Hillary Clinton's Final Test

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, U.S.
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, U.S. October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

On Friday, some believe, FBI Director James Comey changed the dynamic of this election. But before we assess the Comey effect, one must consider its political context. For until Comey's bizarre intrusion, the last weeks of a mean and grueling campaign had yielded a surprising new candidate -- a buoyant Hillary Clinton.

One sensed a woman who felt liberated -- or, at least, relieved. Her last debate with Donald Trump was in the rearview mirror, leaving Trump as rhetorical roadkill who, like a cartoon character, ran himself over after she mowed him down. When she spoke of him, her contempt was leavened by a trace of amusement, as though he was just another chauvinistic blowhard in life's parade of fools.

Her strengths in the home stretch -- Comey notwithstanding -- continue to reflect who she is. Her campaign organization is disciplined and deep, sustained by money she labored assiduously to raise. Her get out the vote operation is driving early voting. They, and she, are working hard in swing states to choke off Trump's path, while expanding the map in places like Arizona and Georgia.

Her advertising is sharp and multifaceted -- and running everywhere it matters. Her surrogates are more talented, ubiquitous and well-deployed than ever seen for any presidential candidate -- Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and, of course, Bill Clinton. Her campaign is worthy of a president; Trump's campaign is worthy of no one but Trump.

The debates proved to be pivotal -- adding up to the best performance by any candidate in the three-debate format. Clinton was tough, self-possessed, thoroughly prepared and on top of the issues. She carried out a well-conceived plan of attack which drove home her message in every debate, and in the days that followed.

With well-timed thrusts, she exposed Trump's ignorance and, as lethal, his emotional volatility and gracelessness under pressure. She exploited his misogyny without mercy and, like a misogynist, he rewarded her efforts. She spotlit their differences on critical issues in this environment, race relations, climate change, gun violence, income equality tax and economic policy and, of course, experience. Her relentless competence inspired its own form of trust -- whatever the electorate's misgivings, she looked up to the job.

So she began talking as much about the future she wants as the damage Trump would do to it. By the evidence of the polls, she was drawing away support from third-party candidates. In the process, she had reawakened voters to the historic nature of her candidacy -- we would not just be electing another familiar face, and a Clinton at that, but a woman with her own hard-earned credentials.

As always, Trump was helping. His performance at the Al Smith dinner was a classic of solipsism. At a charitable event meant to feature the candidates' gifts for self-deprecation and good-natured needling, Trump resembled a boorish dimwit who, having consumed a few beers, wandered into a comedy club by accident and was pushed onstage. Granted, calling one's opponent a jailbird-in-waiting was not a prescription for lighthearted laughter. Still, it is no easy trick to turn a black tie crowd feral -- every time you wondered just how bad things could get, Trump supplied the answer.

It was like watching Asperger's inhabit his body -- somehow he had failed to grasp that a charity event featuring Cardinal Dolan was not, unlike a Trump rally, an ideal forum for attacking a woman. The horrors accumulated. His signal achievement was to make the appearance of Hillary Clinton seem like the advent of an angel of mercy.

Though, again, not entirely merciful. After pointing out -- pointedly -- that the Statue of Liberty represents a nation which welcomes immigrants, she suggested that Trump "looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a 4. Maybe a 5 if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair." Having evoked The Donald who decreed a flat-chested woman can never "be a 10," she cheerfully added, "Come to think, know what would be a good number for a woman? 45."

That, of course, is her serious point, and Trump's self-exposure as a serial groper has made him, at last, a kind of everyman -- as in every man who ever pawed a woman without her consent. When Clinton goes after him she is in a sweet spot millions of other women share -- not least Elizabeth Warren, for whose righteous loathing Trump seems specially engineered. This is no longer merely political or ideological, but personal: for Clinton, for Warren, and for an important slice of women who will vote their own experience and aspirations.

Thus empowered, Clinton was pressing for a governing mandate -- a bigger electoral majority, and down-ballot victories which would give the Democrats control of the Senate and a more robust minority in the House. This was not overconfidence; she was reaching for the tools to do the job and, in the process, to eviscerate Trump's claims of a rigged election.

