to stroll around a conversation pit while answering the questions, most of which were filtered through the moderators.

Both Cooper and Martha Raddatz wore the scowl of the Spanish Inquisition, at least when asking questions of Donald Trump about his sex confessional, which cast the Republican candidate in the remake of that great campaign musical, My Fair Willie Horton.

When not responding or interrupting, Trump had the look of a man at an IRS audit (maybe he was?) while Clinton’s handlers insisted that she smile and laugh cheerfully no matter how insulting Trump became or how biting were her answers, which gave her the slightly crazed air of a Hitchcock character getting ready to do in her tormentor with scissors. Dial T for Trump?

You might hate one or both candidates (most people do), but at least in the second debate the lines were correctly drawn between each of the their policies and historical antecedents.

If you strip away all the tweets and bluster, Republican Trump is a “hard-money” man, a bit like William McKinley, eager to return American to the gold standard and raise tariffs to ward off foreign competition.

At least in her scripted pronouncements, Clinton imagines herself as the spiritual heir of the Progressives, the likes of William Jennings Bryant or maybe “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, although neither man ever pulled down $22 million by giving speeches to stock jobbers on Wall Street.

Who won the second debate? None of the above would be my answer. If you started watching the show thinking that Trump is a gutter candidate, you left the debate feeling the same way. He did not disappoint.

And if you think the Clintons have gotten away with murder since Vince Foster’s bloodless suicide, I doubt her performance will have changed your mind.

In some ways it was one of those heavyweight fights that goes 15 rounds and ends in a draw. Trump avoided a knockdown and added some details to his policies; Hillary did well technically and with her jab, but failed to get a decision, despite mentioning Muhammad Ali by name. (I was a little surprised that Trump didn’t mimic Arsenio Hall and say: “His momma named him Clay, I’m gonna call him Clay.”)

In presidential debates, a tie favors the leader in the polls, so presumably Hillary left St. Louis feeling that the race is hers to win. As Mrs. Willy Loman says at the end of play: “We’re free and clear.”

Among the subjects omitted from the debate, except maybe in passing, were the Arab Spring, Israel’s $38 billion in new American aid, Egypt’s coup, the war in Gaza, welfare reform, Brexit, the European Union, the failures of American education, social security insolvency, China, Japan, infrastructure decay, youth unemployment, heroin addiction, global warming, Saudi Arabia and 9/11, banking reform, agricultural prices, high-speed rail, mental health, alcoholism, violence against children, the Keystone pipeline, pornography, and Deflategate.

So, really, who was the loser?

Can Trump get back into the race? I don’t see how. He has most Republican officials calling for his extended scalp, dropping poll numbers in such swing states as Ohio and Pennsylvania, reluctant donors of the Koch variety, and the dubious distinction (at least among presidential candidates) of caring more about the weight gains of Miss Universe than how to end the civil war in Syria.

By contrast, Hillary can play a prevent defense for all of October, at least enough to win her the election. She need not make too many appearances (a few Oprah interviews ought to do the trick) nor take any radical positions (“I want to be president of all Americans”).

She can chant the doxology about health insurance, the war on terror, or income inequality, and as long as she “sounds presidential,” she ought to convince enough voters that she is up to the job.

Not even the traveling bevy of scorned mistresses, dressed up as tricoteuses beside Bill’s guillotine, will sway many voters.

Even if Hillary has another public health scare, I doubt that it would cost her the election, for the simple reason that the Clinton feel-good team has gotten too proficient at propping her up for the big games.

Clinton starring in Weekend at Hillary’s has more box office appeal than Donald’s appearance in Citizen Trump. (“You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”)

Whatever the root medical cause of her dizziness and coughing, her staff has learned enough to keep both at bay, at least for ninety minutes during the primetime debates and a few speeches.

If, later in the campaign, she chucks a sickie here and there, no one will notice, especially if her staff mixes into the downtime some cable interviews and tweets from her fainting couch.

After all, not even Hillary’s cringe-worthy appearance on the faux talk show Between Two Ferns caused her any criticism. (Zach Galifianakis: “What’s the best way to reach you? Email?”)

Does it mean that her health can withstand the rigors of the presidency? Although I am not a doctor (nor do I play one on television), in person I can tell you that Hillary has ghostly qualities.

