Donald Trump dispatched his Republican rivals by branding them with an insulting but memorable nickname: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio. As the general election campaign nears, Trump has settled on a label for the likely Democratic nominee: “Crooked Hillary.”
“It works,” he boasted to The New York Times. “It flows.”
The problem for Hillary Clinton is that he may be right.
All campaign long, pollsters have found that many voters — including some Democrats — don’t think she’s principled. Maybe it’s her four decades in bare-knuckle politics, ancient questions about investment deals in Arkansas, her entanglement in her husband’s personal scandals, her decision to set up a private email server when she was secretary of state, her big-dollar fundraising and speech fees — or all of the above. Fairly or not, Clinton can’t shed her history.
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In a Quinnipiac poll of swing states released this week, 69 percent of Ohio voters said they didn’t think Clinton was honest and trustworthy, a daunting number. Trump was rated poorly too; 58 percent didn’t view him as honest. But he’ll take what he can get, because he performs worse than Clinton on almost every other measure.
That’s not news to Clinton; she’s seen numbers like that since the moment she announced her candidacy. “People should and do trust me,” she protested last year, but the plea fell flat.
So what can Clinton do? She’ll start by doing her best to ignore Trump’s jibes. He’d like nothing better than to lure her into a Nixonian response: “I am not crooked.”
“Don’t expect us to engage directly on his attacks like ‘Crooked Hillary,’ ” a Clinton aide told me. “He does best when he gets others to engage in insults.”
Instead, Clinton says her first response to Trump will be to change the subject to her strengths — her long list of policy proposals.
“I’m answering him all the time,” she told reporters in Virginia on Monday. “I’m answering him on what I think voters care about” — issues such as child care and the federal minimum wage.
But that’s only half the answer. Clinton is doing her best to label Trump too. Her new tag for Trump, unveiled this week: “loose cannon.”
“I don’t think we can take a risk on a loose cannon like Donald Trump to run our country,” she said.
“He’s going to have to be held to the standard we hold anybody running for president and commander in chief,” she said earlier.
That’s a lot more decorous than “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco.” It’s an above-the-belt jab, not a schoolyard taunt.
But it serves the same purpose: It spotlights Trump’s biggest weakness in most voters’ eyes — his biggest “negative,” to use the political strategists’ term. In Trump’s case, it boils down to: Do you trust this man with the nuclear codes?
In that same Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters, 63 percent said they did not think Trump had the temperament to handle an international crisis. (A bare majority, 51 percent, said they thought Clinton does.) Voters may not trust Clinton, but if they’re afraid of a Trump presidency, it won’t matter.
Still, there’s one more thing Clinton can and should do on the “honesty” front:
Talk more about reforming the campaign finance system. That sounds counterintuitive, I know, because she’s knee-deep in big-money fundraising, from Wall Street donors to super PACS.
She’s caught in a familiar trap for Democratic candidates: She’s denounced the campaign finance system, but she’s using it to bankroll her election. When she launched her presidential bid, Clinton said campaign finance reform would be one of the four “pillars” of her platform. But aside from a speech outlining reform proposals last year, she hasn’t talked about the issue much.
That’s something she can fix, argues Fred Wertheimer, the patriarch of campaign reform advocates.
“She could commit to making clear that this is going to be a top priority. She could commit to asking her vice president to take this on,” Wertheimer told me. “It won’t eliminate the issue, but it will show that she’s interested in taking on the system.”
“One more thing,” he added. “She lives in a rotten system just like everyone else. She should find a way to acknowledge that.”
On that count, Clinton could take a page from one of her most ardent supporters, actor George Clooney. Last month, after he hosted dinners at which couples could contribute $353,400 for a place at Clinton’s table, Clooney was refreshingly blunt.
“It’s an obscene amount of money,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that we should have this kind of money in politics.”
Clinton needs to say something like that — maybe even with Clooney sitting next to her. His negatives are lower than almost anyone’s.
Both candidates have already shown their hands. The coming campaign, in case anyone had any doubt, will be a battle of the negatives.” Which candidate will voters dislike more?
As political analyst Amy Walter put it, if the 2008 campaign was about hope and change, “2016 is going to be fear and loathing.”
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Contact him at doyle.mcmanus @latimes.com.