Essential to this strategy was tethering Trump to Republicans like a large and very dead cat. Those adhering to Trump are morally unfit to serve, the message goes; those distancing themselves are weak-kneed trimmers who, fearful of defeat, claim to have discovered what they already knew. Barack Obama was especially trenchant in asserting that Trump is the Republican Rosemary's baby, a child of the groundless conspiracy theories and mindless partisanship the party has trafficked in for years.

The Republican base, he said, "actually began to believe this crazy stuff. Donald Trump didn't start this. He just did what he always does, which is slap his name on it, take credit for it and promote it. Now, when suddenly it's not working, suddenly that's a deal breaker. Well, what took you so long?"

So even as Republicans were desperately dog paddling to stay above water, Clinton and friends were pushing their heads while Trump pulled on their legs. In between gasping for breath Republicans had a few talking points. Just when Trump had forgotten Obamacare, a rise in premiums came along to remind him. And while every leaked email was, by itself, a mosquito bite, a few hundred bites can induce some serious scratching -- especially those which, while they contain no evidence of "pay to play," link fundraising by the Clinton Foundation with the Clintons' family finances.

But Trump has a mosquito's attention span. Handed a speech proclaiming his intent to "drain the swamp" which is our nation's capitol, he instead commenced by threatening to sue his female accusers. Speaking to a highly receptive crowd of people on his payroll, he asserted that "all of my employees are having a tremendous problem with Obama care" -- only to discover that few, if any, are actually on Obamacare. This gives mere inattention to detail a good name.

But then, as Obama famously said, "Donald is not a details guy." Clinton is certainly not a guy but, like many women, she's hell on the details that count.

Among them is fundraising. Like it or not, that is part of a candidate's do or die -- for the party's sake as well as her own. Clinton knows that; Trump neither knows nor cares. So he has taught the GOP what others learned long ago -- that a man who cares for no one and nothing shafts everyone but himself.

His indifference to fundraising has left the GOP and its candidates short of cash and strength on the ground. His campaign claimed that he was focused on bringing his message to voters. But it is Clinton who was delivering a clear and confident message; Trump who campaigned like a man who, obsessed with personal grievances, was searching for scapegoats instead of votes. Her campaign was a political symphony focused on Americans at large; his a dreary and interminable song of self.

Indeed, before Comey intervened Trump's campaign resembled a self-indulgent concert tour, awash in whining, excuses, and attacks on the army of conspirators who have stacked the decks against him. He was, as ever, the victim -- of a "rigged election", massive voter fraud, "phony polls", the "disgusting" media and all the Republicans who have betrayed him. His bright spot? While Clinton was campaigning in the pivotal state of Florida, Trump was opening an eponymous hotel in Washington DC by slicing a ribbon with a giant pair of golden scissors.

And so dyspepsia was spreading in his wake. Rudy Giuliani was picking colors for Hillary Clinton's prison jumpsuit. Newt Gingrich was picking fights with Megyn Kelly: when she asked, quite reasonably, whether the questions involving Trump's conduct toward women had contributed to his slippage in the polls, Gingrich accused her of being "fascinated with sex" -- a cringeworthy charge better left unspoken.

More seriously, his claims of victimization have driven some of his followers past the bounds of reason. On television, one of his supporters strongly suggested that he might assassinate Clinton. At a rally in Colorado Springs covered by a New York Times reporter, attendees asserted, variously, that only a rigged election could defeat Trump; that Hillary Clinton intended to confiscate their weapons; that her accession might require them to defend themselves through violence; and that the solution might be violence against Clinton herself.

The contrast with the real Hillary Clinton continues to be stark. The America Trump describes at his rallies is a dystopian place that he alone can save. Clinton's America remains the best country on earth, capable of seizing the future through a shared resolve to strengthen our national community. Appearing together in North Carolina, Clinton and Michelle Obama spelled out the gulf between the two campaigns.

