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Donald Trump, Meet Harry Truman; Hillary Clinton, Meet Tom Dewey 

It was a headline that launched headlines. On August 24, Politico, the buzzy Bible of the Beltway, put these words atop its homepage: “Hillary Clinton’s run-out-the-clock strategy: The Democrat aims to ignore the email and Foundation controversies, seeing a shrinking calendar as her friend.”

In other words, Hillary has it in the bag; Democrats can start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office.

As the article explained, the Clintonites, having all but won the 2016 election, now must just “ride it out.” That is, get going on early voting and other get-out-the-vote efforts, and then sit back and count down the days until victory on November 8.

Indeed, Politico offered us a peek into the inner soul of the Clinton presidential campaign. Perhaps providing too much information, the article emphasized that the “run out the clock” strategy was reflective of the thinking of the candidate:

It’s a strategy borne, in part, of a belief held deeply by Clinton herself that the email controversy is a fake scandal and that voters are as sick of it as the candidate herself—and by the profound weaknesses of Clinton’s opponent.

So there we have it: Hillary thinks that all the questions and concerns are just a product of the fabled “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

And if Hillary doesn’t want to hear any bad news—or answer any questions—it’s a safe bet that nobody on her campaign staff wants to tell her any bad news, or urge her, actually, to hold a press conference. And besides, there’s plenty of good news to talk about: Why, she raised $143 million, just in August! She is beloved from the Hamptons to the Hollywood Hills!

Yet amidst all the lavish partying, some observers are offering a grimmer assessment, appearing like the ghost of the murdered Banquo crashing Macbeth’s celebratory feast.

A few days after the Politico story, on August 28, election analyst Nate Silver headlined his piece at FiveThirtyEight, “It’s Too Soon For Clinton To Run Out The Clock.” He observed, “It’s August, and the number of undecided voters is high, and so the outcome remains fairly uncertain.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough then added on August 31, “She needs to wake up and understand she could still lose.”

Indeed, the polls have been tightening: The latest Real Clear Politics polling average shows the four-way race—and it is a four-way race; the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, is on the ballot in all 50 states, and the Green candidate, Jill Stein, is on the ballot in at least 37 states—as being neck-and-neck: Clinton leads by just 3.2 percent. And her overall total is a less-than-commanding 41.4 percent.

We might add that the general rule for incumbents—and Hillary is certainly a quasi-incumbent—is that undecideds will break against the incumbent on Election Day. Still, it’s a four-way race, and so we can’t know for whom those late-deciders will break. And yet can say with almost certainty, they won’t break for Clinton.

In the face of this obvious weakness, other observers, too, are expressing skepticism: Here’s The Hill, on September 3: “Clinton’s ‘run-out-the-clock’ strategy under fire.” As the piece noted,

The Democratic nominee nearly vanished from the campaign trail in August to attend high-end private fundraisers and to prepare for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.

Yes, Clinton conspicuously did not travel to Louisiana to console the flood victims. (Back in 1995, she reportedly made this derisive comment about white Southerners to her husband: “Screw ‘em . . . you don’t owe them a thing, Bill. They’re doing nothing for you; you don’t have to do anything for them.”)

Meanwhile, the controversy about the Clinton Foundation and her handling of the e-mail matter has exploded; it’s now front page news, even for the MSM. But of course, Hillary, over-consulted, over-handled, and over-protected as she is, has little capacity to react. Besides, she must prepare for that first debate—a debate that’s more than three weeks away.

And at the same time, Trump is everywhere. After a speech on the morning of August 31, he jetted to Mexico, met with president Enrique Peña Nieto, and then returned to the US for another speech. Trump is a year older than Hillary, and yet he has vastly more energy and zeal for campaigning.

For its part, Politico, deeply invested as it is in the Clinton campaign, continues to be a source of fawning headlines. Hence this keeper on September 2: “Clinton’s advisers tell her to prep for a landslide.” (It was later softened to the slightly less cheerleader-ish: “Clinton advisors see multiple paths to a commanding win: Displaying unchecked confidence, the Democrat’s paid consultants say she has a wide open route to the White House.”) As an aside, we can observe that fawning headlines might make for nice reading at Clinton’s Brooklyn HQ, but misleading headlines only add to an unjustifiable complacency.

Yet even at Politico, which has so much riding on a Clinton victory, doubts are starting to creep in. This quote is from a September 1 story attributed to a longtime adviser to both Clintons:

We have a ton of work to do… Being candid and trustworthy are the two last, big hurdles for her, and the debate is as much about dealing with those as disqualifying Trump.

We might pause over some of those words: Being candid and trustworthy are the two last, big hurdles for her. And this is from an ally.

Okay, so it would seem that the 2016 election is, to put it mildly, no shoo-in.

In fact, we’ve seen it before. And when was that? Back in 1948. The parallels aren’t exact, but they are persuasive.

The incumbent president that year was, of course, Harry Truman. Today, the 32nd president is seen as a great man, but at the time, Truman, having assumed the presidency after the death of the revered Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, was seen as something of a bumbler, an unworthy successor. As wags liked to say back then, “To err is Truman.”

