Julian Zelizer: Party front-runners are being aided by the anticipation of a Clinton-Trump confrontation in the fall election
In many ways, they are mirror opposites, he says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect opponents for each other. They are two candidates who have come alive in their campaigns as it became clearer that the other one would be the likely nominee of their party.
The voting in the “Super Saturday” primaries and caucuses didn’t disrupt that narrative – or settle the contest in either party. Cruz won a decisive victory in Kansas and an upset in Maine. Still, Trump enjoyed narrow wins in the delegate-rich states of Louisiana and Kentucky.
The billionaire remains ahead in the delegate count and he is polling extremely well in a number of key states like Florida. Bernie Sanders’ supporters celebrated his victories in Nebraska and Kansas, but Clinton continued to pump up her delegate count with a victory in Louisiana. So when all is said and done, there were some surprises with Cruz coming on strong, but Clinton and Trump remain out in front.
In their post-primary events Saturday night, they highlighted their potential rivalry. Clinton rejected Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” and argued that the goal should be “Make America whole again.” Trump made fun of Clinton’s alternative and argued that he’s the one Republican candidate she definitely doesn’t want to face this fall.
For months, Clinton and Trump have been defining themselves in contrast to the other.
In October, Clinton targeted Trump for criticism: “Some people think Mr. Trump is entertaining, but I don’t think it’s entertaining when somebody insults immigrants and insults women. If you are going to run for president, then you should represent all the people of the United States.”
And in January, Trump told Jimmy Fallon that it would be “an amazing thing” if the two faced each other in a general election, predicting it would boost voter turnout. He said then, as he has since, “I haven’t even started on her yet,” foreshadowing the kind of attacks on Clinton that he’s unleashed successfully on fellow Republican contenders.
To understand why Democrats are becoming slightly more enthused about Clinton, you have to look at the impact of Trump being the likely Republican candidate.
To understand why so many Republican voters seem to be willing to sign on to a candidate like Trump, who often doesn’t sound or act very conservative, and who says outlandish things, it is vital to see the enormous shadow that Clinton casts over the campaign trail.
Is fear of Trump helping Clinton?
Trump’s swift rise to power has offered the most compelling argument for voting in favor of Clinton over Sanders. His success has come at the perfect moment for Clinton. The fear of a Trump presidency has become one of the most powerful arguments in her favor.
The possibility of having Trump in the White House has made Democrats think twice about taking a risk on Bernie Sanders. Although Sanders still does better against Donald Trump in many polls, voters still suspect that in the fall those numbers would look very different once Sanders came under full fire from the GOP.
Trump’s victories in the primaries and caucuses have amplified the stakes in this election like nothing else, not just for Democrats but for the political system in general. Not only does it diminish enthusiasm about Sanders, but it makes the case to Democrats for why Hillary Clinton needs to succeed that much greater. This could turn into a mission, for many Americans who fear Trump, to save the nation’s political process from turning into an ugly, nasty name-calling street fight where candidates compete to see who could do a better impression of professional wrestlers on their way to the White House.
Clinton’s character as a politician is also becoming more appealing every time Democrats hear from Trump. While in many elections a candidate whose main promise is experience, balance and a thoughtful approach to dealing with policy is not very inspiring, and many have not found it to be until recent weeks, as Democratic voters witness Trump’s freewheeling approach the more this trait seems compelling.
Gender and race
If anyone needed a reminder about the historic nature of having a female president, and a female who promises to address the issues of gender, race and ethnicity, they found it with Trump’s string of angry statements, including his failure until Thursday’s debate to wholeheartedly state his opposition to white supremacists such as David Duke and the KKK. Clinton has ramped up her discussion of how her election would mark a victory for those who think the nation needs to deal with race and gender questions.
A big concern for the Hillary Clinton camp revolves around her high unfavorability rating – which registered at 55% in the latest CNN/ORC poll. The good news for her is that Trump’s unfavorability is even higher – 60%. They’ll cancel out that aspect of the competition.
For Trump, Hillary Clinton is also a perfect foil. At some level, if gender biases are still a factor at work in the electorate, for men who are uncomfortable with a female leader he offers the perfect alternative.
Trump is running as an almost stereotypical alpha male – the “Mad Men” candidate of the year – highlighting at almost every turn his gender and how much his uber-aggressive approach to life defines how he would govern.
One could almost imagine him making the general campaign a remake of the famous gender-battle tennis match of the 1970s, between the chauvinistic Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes. Could Trump turn this into a rematch, almost with the promise of vindicating the loss of the 55-year-old Riggs to a female superstar. He represents a last defense of the middle-aged white male at a moment, some perceive, they are under fierce attack from the forces of “political correctness.”
Scripted vs. unscripted candidates
If Clinton embodies restraint and caution, Trump symbolizes a kind of reckless aggression for those thirsting for action and anger. Some of the key traits that cause some Americans to distrust Clinton, the notion that everything she does is scripted and that what she says is not what she actually thinks, finds its best relief with Trump.
After all, he is a candidate who seems to say with total abandon exactly what is on his mind and he is as unscripted, or so it seems, as a candidate can be. There have been moments in the Republican debates where one could conclude that Trump’s side had done no preparation at all. For some voters this is a welcome break from conventional politics.
The fact that Clinton is so deeply rooted in the so-called Washington establishment offers Trump a perfect foil to highlight the main reason to vote for him. Even for an evangelical who has little in common with him, casting a vote for Trump is a way to express disapproval of the way that Washington works and what the federal government does.
The oddity of course is that Trump, who has given money to many candidates, including Hillary Clinton herself, and has been very much part of the political process, gets away with bearing the label of a rebel, and Clinton’s candidacy helps enable this perception.
Personal scandals cancel each other out?
Trump also benefits from the scandals associated with Bill Clinton. Observers wonder when Trump’s personal history will come back to haunt him, but a competition between these two candidates would probably create a scandal arms race that would keep personal peccadillos from being the decisive factor in the outcome.
This not the first time that opponents have drawn perfectly opposed contrasts for each other. In the presidential election of 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon needed Sen. John F. Kennedy to highlight his deep experience and expertise, while Kennedy relied on Nixon to show to the nation how it could benefit from a candidate who represented a new generation of politics. Unfortunately for Nixon, it was Kennedy’s image more Americans wanted.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter found in President Gerald Ford an establishment Republican who had been in Washington for many years and was really a creature of the city, a great opponent to highlight his anti-politics credentials. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan found in President Jimmy Carter the perfect opponent to claim to the nation why the nation needed to move in a radically different direction.
Despite some cordial interactions in the past, Trump and Clinton clearly don’t like each other, and those feelings will become more intense as the campaign heats up. But they actually are a perfect political match..