Together, they presented a historic tableau -- the first African-American first lady and, quite possibly, our first female president.The theme of the rally was turn out to vote; the large and enthusiastic crowd was young, multicultural, and multiracial, the very voters Clinton needs. If their cohorts' commitment to voting remained in doubt, they nonetheless formed a mosaic of America's future, symbolizing the demographic and cultural headwinds buffeting Trump and the GOP.

By voting, Clinton told them, they could define that future. The stakes were high. Voting rights. Marriage equality. Combating climate change. Equal pay for equal work. Affordable college. Student debt relief. Support for veterans. Immigration reform and a path to citizenship. And, yes, "dignity and respect for women is also on the ballot."

As Clinton presented it, this was more than a laundry list of policies, framed as a partisan argument. It was the path to a more compassionate, inclusive and open society." All our kids," Clinton said," must know that America has a place for you."

Then, Michelle Obama.

One could still remember 2008, when her husband's more rancorous opponents cast her as an angry black woman with no love for America. But when they went low, she went very high indeed. Now she was more beloved than her husband -- and the most charismatic non-candidate around, a woman whose love of country impelled her to speak out for Hillary Clinton.

Clinton and her opponent, Obama said, have dramatically different visions of America. His is "grounded in hopelessness and anger". His America is "weak and divided" and filled with "communities in chaos." His "campaign of fear" asks us to "fear our fellow citizens."

But Clinton offers a "campaign of unity." The choice, Obama argued, is between a campaign of "us versus them" and one which asks us to "embrace our better angels." At issue is "who will shape our children and our country... for the rest of their lives."

An American president, Obama said, "is the most powerful role model in the world." So we must ask "what do all our children deserve in our President." Her answer? " A "unifying force" who "sees our differences not as a threat, but a blessing." Who "honors and values women." Who "understands that this nation was built by people who came here from all corners of the globe." Who "sees the goodness in our communities, not just the brokenness." A president "who takes this job seriously, and has the temperament and maturity to do it well."

Hillary Clinton, Obama argued, wants to build a better world for our children. But her opponent is "trying to make this election so dirty and ugly that you don't want any part of it." Firmly, Obama concluded: "No one is going to take away our hopes."

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Trump proclaimed that the Clintons were the most corrupt political figures in our history; that Obamacare was ruining Americans' household finances; that only he could fix Washington DC; and that the comprehensive conspiracy against him was without historic precedent. To his supporters' relief, he was more or less back on message. But compared to Clinton and Obama, the message seemed as small as the man.

It still is. But last Friday -- a mere 11 days before the election -- James Comey bolted from the wings to hand Trump a stool and a megaphone.

The FBI Director's intrusion was as perplexing as its occasion for was strange -- a federal investigation into Anthony Weiner's alleged sexting of a 15-year-old girl. One of the mediums, it turned out, was a computer which contained emails sent by his now-estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a principal aide to Hillary Clinton -- a fact stumbled on at random by the FBI.

That was it. The discovery was not related to the investigation of Clinton's email practices. The FBI had not reviewed the emails: no one knew what was in them; whether they contained anything of consequence; which, if any, went to Hillary Clinton; and, if some did, whether they were duplicates of emails already reviewed. There was no suggestion that Clinton or the State Department had withheld them from the FBI. In sum, this discovery did not suggest any impropriety or that, when examined, the emails would materially add to the public record.

Nonetheless, Comey wrote Republican committee chairmen in Congress reporting that these emails existed, and that they were potentially relevant to the bureau's investigation of Clinton's private server. His letter said no more -- because he had no more. In an internal memo to FBI employees, Comey acknowledged that he could not assess "the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails" and that, as a result of his letter, "there is a significant risk of being misunderstood."

No kidding. Within minutes, the letter was leaked -- no doubt by Republicans. At once the media -- particularly cable news -- inflated it into a "bombshell"; "crisis"; "potential game changer"; and "firestorm", an "October surprise" which could transform the dynamic of the race. For the next three days, there was no other story.

