Opinion

How Hillary Clinton could blow it

Memo to the Clinton campaign: Burn your normal playbook

Hoo boy, are we sure Democrats are up to this?

Donald Trump was annointed the presumptive Republican nominee and the chatter from inside the Beltway was that Democrats were settling on labeling him "Dangerous Donald." The next day, Paul Krugman used the "dangerous" word in his column to describe Trump and his supporters. This kind of message makes you wonder: Is Hillary Clinton going to blow this?

First, let me state the obvious. Right now the polls show Clinton whipping Trump from pillar to post in November. Under normal circumstances this gap should close somewhat as Republicans and independents who don't like Trump come around to him as they contemplate another Clinton presidency, and as they simply become habituated to the Donald as a presence in American political life. Clinton's lead should hold out to the end. But Hillary has a way of screwing up in campaigns that is going to make Democrats nervous about once a week.

Democrats are going to need a better line of attack than "Dangerous." Trump takes insults and reverses them. If you say he is unpredictable, he'll say that being unpredictable is part of being a good negotiator. If you criticize him for being greedy, he'll say that he's been greedy his whole life and now he wants to be "greedy for America." It is as if he went to a basic improv class and internalized the rule "Yes, and." A 10-year-old could make "Dangerous" into an honorific. For Trump it is almost a gift. Yes he could say, I'm a danger to the special interests. I'm a danger to Crooked Hillary's racket. Hillary is the "safe" choice. Safe for our enemies. Safe for the status quo. How's that working for you?

Trump was able to turn all the talk about Ted Cruz's sophisticated electoral machine and delegate hunting into a series of vicious attack lines about Ted Cruz and his buddies rigging the system in "voterless elections." It wasn't strictly true. But it was the sort of thing that gives morale to Trump supporters in future states: You better turn out because the bad guys are trying so hard to steal this nomination from you.

Much of the standard Democratic playbook has to be burned for this election. Donald Trump is going to run to Hillary's left on trade and jobs. He might even do the same on health care and foreign policy. And then he's going to promise a huge tax cut too. He doesn't care that it doesn't add up. If she doesn't play this right, Trump will force Clinton into being the boring, grandmotherly schoolteacher talking about fiscal issues.

And she has the potential for real screw-ups. See the way she bragged about putting coal-miners out of work. Trump is not going to let her get away with it.

Historically, Clinton has had a tendency to imagine herself to be uniquely victimized by her opponents, or embattled by her circumstances. You can watch her tear up about how hard campaigning is in New Hampshire in 2008. Or the countless times she re-frames a criticism of her own behavior and policies as an attack on "working mothers." This game worked on Rick Lazio, whose campaign for Senate fell apart the moment Clinton tagged him as a bully.

But Trump is not going to fall for this. Jeb Bush demanded an apology from Trump over disparaging comments Trump made about his wife. Trump rejected even the idea of apologizing outright. He was demonstrating his freedom from conventions, and that he would not do something just because someone demanded it of him. Jeb was left there stammering.

A Clinton effort to campaign as the serious, professional politician that you can trust could blow up in Hillary's face. Yes, she says fewer outlandish things than Donald. But Donald's outlandishness is part of his campaign. Meanwhile, Clinton is fully capable of not living up up her own self-regard.

Trump understands that American culture has no general standards, except to be true to yourself. Trump will say, "Yeah, I'm a son of a bitch. And you know it." And he'll hope that voters will think: He's right! That's true! How refreshing! He's delivering on this promise of son-of-a-bitchedness. Clinton is going to be tempted to say, "I'm the competent, trustworthy one." One screw-up, or scandal, or faux-pas later, and on America's sliding scale or morality, she's the dishonest one. It could be something as stupid as her one-time trick of "mislabeling" a donation from the American Muslim Council as the American Museum Council. Trump's shamelessness is part of what he's selling people.

Instead of backslapping each other about their great fortune, Democrats should study how it was that Trump eviscerated so many politicians that they believed would have presented Clinton a tougher fight. If they keep tittering that it's because Republican voters are just too stupid to pick a good candidate, the danger is just beginning.

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