How Clinton’s ‘Trump Is Crazy’ Strategy Could Backfire

Posted by on Sep 3, 2016 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

Hillary Clinton wants America to think that Trump is unfit to be president. Her ads portray him as erratic and unsteady. In interviews, she calls him “unqualified” and a “threat” to democracy. “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes,” Clinton said in a speech back in June. It’s a line of attack that could well help Clinton broaden her base. Last month, the Clinton presidential campaign launched an initiative to court moderate Republicans and independents who would ordinarily balk at supporting a Democratic nominee, but whose loathing for Donald Trump might persuade them to pull the lever for the former secretary of state. That was just after a new Clinton campaign ad featured prominent conservatives questioning Trump’s fitness to be commander-in-chief.

The strategy is simple: Go after the middle, flaunt your high-profile GOP supporters and paint Trump as a lunatic. In other words, make the election a referendum on The Donald’s fitness to serve as the world’s most powerful head of state.

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There’s precedent for this approach. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign aggressively pursued a strategy known as “frontlash” in which it positioned GOP nominee Barry Goldwater as a singularly dangerous extremist and made a strong play for independent and Republican voters. “Our main strength lies not so much in the for Johnson but in the against Goldwater,” presidential adviser Jack Valenti candidly informed LBJ. “We must make him ridiculous and a little scary: trigger-happy, a bomb thrower, a radical … not the nation’s leader, [he] will sell TVA, cancel Social Security, abolish the government, stir trouble in NATO, be the herald of WWIII.” Bill Moyers, the president’s closest aide, was in full agreement. The central message of the president’s campaign would be that Goldwater “could do these things,” he advised “—but only if we let him.”

Frontlash proved a winning strategy in the short run: Johnson defeated Goldwater in a landslide. But in the longer term, it proved an illusory triumph. By uniting moderates against Goldwater, the president’s campaign failed to build a strong coalition for Great Society liberalism. And as Hillary Clinton’s campaign mounts a similar strategy, the story of what frontlash accomplished, and what it didn’t, should serve as a warning.

***

In Barry Goldwater, LBJ found the perfect opponent. Presidential journalist Teddy White observed that his “candor is the completely unrestrained candor of old men and little children.” The Arizona senator proposed authorizing NATO commanders to deploy atomic weapons. (“Let’s lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin,” he offered on one occasion.) He suggested that the Tennessee Valley Authority—a landmark New Deal program that brought electricity to much of the rural and impoverished South—be privatized and Social Security made a voluntary program. He dismissed the Republican Eisenhower administration as a “dime-store New Deal,” and offered that “this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.” Given his extreme temperament, it was unsurprising that his movement attracted the enthusiastic support of far-right fringe groups like the John Birch Society. “We’ve got superpatriots running through the woods like a collection of firebugs,” complained one of his state organizers, “and I keep running after them, like Smokey the Bear, putting out fires. We just don’t need any more enemies.”

LBJ bore his opponent no personal ill will. Goldwater was an affable bon vivant—liberal in his consumption of liquor, a convivial member of the Senate club and easy to like. But the president regarded Goldwater’s ideology as well outside the mainstream. In a private conversation with Texas Governor John Connally, Johnson candidly sized up his opponent as “just nutty as a fruitcake.” And that was the crux of the matter. As presidential adviser Horace Busby observed, “the attack should be broadened on the extremes and factions. Republicans should be told, in effect, that their party is being taken over not by Birchites and Klansmen, but by the Reverend Billy Hargis”—an archconservative, segregationist preacher who pledged his support to Goldwater—“and all the other Right Wing Kooks who can be fairly named … these are real and valid issues.”

Early on in 1964, the pollster Oliver Quayle coined a term to describe this strategy: frontlash. It was the opposite of white backlash against liberalism. By presenting themselves as the “party of stability and responsibility and calm judgement,” a reporter observed, Democrats would “make it easier for moderate-minded Republicans to vote for President Johnson.”

Under the careful direction of Moyers and Valenti, the upstart advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) produced a series of scathing 30-second and 60-second spots that ran at regular intervals—the first time in a presidential campaign cycle that networks broke with the tradition of selling 5-minute and 15-minute time slots at the end of a program.

In one DDB ad, the camera lingered over a telephone with a flashing red light. “This particular phone only rings in a serious crisis,” a narrator explained in a grave tone. “Leave it in the hands of a man who has proven himself responsible.” Another depicted a young girl licking an ice cream as a female narrator asked, “Know what people used to do? They used to explode bombs in the air. You know, children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium. But they shouldn’t have strontium 90 or cesium 137.” The narrator explained that reasonable leaders came together several years earlier to sign a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, thus ridding the atmosphere of harmful nuclear radiation. “Now there’s a man who wants to be president of the United States,” she continued. “His name is Barry Goldwater. If he’s elected, they might start testing all over again.” In the background, a Geiger counter ticked away.

