Hillary Clinton’s “Deplorable” Problem

Hillary Clinton has two weeks to recover from pneumonia before the first presidential debate. On antibiotics, she probably will.

She may have less time to recover from labeling one in five American voters — “half’’ of Donald Trump’s supporters — a “basket of deplorables.” In the sphere of social media, paid TV ads and campaign rally rhetoric on steroids, she may not so quickly overcome a gaffe that has plagued nominees before her.

Clinton’s fundraising slur against an entire category of voters, echoing an insult that Mitt Romney voiced in 2012 and making a mistake that Barack Obama made in 2008, potentially undermines Clinton’s case that Trump is the prejudiced one.

Trump may be the candidate who first called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and proposed a ban against Muslims entering the country, but Clinton has been castigating him for a campaign of “prejudice and paranoia” while pledging to be the president for all Americans of all parties.

In what could have been the best weekend of Clinton’s post-convention campaign — with a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showing her still holding a 10-point advantage over Trump among registered voters — a Dickensian turn of events made it the worst of weekends. Sidelined by pneumonia at a time when Trump has ridiculed her as “weak” and lacking “stamina,’’ Clinton now confronts the damage control required by her own self-inflicted rhetorical wound.

“Hillary has had a horrible couple of weeks — ever since the Trump campaign has instilled a bit of discipline in its communications efforts,’’ says Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based pollster who advised Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Trump is smart right now to let that (health) issue be played out in the press while he focuses on her comments… regarding the ‘basket of deplorables.’”

“Has a presidential candidate in recent memory had a worse 48 hours after Labor Day?” Newhouse asks. “The debate is two weeks from today (Sept. 26), and if Hillary’s health and her ‘deplorables’ comment continue to be discussion points during that time, Trump could well be in the lead going into the first debate.”

The Trump campaign wasted no time in broadcasting the remarks Clinton made Friday night at a fundraising event in New York City, airing a new TV ad on Monday quoting the candidate: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ The racists, sexists, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” The narrator asks: “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard-working people like you.”

And coming out of a weekend in which a clearly fatigued Clinton had to leave a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and her doctor revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday, Trump made no mention of his rival’s illness as he addressed a forum of the National Guard Association in Baltimore Monday afternoon.

“I was… deeply shocked and alarmed to hear my opponent attack, smear, demean these wonderful people who are supporting my campaign by the millions,” Trump said in a scripted speech shorter than a half-hour and devoted mostly to a full-throated assault on Clinton’s remarks. “These were the people Hillary Clinton so viciously demonized — the countless people whom Hillary Clinton called deplorable, irredeemable… every vile name in the book.”

Claiming that Clinton “divides people into baskets, as though they were objects, not human beings,” Trump said: “You cannot run for president if you have such contempt in your heart for the American voter, and she does.”

For her part, Clinton was quick to retract the comment that “half” Trump’s voters are deplorable following a wave of protests from Trump and other Republicans.

Yet just as Trump attempted to reset some of the harshest rhetoric of his own campaign last month — “Sometimes…you don’t choose the right words, or you say the wrong thing,” he said, “I have done that, and believe it or not, I regret it” — Clinton was offering neither specifics nor an apology.

“Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea,” Clinton said Saturday in an issued statement. “I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.” she said — without offering any more precise estimate of how many Trump supporters may be deplorable. She maintained still that Trump has built a campaign on “prejudice and paranoia and given a national platform to hateful views and voices.”

John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and expert on negative campaigning, says Clinton will have an easier time resolving questions about her health than new questions raised by her comments.

“The health care issue can be solved if she releases all her health records, and so I would be worried about pushing on that one,” Geer says of Trump’s best potential lines of attack. “But the ‘deplorable’ comment, I think, he can make some headway with… There is no debate that it was a mistake, and it’s hard to believe she made it too. It was unforced. He can make some hay out of it, and she deserves to take some heat for it, but I don’t know if it will have any long-term impact.”

So many people are so hard-set in their views about both candidates, Geer says, “This is an election that’s going to be close. That’s what the fundamentals suggest, and I don’t think this will move the fundamentals.”

Clinton holds a mere 2 percentage-point edge over Trump in the latest average of national polls assessing a four-way contest with Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein — Clinton 42 percent, Trump 40.

This subjected 20 percent of all likely voters to Clinton’s fundraising comment.

“To be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call ‘the basket of deplorables.’ Right?” Clinton said Friday night, generating laughter in the room. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but they are not America.”

Word of the comment tweeted by the pool news reporter covering the event at which Barbra Streisand also sang invited instant comparisons with past gaffes.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney was recorded saying at a Florida fundraiser in 2012. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims… And they will vote for this president no matter what… My job is not to worry about those people.”

Obama had issued a less sweeping but also offensive comment at a 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them…. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

The difference in Clinton’s case may be that she was most directly offending the very base of Trump’s support, while Romney and Obama ran the risk of alienating voters who might have supported them. Obama lost his party’s Pennsylvania primary to Clinton by 9 percentage points following his comments.

“I know the media are saying it’s her 47 percent moment. I’m not sure it is,’’ says Gregory Payne, an expert in political communication at Emerson College. “What she meant is, he certainly has his strength among people who you might not call role models… She was pretty definitive about those people she put in that basket.”

“It’s not clear that the 47 percent comment hurt Romney much,’’ Vanderbilt’s Geer says. “But if Trump could stay on message, attacking that (Clinton comment) could potentially pay dividends. Because he gets distracted so easily, I don’t know how long he’ll sit on this line, but she’ll come back at him in debates. It could get ugly… He has said far worse things.”

Trump was hyper-focused at his first appearance this week, devoting most of his remarks for his National Guard audience to Clinton’s comment.

“She and her wealthy donors all had a good laugh — you heard them, a good solid laugh,” Trump said. “They were laughing at the very people who pave the roads… that she, with all of her security, would drive on… Hillary Clinton spoke with hatred and derision for the people who make this country run…. the people who pay their taxes and scratch out a living for their families.”

Other GOP campaigns in close races are also likely to use the deplorables comment to attack Democratic rivals. In New Hampshire, where new polling has the general election contest in a dead heat and where Trump dominated the primary in February, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s campaign today called for her opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, to answer the question: “Does she believe a certain portion of Granite Staters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables’?”

There was no word about Clinton’s health in Trump’s speech. Earlier Monday, in an appearance on CNBC, Trump had addressed the weekend’s episode only briefly — starting with a Clinton coughing fit earlier in the week.

“I saw what was going on with her and I said, ‘You know, I’m going to go do something and I actually took a physical last week and probably, I guess this week, will release the results of it,” Trump said. “It’s quite sad. I hope she gets well soon.”

Both campaigns continue to make transparency an issue, as neither has released detailed health records and Trump refuses to release his tax returns.

“Truthfully, the issue today is less the condition of Hillary’s health, and more the transparency of the Clinton campaign in dealing with this issue,’’ Newhouse notes. “Does anyone think for a second that we would have heard a word about pneumonia had Secretary Clinton not collapsed at the 9/11 event yesterday?”

Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communication director, tweets: “In contrast to HRC, Trump has been less transparent than any nominee in modern history.”

And, as for that basket of deplorables, “I think most Americans will say this campaign has been in the toilet for so long that it is not a death knell for her,” Payne suggests. “But Trump will try to utilize it the best he can.”

Author: Mark Silva

Mark Silva, who covered George W. Bush's White House for the Chicago Tribune, managed the U.S. government team for Bloomberg News in Washington covering the White House, Congress, federal agencies and courts and political campaigns. He has covered presidential election campaigns since 1992.

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