Americans may need to bring in the kids; the presidential election promises to get ugly, a race to the bottom.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both arouse strong passions, many of them negative. Both play tough.
She is a policy wonk, but Trump has little interest in a wide-ranging debate on issues. In the Republican primaries, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all tried at times to challenge him on substance; he brushed them aside with pointed personal rejoinders. It worked remarkably well.
But a campaign dominated by personal invective and political mudslinging exacerbates polarization and makes governing tougher, say knowledgeable veterans of other campaigns and administrations.
“If campaigns are not thoughtfully policy-oriented it makes it harder for those who have to govern,” says Andrew Card, who was chief of staff to George W. Bush and now is president of Franklin Pierce University.
“Your ability to claim a mandate is affected by the dialogue on issues during the campaign,” notes Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager of President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and a former top White House aide.
There isn’t much reason to be optimistic about thoughtful dialogue in this general election. Both sides are girded for a negative, no-holds-barred slugfest.
This will be compounded by outside groups, including operatives with close ties to the two candidates: Roger Stone and David Brock.
Stone is a longtime Trump political adviser who helped bring his former partner, Paul Manafort, in to direct the campaign. From his perch outside the official campaign, Stone makes no secret of his intent to eviscerate Clinton.
Political etiquette won’t be an impediment. He has written books charging that Lyndon Johnson ordered the murder of President John F. Kennedy and that the Bush family is tied to international criminal conspiracies. And he has peddled an allegation that Bill Clinton isn’t the father of his daughter, Chelsea.
On the other side, Brock, once a harsh Clinton critic who changed camps, is close to top Clintonites and runs a political action committee supporting her. Like Stone, he is no stranger to political invective. As a right-winger, he attacked Anita Hill, the lawyer who testified against the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
In the current Democratic primary, he blasted a Bernie Sanders ad featuring Iowa supporters -- they were mostly white, as is the state: “It seems black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.” He’s also questioned the physical fitness of the Vermont socialist.
Stone vs. Brock, the matchup boggles the mind.
Trump will focus on what he charges is Clinton’s failed record as secretary of state. Her use of a private email server also will be fodder, regardless of the outcome of any inquiry. And Republicans claim to have collected a plethora of new damning material on the Clinton Foundation and its donors. Presumably this will be shared with the Trump campaign.
But the New York billionaire instinctively, often effectively, gravitates to personal critiques. He already has declared that Bill Clinton’s sexual past is “fair game,” criticized Hillary Clinton’s appearance and even said her going to the bathroom during a debate break was “disgusting.” Republicans and Democrats alike expect the tone to worsen.
The Clinton camp can recycle some of the knocks that rivals such as Bush, Rubio and Cruz leveled against the Republican front-runner, though they had little impact. Democrats have collected a large Trump dossier including, they say, material that hasn’t been public.
Both Trump and Clinton believe they can turn an ugly tone to their advantage. Maybe. But starting Jan. 20, the just sworn-in 45th president will pay a price.
By Albert R. Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau. Hunt hosts the weekly television show “Political Capital with Al Hunt.” -- Ed.