Donald Trump delivered a cohesive and effective indictment of Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign on Wednesday, painting the former secretary of state as a pay-to-play politician who purposely keeps the public in the dark about her activities and who puts personal ambition above all else.
“Hillary Clinton’s message is old and tired,” Trump said. “Her message is that [things] can’t change. My message is that things have to change — and this is our one chance do it. This is our last chance to do it.”
That’s the right message for Trump. Finally. After almost two months of wasted motion, Trump put a frame on the race — Clinton as corrupt insider, Trump as crusading outsider — that could actually beat the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
The problem? The messenger. Campaigns work when the message and the messenger complement each other. Barack Obama ran on a message of “hope” and “change.” It worked because he embodied what he was promising: a fundamentally different approach to politics. He was African American. He was named “Barack Hussein Obama.” He had spent two years in the Senate before running for the White House. It all worked together. The message was the messenger.
In Trump, you have a deeply flawed messenger when it comes to selling the idea of Clinton as a figure of the past who puts personal profit over the public good and who seems allergic to transparency. Trump is vulnerable on all of those fronts, offering Clinton the chance to hoist him on his own petard over and over again — and easily.
Take transparency. Here’s Trump on Clinton:
“She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund — doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash. Then, when she left, she made $21.6 million giving speeches to Wall Street banks and other special interests — in less than 2 years — secret speeches that she does not want to reveal to the public.”
Good, right? After all, Clinton’s refusal to release any of the transcripts from the speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and other corporations is a major weak spot for her candidacy. Not releasing even one transcript suggests that Clinton said things in those speeches that she thinks will do more damage to her campaign than her refusal to make them public is currently doing. (My guess? She probably praised the corporations and showed an intimate familiarity with a bunch of the highly paid chief executives who run them.)
But, here’s the thing: Trump is refusing to turn over his tax returns, making him the first presidential candidate in four decades to do so. Trump’s excuse is that he simply can’t make his tax returns public because he is being audited (Richard Nixon made his returns public during an audit in the 1972 campaign) and, even if he did, there would be nothing to learn from them anyway — a claim The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave four Pinocchios.
It’s very hard to bash your opponent on not turning over her speech transcripts when you won’t turn over your tax returns.
Then there’s Trump’s attack that Clinton is all about feathering her own nest at the expense of people’s well-being.
“The book Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer, documents how Bill and Hillary used the State Department to enrich their family at America’s expense,” Trump argued. “She gets rich making you poor.”
Again, a very solid argument. There is a pervasive sense among Republicans and even many independents (and a few Democrats) that the Clintons have spent decades using their high perches in elected office to enrich themselves. From Whitewater all the way through their speech-making post-State Department, it’s a pattern of taking care of themselves first and foremost, goes the argument.
But, can Trump credibly make that argument when something like Trump University is hanging out there? This from The Post’s initial story about Trump University back in September 2015:
“Never licensed as a school, Trump University was in reality a series of real estate workshops in hotel ballrooms around the country, not unlike many other for-profit self-help or motivational seminars. Though short-lived, it remains a thorn in Trump’s side nearly five years after its operations ceased: In three pending lawsuits, including one in which the New York attorney general is seeking $40 million in restitution, former students allege that the enterprise bilked them out of their money with misleading advertisements.”
That’s a pretty big “but” when it comes to how effective Trump can be by attacking Clinton as someone who made herself rich on the backs of average people.
Time and again in Trump’s speech, this pattern repeated itself. A strong line of attack against Clinton undermined by a similar (or worse) Trump problem unearthed by just a few keystrokes. On foreign affairs. On judgment. On almost everything.
The contradiction between what Trump says and what he has done throughout his career was present in the Republican primary too. Trump’s GOP rivals tried to use his past words and actions against him, painting the real estate mogul as a rank opportunist who said whatever the audience standing in front of him wanted to hear. Didn’t work. Republican primary voters didn’t care; they liked Trump’s willingness to just say stuff - often stuff that slammed political correctness and the politicians who adhered to it.
The general election has been a different animal for Trump thus far. He has struggled to find a message at all or get out of his own way to deliver it. Trump’s speech Wednesday in New York suggested that he has found the right message against Clinton. But, can he ever be the right messenger to effectively deliver it?
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.