It’s never a good idea to negatively generalize your political opposites.
Just ask Mitt Romney. When running to unseat Barack Obama in 2012, Romney proclaimed that he wasn’t concerned with trying to win the votes of 47 percent of Americans. Those folks, he said, were too “dependent on government” to be wooed away from Democrats. He believed that portion of the electorate wasn’t worth the effort and that his time would be better spent chasing more winnable votes.
Though Romney’s assumption was likely right in a campaign strategy sense, when his statement made the Internet and cable television rounds, it reinforced the image of him as an elitist Republican, untroubled by the wants and needs of half the country. He probably still wishes he could unsay those remarks.
You could also ask Barack Obama if he’d like to take a mulligan on the “they cling to guns or religion” gaffe he made when discussing rural voters during the 2008 Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton had a field day beating him up for that blunder, and to this day it serves as evidence to many that he’s out of tune with millions of Americans.
Since it was Clinton who pounced on Obama’s rhetorical misstep, you’d think she’d have the sense to refrain from making the same mistake.
But no. She’s now knee deep in the mess herself.
On Friday, Clinton told an audience at a New York fundraiser that while “half” of Donald Trump’s supporters deserve empathy, the rest could fit in a “basket of deplorables.”
They’re “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it,” she said.
The backlash was immediate, with instant “47 percent” comparisons.
Like Romney’s faux pas, there is some truth to Clinton’s assertion. Trump’s campaign has undeniably galvanized some unseemly characters. This is clearly evident in former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s return to quasi-relevance, as well as the rise of the alt-right.
And while her estimate that half of Trump supporters are “deplorables” is highly debatable, her dismissive and generalizing delivery is what will leave the most lasting imprint on the campaign.
As soon as I viewed the video of her fundraiser speech, I tweeted that Hillary had given Trump supporters an incredible rallying cry. Indeed, within hours, profile names like “Deplorable John” and “Ms Deplorable” began popping up in my social media feeds. Team Trump obviously embraced the insult, predictably wearing it as a badge of honor.
However, the biggest self-inflicted campaign wound from this won’t come from how it resonates with Trump’s most fervent backers. Rather, it’s how those words ring in the ears of moderate conservatives.
After Donald Trump won the GOP presidential primary, scores of Never Trumpers turned into Reluctant Trumpers, dutifully endorsing their party’s nominee. Yet theirs has been a half-hearted support, and that lethargy has been valuable to Democrats, as it counterbalances the lack of energy mustered by the Clinton campaign.
Though Clinton has never been beloved by the right, she has been able to pacify some moderates by looking like an adult compared to Trump. As his loose cannon mouth fires off round after round, Hillary, to many, often looks less detestable. Her best plan of action has been to project an appearance of level-headed maturity and fairness in contrast to her opponent.
She dealt that image a nasty blow on Friday.
In revealing her mean-spirited true feelings about Trump supporters, she risked reminding centrist Republicans just how much they actually dislike her, and in so doing she made it that much easier for them to jump off the fence and vote against her and for Trump.
To win in November, Clinton must keep as many moderate conservatives on the sidelines as possible. Trump has had a hard time rallying these voters. It seems Hillary might be more successful.