Remember that weird press conference on the tarmac at Westchester County Airport, where she stood in front of humming jet engines and took unscripted questions for the first time in almost a year? To the voting public, that was a little one-act play meant to show the candidate ever on-the-go, about to board her chariot to distant coliseums.

In fact, the runway Potemkin theater was a work of genius on the part of her staff, to keep the candidate from getting startled by the noise of cameras or press questions, and possibly putting her into one of those catatonic trances that are all over the Internet.

The plane engines were white noise, like those waterfall tapes some people use to fall asleep, only in this case it was the voters who were sleepwalking beside Hillary.

Not that Donald Trump should get a pass on his health, as he has been no more forthcoming than Hillary in releasing his medical records. At least she came up with a form letter from her family doctor and could toss around the phrase “seasonal allergies,” which the Clinton campaign would trot out in press releases if she were mauled by a tiger.

For his part Trump let his doctor check him out in his limo and then went over the results with Dr. Oz on afternoon television. (A checkup on TV isn’t something that comes with Obamacare.)

Trump’s borderline obesity, however, rated almost no mention in campaign coverage, just as neither candidate (Hillary is almost 69; Trump is 70) was asked during either debate about their health issues.

That Hillary managed to dodge a public neurological exam after keeling over at the World Trade Center is testament to the savviness of her campaign staff, which by comparison makes those around Trump look as though they are auditioning for an amateur hour. In addition, Trump has gone through campaign directors as if they were Mar-a-Lago caddies.

Neither candidate is much good at listening to their staff, but at least Hillary has a real one while those around Trump have the air of apprentices. It explains why his campaign, at best, is a traveling circus limited to the big tents that will squeeze aboard his gilded Boeing 757.

Trump won the Republican nomination because of his midnight tweets and off-the-cuff insults (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”), which played well to a primary electorate weaned on the howling of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingraham. But a national campaign needs more than a few Fox & Friends.

Part of the reason Trump’s campaign came apart over the sex tape is because it’s a one-man band. Since the summer, the pros in the Republican party have been waiting for Hillary’s campaign to dig up the Howard Stern interviews or to put Trump’s taxes in primetime. (You have to admire them: the leaked 1040 forms were mailed to the Times in a “Trump Organization” envelope.)

Everyone knew they were coming, just as Hillary ought to have known that somewhere a transcript of her Wall Street encomiums or deleted e-mails would surface. But Trump always knows more than his campaign operatives (“If he’s so smart, how come he is willing to work for $75K?”), and he ignored the advice to develop a strategy for either disclosure.

You can be sure that Clinton’s staff has enough raunchy revelations to fill the news cycle from now until election day, for there to be a daily “Trump outrage.” (Great moments in journalism, this from the Huffington Post: “There Are Transcripts Of Trump’s Unaired Moments On The Apprentice…”)

In the 1990s Donald told Howard Stern how women approach him: “They’ll walk up, and they’ll flip their top, and they’ll flip their panties.” This was years before he was popping Tic Tacs with Billy Bush.

The irony of Pussygate, for Trump anyway, is that it was a form of Swift boating, but in reverse, this time going from the Democrats to the Republicans.

During much of the campaign, the great unanswered question was whether Trump could make any electoral mileage from Bill Clinton’s sexual wanderlust. Or if he might hint broadly that Hillary—to use an old Hollywood expression—is “a gal with her own library card.”

In his free-form interviews and speeches, Trump is always alluding to such fixtures of the road as Gennifer Flowers, Juanita Broderick, Paula Jones, and The Energizer, not to mention Bill’s global joyriding (some 26 flights) on Jeffrey Epstein’s plane, nicknamed the Lolita Express for the age and in-flight entertainment of its hostesses.

But now Hillary’s A-team of campaign pros has managed to dress Trump in the open raincoat of a sexual predator, much the way W’s team made war hero John Kerry look like a deserter in the Vietnam War, although it was George W. Bush who went AWOL from his National Guard unit in Alabama.

From now until election day, however, it will be impossible for Trump to play the sex card on either Clinton.

In thinking about the fall, Donald thought he would be campaigning from Atlantic City, dealing strip poker; instead all he has is a cold hand of Go Fish.

Why is Hillary so good at the blame game? Look at how she uses Putin’s Russia as a whipping boy for whatever problem plagues her campaign. Mention the e-mail scandal, and right away Hillary is on about the Russians hacking “the system” to influence the election.

