California Forum

Campaign of division is strategy for election success

A sign is held on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was part of the anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric, which mirrors the often distasteful mocking of both candidates.
A sign is held on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was part of the anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric, which mirrors the often distasteful mocking of both candidates. The Associated Press

If you tuned into the Republican National Convention for more than, say, 18 seconds, you probably heard something bad about Hillary Clinton.

That’s pretty standard political fare at these political pep rallies that have morphed from traditional quadrennial party gatherings that actually choose a nominee. The chants and mocking are sure to be repeated starting Monday as Democrats in Philadelphia take aim at Donald Trump.

“Lock her up! Lock her up!” was the most frequent delegate chant in Cleveland with signs showing prison bars. The chant even erupted during Donald Trump’s acceptance speech.

“Let’s defeat her in November,” the nominee suggested instead.

Legitimate elections in democracies are about dividing people. To have a unified Us over here, you need a Them over there.

The anti-Hillary rhetoric – one Trump supporter, quickly silenced, suggested she be tried for treason – mirrors the often-distasteful mocking of both candidates by advocates of the other.

Such material has fertile ground for spreading this year because Clinton and Trump own historically high unfavorable poll numbers. And, remember, Clinton has been politically active for more than a quarter-century, ample time to earn many enemies.

While Republicans fought over support for the 17 candidates at the start of their selection process, the lone unifying factor was and often still is opposition to Clinton and the threat she poses to conservative values.

Clinton’s pronounced drift to the left to head off her main primary primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, only heightened concerns on the right.

GOP speaker after speaker went after Clinton’s record of failures as secretary of state, such as her support for the disastrous war against Libya’s dictator that produced a lawless state, her unsuccessful Russian “Reset” button and failure to help Syrian rebels.

Two weeks ago FBI Director James Comey described in detail the findings of his agency’s investigation of Clinton for her unauthorized email server and mishandling of national security documents. It sounded like a federal indictment, until he declined to recommend prosecution.

Comey has also declined to comment on another FBI probe into allegations tying Clinton’s official actions to donations to her family foundation and exorbitant speaking fees for her husband by foreign governments.

The most brutal Clinton convention assessment came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who pretended to present to delegates evidence of Secretary Clinton’s policy and character malfeasance on Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Islamic State, Russia and Iran. And Clinton’s documented lies about her email contents and the cause of the deadly 2012 Benghazi attack.

After each presentation Christie asked the audience for a verdict. “Guilty!” shouted thousands. And then, of course, came the chant: “Lock her up.”

It is to the political advantage of Clinton and Trump to make the campaign about the other person, not policies. And, let’s be honest, if one side can agree on that dislike, it can dodge detailed discussion of its own policies and plans, which might stir up internal opposition.

The Clinton campaign and associated PACs have already spent more than $57 million attacking Trump. All have gone unanswered by the Republican.

In 2012 President Barack Obama and his supporters invested more than $100 million in unanswered summer attack ads against Mitt Romney. One even suggested Romney was somehow responsible for a woman‘s death from cancer.

In 2008, images of Sarah Palin in bed with her GOP running mate John McCain were widely circulated. During the 2004 campaign to re-elect George W. Bush, “Kill Bush” T-shirts and posters of him being shot were created. The popular cable TV show “Game of Thrones” has even used a severed George W. Bush head as a prop in one episode.

All of which make a convention speaker likening Clinton to Lucifer seem pretty tame in comparison. With all of the outrageous verbal ammo Donald Trump provided during the Republican primaries, one can only imagine the fun Democrats will have in Philadelphia starting Monday.

Critiquing an opponent requires caution, however. In 2000, Al Gore’s campaign obtained the so-so high school SAT scores for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Bush operatives dug up Gore’s scores and – oh, look – they were lower than Bush’s.

Before the internet, campaigns had to rely on word-of-mouth to corrode an opponent’s character. The 19th century saw whisper campaigns about illegitimate children, among other things. As late as 1964 even being divorced was considered a presidential disqualifier.

Politically, in every election cycle polls show that attack ads are almost universally denounced by voters as unfair and distasteful. But here’s the problem and the reason they survive: They work.

Weeks of unanswered Obama attack advertisements at this time in 2012 saw Romney’s poll numbers sag beyond repair. Voters say they didn’t like the ads. But they believed them.

It seems then that hypocrisy is a trait not limited to politicians.

Andrew Malcolm is a veteran foreign and national correspondent who began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at