Moreover, the Democrats had enjoyed uncontested power in Washington since 1932, and the voters were itching for a change. Indeed, the Republicans had won a smashing victory in the 1946 midterm elections; their slogan was blunt: “Had Enough?” (One of the Republicans who defeated a Democratic incumbent that year was a young Navy veteran named Richard Nixon.)

So in the run-up to the 1948 election, Republicans were feeling good; they had a strong presidential candidate, they thought, in New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. In fact, the polls showed Dewey ahead by what many back then judged to be an invincible margin—five or six points.

Yet for his part, Truman would have none of it. Advised by top strategist Clark Clifford, Truman calculated that the country was still basically with him and his party. That is, the voters were grateful to the Democrats for Social Security, for farm programs, for labor unions, for recognizing the embattled state of Israel, and for winning World War II—so they just needed a reminder.

At the same time, Truman resolved to paint the Republicans as unchanged since the bad old days of Herbert Hoover, the hated predecessor to FDR.

In his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia Democratic convention on July 15, 1948, Truman laid it on the line: “I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don’t you forget that!” Yes, it was a brassy display of bravado from an underdog. But Truman wasn’t anywhere near done:

Victory has become a habit in our party. It has been elected four times in succession, and I am convinced it will be elected a fifth time in November. The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people’s party… The record of the Democratic Party is written in the accomplishments of the last 16 years.

Having thrown down the gauntlet, Truman proceeded to lay out all that the Democrats had done for farmers, for workers—and for the country.

In some ways, Truman’s speech was counter-intuitive to modern ears. These days, we are always told that elections are about the future, not the past. And that’s true, but it’s also true that past performance is the best single indicator of future performance. And so, for example, the fact that unemployment in 1948 was less than four percent—it had been 25 percent the last time a Republican had been in the White House—was more than meaningful to the voters.

In other words, Truman’s mission, as he defined it, was clear-cut: He simply had to rally all the Democratic voters. It was, to use the modern parlance, a base election—and back then, the Democrats had the bigger base. The message was simple: Don’t go back to the bad old days. 

Still, the experts and pundits were convinced that Truman would lose. In October, Newsweek surveyed political savants in each of the 48 states, and they were unanimous: Dewey would win.

Meanwhile, the pollsters—there were only three back then, Gallup, Roper, and Crossley—were equally sure that Dewey was the inevitable victor; in fact, they all stopped their surveying weeks before the November 2 election.

Yet as we all know, Truman won the ’48 election. Indeed, he won it by a comfortable 4.5 percent margin—and with an edge of 114 votes in the electoral college.

So what had happened? As we have seen, the fundamentals favored Truman: This was a New Deal country in 1948, and Truman was a loyal and faithful New Dealer—and he had, of course, been FDR’s vice president.

On the Republican side, Dewey understood this reality; that’s why he tried to be moderate and uncontroversial during the campaign. He didn’t want to be thought of as the voice of the Republican Party, he wanted just to be Tom, the nice guy sporting a stylist mustache. To borrow a phrase, he hoped he could just “run out the clock.”

Yet Truman, in all his feisty aggressiveness, pulled back Dewey’s bland and opaque veil: Folks, don’t be fooled! In his heart, he’s just another Hooverite!

Okay, so now, back to the present: What’s the parallel? How does the 1948 election speak to the 2016 election?

Here’s how: This time, Clinton, as we have seen, is the quasi-incumbent. But this time, people are anything but happy with the status quo.

Thus the difference: In 1948, the fundamentals were with Truman; in 2016, the fundamentals are against Hillary.

Whereas all Truman had to do, 68 years ago, was remind people that they’d never had it so good, this year, Clinton can’t rest on such laurels of accomplishment—because there aren’t any. And so she hasn’t even tried, nor does she talk much about the future. Instead, she just attacks Trump.

As we all know, that attack-Trump strategy was working well for awhile, combined, of course, with some Trump mistakes.

Yet in recent weeks, Trump has found his footing. Indeed, it’s now Trump who’s on the offensive. He declares that the economy is slow, that crime and terrorism are rising, that the border is in chaos, that the Iran deal is a disaster. And who can truly say he’s wrong?

In the face of these armor-piercing attacks, Hillary, even with the MSM rallying to her defense, can say little in response. Yes, they can jointly accuse Trump of being “dark” and “dystopic,” but that’s about all they can say. Soon, such bleats—which bespeak more than a little bicoastal smugness—begin to sound tinny, the mere yelping of elite insiders.

In fact, the bottom line today is that most people are feeling dark and dystopic—and with good reason. As The Atlantic noted the other day,

A majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Nearly two-thirds worry about being victims of violent crime. Another poll, by Gallup, found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years.

Thus we can see: The key question is how the voters assess the state of the nation. In 1948, they were happy with the status quo, and so they voted to keep it. In 2016, they are unhappy with the status quo, and so it seems increasingly likely that they will vote to change it.

Thus if we look ahead, we can say: Donald, meet your spiritual predecessor, Harry. And Hillary, meet your predecessor, Tom.

 

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