On Sept. 7, during NBC’s Monday Night at the Movies, the campaign aired “Daisy Girl,” a one-minute ad that featured a young girl picking petals from a flower while counting up from one to 10. Midway through the spot, a man’s voice supersedes the girl’s with a downward countdown. The camera zooms in on her eye, on which a giant, exploding mushroom cloud is reflected. “These are the stakes,” LBJ says in a voiceover. “To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or go into the darkness. Either we must love each other or we must die.” A narrator then warned, “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

Minutes after the spot concluded, the White House switchboard lit up with calls from across the country, complaining about the campaign’s cheap appeal to fear and panic. “Holy shit!” the president screamed at Bill Moyers, whom he had summoned to the Oval Office. “What in the hell do you mean putting on that ad? I’ve been swamped with calls.” Upon reflection, LBJ laughed. “I guess it did what we goddamned set out to do, didn’t it?” he conceded to his young aide. The spot aired just once, but rival networks reported widely on the controversy surrounding it. Days later, the chairman of the Republican National Committee lodged a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, protesting that “this horror-type commercial implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man.” Moyers was positively ecstatic when he telephoned Johnson to deliver the news. “That’s exactly what we wanted to imply,” he told the president. “And we also hoped someone around Goldwater would say it, not us.

Jim Rowe, a longtime friend of LBJ who, as a young man, had served as a White House aide to Franklin Roosevelt, took leave of his law practice to organize several dozen affinity groups, including the National Independent Committee for Johnson and Humphrey, an organization that drew together leading Republicans. Former Eisenhower Treasury Secretary Bob Anderson, chaired the organization. “Not since the 1920s,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor, “has the businessman been so ardently wooed in a presidential election.”

In the final analysis, frontlash worked. LBJ ultimately carried 44 states (and Washington, D.C.), winning 61 percent of the popular vote nationwide.

***

Shortly before the election, Larry O’Brien, a holdover from the Kennedy administration who served as LBJ’s congressional liaison, cautioned that many “Johnson Republicans” would “swing right back to the big R for the other state contests.” He was wrong. On Johnson’s coat tails, Democrats netted two Senate seats and 37 House seats, delivering the largest majorities that the party had enjoyed since FDR’s second term.

LBJ used his new majorities in Congress to sweep a major legislative agenda into enactment: Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to primary and secondary education, the Voting Rights Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act—just to name a few.

But O’Brien was correct when he predicted that few Johnson Republicans were “likely to become Democratic converts.” Frontlash was a devil’s bargain. The president’s team won the election by convincing the country that Goldwater was “not a normal American politician,” as Walter Lippmann observed—by painting him as a “grave threat to the internal peace of the nation.” But it did not build a mandate for the Great Society.

As early as late 1965, a powerful backlash began brewing. Much of that backlash owed to social and cultural unrest over the administration’s policy in Vietnam. Much of it was a delayed reaction by white Democrats in the North and South against black civil rights advances. But fundamentally, LBJ never actually built a sufficiently broad electoral coalition in 1964 that affirmatively supported his vision. He built an expansive coalition against Goldwater. When conservatives of more temperate disposition later emerged, they were able to build formidable opposition to the Great Society.

In 1966, scores of Democrats lost their House and Senate seats, as cagey conservative politicians like Richard Nixon (the GOP’s campaigner-in-chief that year) and Ronald Reagan (who defeated incumbent California Governor Pat Brown) developed a sanitized lexicon to appeal to white voters’ anxieties about civil unrest, the economic and political advances of black Americans, and the expansion of the federal welfare state. It would prove a winning formula for over 20 years. In effect, the political right took a drubbing in one cycle, but it learned from its loss and began building a powerful rhetorical case against the Great Society.

The lesson for Hillary Clinton is clear. Even as she appeals to mainstream conservatives and Republican-leaning independents who cannot support the alt-right, white nationalist nominee of their party, she must build a coalition that favors her legislative agenda and broader vision. Donald Trump’s combination of cartoonish bombast and rabble-rousing populism is clearly vulnerable to a latter-day frontlash strategy. But the Republican candidate has tapped into a powerful reserve of emerging backlash—backlash against immigration and the racial pluralism that results from it; backlash against free trade and the wreckage it has visited on certain parts of the country; backlash against changing cultural mores; and backlash against an interventionist mindset that, to one degree or another, presidents from both parties have shared over the past quarter-century. These anxieties aren’t going away if Hillary Clinton sweeps to victory in November.

History suggests that frontlash works in the moment, but not necessarily over the long run. And there’s probably someone more likeable and less stomach-churning than Donald Trump—but just as extreme—lurking around the corner.

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