On one hand she says that none of her unprotected, home-brewed e-mails—those with the words “top secret” on the subject line—were ever stolen. On the other, mention anything about cyber security, and she’s blaming Putin and Russia for wanting to tilt the roulette wheel of the American election.

By extension, Hillary casts the Putin-loving Trump as a fellow-traveler—in the great McCarthyite tradition of naming names.

Putin is also to blame for all of the violence in Syria and the Middle East, not to mention fluoride in the water system, Bill’s account at Ashley Madison, and why Goldman Sachs paid her $675,00 to recycle some stump speeches in the corporate boardroom.

By the way, if you read the transcripts on WikiLeaks, what stands out is how little Hillary understands about finance. The $225,000-a-pop speeches, chock full of platitudes, read like Chamber of Commerce brochures or My Weekly Reader editorials. I am a little surprised the banks didn’t ask for a refund, what in the trade is called “unjust enrichment.”

Is there anything to the rumor that Mike Pence will abandon the ticket over Trump’s furniture shopping with the Miss America host Nancy O’Dell? I am sure he’s had some discussions with his staff about jumping off the sinking ship, and leaving the rats behind.

If he did, and were Trump to lose to general election, Pence would become the front runner for 2020, when presumably the country will be tired of yet another President Clinton and an unimpeachable Congress.

Pence on the moral high road would certainly look better than Ted Cruz, who, in a career move, finally endorsed Donald about an hour before Trump was overheard recounting his Playboy lust-for-life moves in the recorded bus conversation.

The reason I don’t think Pence will bolt the ticket is because he might become the lightning rod for all the GOP establishmentarians who gave up on Trump after the sex tape and withdrew their endorsements. That list is a mile long (see Ryan, Paul et al.), but it remains to be seen if they will emerge from the electoral wreckage of the Trump campaign as traitors or idealists.

Presumably the Trump doubters have bolted to save their own skin—that is especially the case with many Republican senators up for re-election, including senators John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Kelly Ayotte. But imagine if Trump somehow wins or at least holds serve, and if he emerges as the leader of the party after the election. (Let’s hope those Republicans have fire insurance.)

Yes, I find a Trump resurrection almost impossible to imagine, but 2016 is a strange year so don’t overlook the unimaginable, and the fault line between candidate Trump and the Republican establishment could well be the line that will eventually split the party into two new parties, Conservatives and Republicans.

For me, the interesting aspect of Trump’s sex confessions isn’t that he’s a groper (ever since Warren Harding most presidential candidates have had something warm in their closets), but that it is the issue that highlights how the election is a watershed between mainstream media, which is effectively dead, and the populism of social media.

The 2016 election belongs to Twitter and BuzzFeed, which at best are the captions to cartoons. The boys on the bus are not Timesmen so much as bloggers, and Trump’s sex tape has all the ingredients of an Instagram scoop—video that could play in thirty-seconds, eavesdropping, furtive sex of the Tinder kind, horny Page Six celebrities, and, in response, moral outrage that can be expressed in 140 characters. What more can a democracy want? Who has time to read de Tocqueville anyway?

For all I know, the affair might actually swing millennials to Trump, much the way that scandal hasn’t exactly done in the Kardashians.

Look at the crowds flocking to Trump rallies after the debate while Hillary still has to bus in her claque.

According to electoral orthodoxy, Trump is road kill, hoist, so to speak, by his own petard. He will lose Ohio, North Carolina and Florida, and thus the presidency. His hope of a new coalition that would turn Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina into red states is dead.

In those swing states, the moral majority will recoil at his boorish sexism and elect Hillary Clinton. On her side, presumably, are women, minorities, and college-educated voters, few of whom ever tried to grope the host of the Miss America pageant.

Trump will only manage to carry the Second Amendment crowd and those who think that Hillary wants to deliver America to what, in the lingua franca of the right, is called “globalism”—a loose confederation that includes the UN and Agenda 21, gun controllers, the New York Times, abortionists, atheists, George Soros, the EU, Iranian sympathizers, the Federal Reserve Bank, Davos, married gays, and Angela Merkel.

In the language of Star Wars, this could be the Trade Federation that Darth Trump is pledged to eliminate, at least in his fervid, 3 a.m. imagination. I can’t see him winning—not during this year’s ratings sweep anyway—but what will happen when the standard-bearer for Trumpism isn’t someone as capricious as The Donald. Then you might want to hide the china.

That’s all for now. Write me in a day or two. By then, the world will have changed.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.