If Hillary Clinton manages to beat Bernie Sanders, the early primaries have already revealed that there’s only one strategy for the general election against a Republican, be it Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz: Scorch the earth.
There was a scenario, which looks more like a fantasy, in which Clinton was a movement. Women in their twenties, thirties, and forties would rally to her the way black Americans rallied to Obama; she would run on her own mantle of change.
In reality, nobody is that excited about Hillary Clinton, and young voters, women and men — the foot soldiers of any Democratic Party movement — aren’t coming around. She lost a resounding 82% of voters under 30 in Nevada. Her campaign now rests on the hope that voters of color like her well enough, if nowhere near as much as they like Obama. And that means that when she faces a Republican, she will have to destroy him — something the people who will be doing the destroying acknowledged when I asked them earlier this month.
“The slogan is ‘Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid,’” said Paul Begala, who is an adviser to the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA.
Begala’s group works on the negative side of the political ledger, and he argued that Clinton will have supporters — Sanders among them — helping to rally Democrats. But he and other top Democratic operatives agreed that 2016 will be, as the technical term for negative politics goes, “a contrast election.”
“This is headed to a more contrastive kind of election,” said David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign. “People want to know you’re going to lead with a positive vision, but within the context of that, you can set up a contrast. Every campaign has to do that, she may have to do it more intensely.”
This is, to be fair to Clinton, the way of this century’s American politics — and Obama’s ability to run a campaign in 2008 that was focused as much on his own promise as on destroying his rival was the exception, not the rule. 2012 was a death march. 2004 was a horror show. This election is another entry in that pattern, another suggestion that it’s not going to get much better.
“No matter who the nominee is this election will feel more like '04 and '12 than '08,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director.
A Clinton spokesman, Brian Fallon, didn’t directly comment on general election plans, but noted that “it is the exception, rather than the rule, for general elections not to be close affairs.”
Democrats are now left to hope that the Republican Party will make a campaign of fear easy by nominating a candidate campaigning on bigotry. Donald Trump has already hinted that he plans to attack Clinton as nastily as possible, on subjects including her husband’s infidelity.
“It will be her versus a fucking asshole in almost any scenario,” mused one prominent Obama loyalist. “It's going to be a lot of fear, but she's going to have a lot of room to run, and she’s not going to have to destroy the other person, because the other person is going to be so eminently destroyable.”
Begala, who will be manning the wrecking ball in the summer and fall, said that if Rubio, seen as the hardest of the Republican targets, is the nominee, one issue presents itself clearly: “He will be the first major party in American history who believes that a woman should be forced by law to bring a rapist’s baby to term,” he said.
In any event, he said, the broad theme of those attacks will be that “the Republican Party has gone insane.”
So don't expect 2016 to be a fond political memory.