Hillary Clinton is trying to frame the presidential election as a referendum on Donald Trump — a strategy that echoes efforts to sink John Kerry’s Democratic candidacy in 2004 and Mitt Romney’s GOP campaign in 2012.

Television advertising from Clinton and her allies is mostly painting Trump as an unacceptable choice for president rather than making a positive argument for the former secretary of State. 

{mosads}During her speech to the Democratic National Convention late last month, Clinton assailed Trump for what she sees as his divisiveness, narcissism and his record of having “stiffed” small businesses.

In that address, and on the stump in swing states, Clinton has also attacked Trump for outsourcing, suggesting that his stated desire to bring jobs back to America is contradicted by his record as a businessman.

It seems, on its face, an unusual tactic.

Clinton has been at the forefront of national politics for a quarter-century, worked for four years as President Obama’s secretary of State and is seeking a third presidential term for the Democratic Party. That should make the election a referendum on Democratic control of the White House.

Instead, Clinton’s tack has kept the focus on Trump — a strategy that could be effective given the Republican nominee’s low approval numbers.

In making the contest about Trump, Clinton is following a template used by presidents in both parties.

President Obama’s reelection fight in 2012 came under difficult economic conditions, yet he and his campaign tarred Romney as a plutocrat with little understanding of, or sympathy for, the challenges faced by working people.

Obama made that election “about whether people could trust Mitt Romney,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

“Obama won, even though many of the fundamentals were against him, because he did a better job of framing this trust [issue] — and made it a referendum on Romney and not on him.”

In 2004, Kerry was badly hurt by negative ads that raised questions about his decorated military record during the Vietnam War. While many of Kerry’s crewmates in the Navy defended his record and argued the so-called swift boat attacks were not credible, they hurt the Democrat with voters in the first presidential election after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While the attacks were run by an outside group and not the Bush campaign, the effect was to focus an election centered on national security on Kerry’s readiness to lead rather than Bush’s White House record. 

Independent experts note that the sheer uniqueness of Trump as a candidate makes it more plausible to cast the election as a referendum on the challenger than it might otherwise be.

“Usually, it is true, when you have a two-term president leaving, the election becomes about the retiring president and the effort is by the opposition to connect them together,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. “This is how Obama attacked McCain in 2008 and Bush attacked Gore in 2000.

“But this year is different,” Zelizer added. “Given how outspoken and erratic Trump is, and given how well-known he is as a public commodity, the dynamics have changed.”

Clinton has jumped into a significant lead in the polls within the past two weeks, and many people across the political spectrum believe that is in part because Trump has played into her hands. 

In particular, his repeated jabs at the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, disgruntled many Republicans, as well as Democrats and independents.

“Hillary Clinton is making a reasonable case on her own behalf but she is being aided by Trump’s quixotic behavior,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

To many Republicans, Trump still has the chance to turn things around. They believe that Clinton’s desire to focus on the GOP nominee is a testament to her weakness.

“Hillary Clinton is obviously trying to make this election a referendum on Donald Trump because she can’t make it about herself,” said Hogan Gidley, who was a high-level aide to the presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee this year and Rick Santorum in 2012.

“Trump is in a little bit of a better position, even though they are the most disliked politicians in modern history,” Gidley added. “He has an opponent that the voters do not trust and his image is as a successful businessman.”

The Trump campaign tried to turn the page on a tumultuous two weeks Monday, when the GOP nominee delivered a lengthy address on economic policy in Detroit.

The content of the speech hewed close to Republican orthodoxy, emphasizing simplification of the tax code, a repeal of the inheritance tax and a push for less regulation. Stylistically, Trump was also restrained — to the point where he avoided taking the bait when his address was interrupted more than a dozen times by protesters.

Still, Gidley lamented — as do many other Republicans — that Trump has already missed several important opportunities. Gidley pointed to a feeling that the GOP nominee had squandered valuable time during the period when he had wrapped up his party’s nomination but Clinton had not done likewise on the Democratic side.

More generally, he added, “It’s teed up for Trump — but to extend the golf analogy, is he going to snap-hook it into the woods or is he going to hit it right down the middle?”

Clinton and her allies won’t let up the pressure for a moment. During Trump’s speech on the economy on Monday, flurries of emails hit reporters’ inboxes accusing the GOP nominee of engaging in “already debunked lies” and other missteps.

Independent observers believe it is theoretically possible that Trump could transform his public image between now and Election Day. They just aren’t persuaded that he has enough self-discipline to stick to that task day after day.

“There is plenty of time for him to make himself more palatable,” said Buchanan. “But he would have to change his stripes, so to speak.”
Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Kerry
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