Hysteria took leave of fact. With his usual respect for truth and reason, a freshly energized Trump said variously: "I think it's the biggest story since Watergate"; "I think this changes everything"; that Clinton was "corrupt on a scale we have never seen before"; and that "we must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office." From all quarters, Republicans trumpeted the latest evidence of Clinton's supposed criminality, throwing around words like "indictment" and "impeachment" in an effort to make it the focus of the race.

All that, responsible reporters noted, because of emails that no one had even read -- Comey had wreaked political havoc over, as far as he knew, nothing.

But this was lost in the suffocating mudslide of reportage, speculation and partisan exploitation conjured by his letter. Calling his judgement "appalling," Senator Dianne Feinstein said that "Director Comey's announcement played right into the political campaign of Donald Trump."

For that very reason, we soon learned, senior Justice Department officials had implored Comey not to send the letter -- citing department guidelines cautioning against actions which could influence a pending election. As one former senior official told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker: "You don't do this. It's aberrational. It violates decades of practice." The obvious reason, he added, is that "it impugns the integrity and reputation of the candidate, even though there is no finding by a court, or in this instance even an indictment."

By ignoring these warnings, Comey had changed the momentum of the campaign, with consequences yet unknown. In the immediate aftermath, all that Clinton could do was ask the FBI "to release all the information that it has." But having thrown Trump a political lifeline, Comey had nothing more to offer. And the public was assaulted by a story with no substance.

Given all that, there was severe and widespread criticism of Comey from law enforcement professionals of both parties -- both for intruding on the campaign, and damaging the reputation of the FBI. Democrats were equally critical; Clinton herself called his actions "unprecedented" and "deeply troubling." In response, officials at the Justice Department pledged the resources necessary to review the emails swiftly -- an effort to address the damage done by Comey which, nonetheless, kept the story alive and the public waiting for more.

As we wait, the political crosscurrents keep swirling. Bereft of new information, Trump nonetheless has a new theme which, for the moment, keeps him focused on making Clinton the issue. Reprising Clinton's use of a private server, he asserts repeatedly that she is guilty of criminal conduct -- clearly hoping to rally Republicans while estranging wavering voters from Clinton. Trump's campaign is not shy about their strategy: turn out his base, and suppress turnout among likely Clinton voters in every way they can, whether through negative information, voter ID laws, or intimidation at the polls. It's the only way that Trump can win.

Even before Friday, the polls were tightening, most likely because of Republicans coming home. In states which Trump must carry, like Ohio and Florida, he may have regained the edge. But the Clinton campaign is driving early voting, in which she appears to be doing well, and the electoral map tilts very much in her favor. The question is whether, when the polls close for good, Clinton's superior ground operation will have turned out the voters she needs.

The last seven days will no doubt be eventful -- Hillary Clinton's final test. WikiLeaks will keep releasing hacked emails. The Clinton campaign will try to retake the narrative. The Obamas will give Clinton their all. More gamy revelations about Trump may emerge. His rhetoric will grow ever more mendacious and ugly. The battle for the Senate will tighten. Polls will oscillate. Each campaign will make tough judgments about which states deserve more resources.

Through all this will run the Comey effect. More questions will emerge about his refusal, as reported this morning in The Huffington Post, to sign off on a statement saying that the Russian government was meddling in the presidential election -- on the seemingly ironic grounds that the statement was coming too close to the election. And Comey's mystery emails will hang over the campaign unless, and until, their contents become public.

The irony here, logic suggests, is that the emails are of little significance -- that Comey placed his thumb on the scales without reason. Perhaps voters will perceive that. More likely, Comey's potentially historic misjudgement will not be enough to upend the fundamentals of the race. By now too many voters have made up their mind.

Trump, after all, remains Trump. And so does Clinton. Whatever the obstacles, she will continue to do what she always does -- work hard, work smart, and stay focused to the end. Those are the qualities of a president and, as her campaign has shown, only Clinton has them.