HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. ― If it worked against Mitt Romney, it might just work against Donald Trump. At least that’s what the Clinton campaign now hopes.
The Democratic nominee aggressively attacked her opponent as a fraud and a scam artist during the first presidential debate Monday night, with jabs that cut directly at the core of his economic populist appeal.
“He started his business with $14 million borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there. I don’t buy that,” Clinton said.
The line may as well have been lifted from the script Democrats used in the 2012 election, when President Barack Obama effectively painted Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who inherited much of his wealth, gamed the tax code and looked down his nose at the vast majority of Americans who weren’t quite as well-off. Romney was never able to shake that image, which was cemented with his infamous comment about 47 percent of the country being willfully dependent on the government.
The question is, why did it take so long for Clinton to use it?
The former secretary of state aggressively pushed the paint-Trump-as-a-plutocrat strategy during the Democratic convention. But in recent weeks and months, her campaign departed from the tactic, much to the chagrin of fellow Democrats. In a widely read column in the day before the debate, two Democratic speechwriters implored her to bring it back, arguing that it agitated Trump and exposed a clear vulnerability. On Monday night, the authors of that piece were left content.
“As we noted, Clinton and the campaign hit Trump hard at the Convention on his business record and economic plans, and the campaign has been running ads on it too,” said Kenneth Baer, a former Obama administration official who runs Crosscut Strategies. “What was needed was to elevate it in this high-profile setting ― and she did.”
In the lead-up to the debate, Clinton aides were coy about whether they would change their approach, despite weeks of dipping poll numbers and growing party concern. Brian Fallon, the campaign’s press secretary, noted that the campaign faced a crossroads back in May “when voter impressions of Donald Trump as a general election nominee were finally taking shape.” The choice was between going after Trump as “uniquely unacceptable and unfit” or poking holes in his image as a populist fighter. They went with the former with hopes of coming back to the latter.
“Since then, we have certainly also argued that his business and economic policies expose him as a fraud who cares about his own bottom line and not the working class,” said Fallon. “Both arguments are important and they speak to different voter segments, both of which we are trying to persuade right now.”
On Monday night, Clinton leaned in heavy and often, painting Trump as a Romney caricature. She started off by emphasizing economic fairness, and a need to raise the minimum wage and close corporate loopholes. She then peppered him with attacks on his biography and platform.
“Why won’t he release his tax returns? I think there may be a couple of reasons,” she said. “First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks.”
Often, it appeared that Trump was either unable to parlay the assault or uncomfortable with the turf it put him on. When Clinton noted that Trump has occasionally not paid anything in federal income taxes ― as was true for the few years his tax returns were made public ― Trump boasted, “That makes me smart.” Trump was similarly defensive when forced to defend not paying an architect who said he was stiffed after he designed a clubhouse at one of Trump’s golf courses, saying, “Maybe he didn’t do a good job, and I wasn’t satisfied with his work.”
The change in approach from Clinton is likely to placate nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have argued that it helps down-ballot when Trump is painted as a greedy Republican and not as someone who is completely outside the norms of the Republican Party (which lets the rest of the GOP off the hook). Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), in particular, has been steadily pounding Trump as a “con artist” ― just as he did with Romney in 2012. Reid frequently mocked Romney for not releasing his full tax returns, claiming that he had a well-connected source who told him the GOP presidential nominee hadn’t paid any taxes for 10 years.
In recent weeks, Reid has gone after Trump as a “human leech who will bleed the country” and a “spoiled brat.”
In the spin room after the debate, Obama’s aides were also complimentary, perhaps recognizing that imitation is the best form of flattery.
“It is different in a way [from 2012], but I do think the question is, for a middle-class voter or someone who is trying to get into the middle class, who do you trust to make decisions on your behalf?” said David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign and a close aide in 2012. “I think when Trump is out there holding himself up as the tribune for the middle class and he is offering it up really as his sole qualification because he really doesn’t have any policy plans, his business record is fair to look into. And I do think the way he stiffed workers and contractors is very, very important. And I hope we see more of that.”
Republicans weren’t too concerned about this shift in strategy. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said he didn’t believe those characterizations did Romney in in 2012, arguing that it was divisions in the Republican Party that were a bigger hurdle.
“It’s not what worked in 2012. Those are just distractions,” he said. “What really works is, what are you going to do to change the direction of the country? Most people are very upset with what’s going on in the country right now. They’re not happy at all with the economic situation and the global security situation.”
Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller added, “The Clinton camp and too many in the media have chased after this game that being successful is somehow bad. Mr. Trump has made no bones about it: He’s a very successful businessman, one of the most successful businessmen we’ve seen. And success ― that’s what everyone should be able to aspire to.”
At least one Democrat wasn’t quite as on board with comparing Trump to Romney.
“Mitt Romney was prepared. Mitt Romney was qualified. Mitt Romney did not spend the entire debate talking about himself instead of the American people,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “Mitt Romney was a worthy foe in presidential politics. ... I think it’s very unfair to Mitt Romney to put them in the same category.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.