Before he bowed out of the Republican presidential race, Sen. Ted Cruz said something that Hillary Clinton and her team should heed as they arm themselves for a political battle so gory it would make the producers of Game of Thrones cringe.
No, not that Trump is a “pathological liar” or a “serial philanderer” — though each of those charges may come into play during the campaign.
The observation Cruz made, after running against Trump for nearly a year, is that Donald the Developer figures out his own weaknesses and then projects them onto his adversaries as fast and as frequently as he can. He builds his opponent in his own image and thereby negates the most potentially devastating attacks on him.
“Whatever he does, he accuses everyone else of doing,” Cruz said at a press availability Tuesday morning that he kicked off by informing reporters he would finally tell them what he really thought of Trump.
To wit, Cruz was Trump’s main target over the final months of the primary campaign, when Trump gave the Texas senator the sobriquet “Lyin’ Ted.” The Pulitzer-prize winning website Politifact has rated 84 of Trump’s campaign-trail claims as “false” or “pants on fire.” They account for 61 percent of the Trump statements that Politifact has rated, and another 30 percent have been branded “half true” or “mostly false.”
[Related: Cruz Helped Create Monster That Devoured Him] Politifact isn’t infallible, but the pattern is pretty clear. Trump’s been untruthful, so he called Cruz a liar. Again and again and again. And it stuck. Trump effectively took the issue of his own honesty off the table.
The reason this matters for Clinton is that she, too, is vulnerable to Trump’s projections, and, in the past, has been hesitant to fight opponents on ground they are perceived to own even in positive terms.
Clinton takes a more traditional and honest path: She highlights her own actual strengths and attacks her opponent’s actual weaknesses. In doing so in 2008 and again in 2016, she essentially conceded that rivals Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders were change agents. She portrayed them as too naive and aspirational to get things done in Washington.
On the other hand, Clinton portrayed herself as the more substantive and experienced candidate. She spent large parts of both campaigns defending herself against charges that, for all of her substance and experience, she’d shown poor judgment.
Had she spent more time undercutting her rivals’ change narratives — or at least competing with them — she would have forced them to defend themselves rather than given them room to launch attacks on her turf. Her campaign turned around a couple of months ago when she began talking about “breaking barriers,” both economic and social, in ways that blunted Sanders’ edge as a candidate of change.
Clinton will win the Democratic nomination in part because Sanders isn’t as compelling a candidate as Obama was and in part because she went on the offense to say she could change Americans’ lives in concrete ways.
[Related: Poll Shows Clinton With Large Lead Over Trump] Clinton should be under no illusion that she has an easy race against Trump, and she should be aware that she’ll be engaged in asymmetrical political warfare.
Trump’s tactics are reminiscent of the Karl Rove-allied “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth,” who framed John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran turned iconic anti-Vietnam activist, as a coward. Their deceits successfully neutralized Kerry’s natural advantage over President George W. Bush, who served in the reserves at home, on military matters.
Many Democrats were furious at how long Kerry waited to respond to the Swiftboat crew. Surely, he thought, as Clinton often does about the most scurrilous attacks on her, that no one would believe them. The lessons for Clinton are that it never pays to let a charge go unmet, and it’s better to challenge the positive perceptions about your opponent than to let him do the same to you.
[Related: Hillary Should Fire … Hillary] That’s not to say Clinton should lie about Trump. With all he’s said and done over the years, there’s no need to. But she’d be smart to focus on undermining the narrative he’s built for himself as a person who is willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the little guy. Her favorite line, that he’s a “loose cannon ” who is bound to “misfire,” may be part of a larger campaign to discredit him as a commander in chief, but it’s not aimed at slicing through the core of his narrative or projecting one of her weaknesses onto him so as to take the issue off the table.
Already, Trump has gotten the jump on her in that regard in two ways: earlier this year , he said Clinton lives with a man who abuses women — a reference to various allegations about Bill Clinton’s behavior with other women — and more recently, he’s taken to calling her “crooked Hillary.”
Trump and one of his wives, Ivana, were granted a divorce that was attributed to his “cruel and inhuman treatment” of her. Given what he says about women in public, it’s safe to assume he’s at least as much of a barbarian in private.
[Related: Who Might Trump Pick as VP?] In one debate last year, Trump admitted that he expected favors in return when he made political contributions.
“I gave to many people. Before this … I was a businessman,” he said. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
Rather than launching 1,000 media investigations into whether Trump was engaged in quid pro quo deals with elected officials, the comment was treated as a moment of rare honesty about the political process. If it turns out that Trump has had crooked business dealings, he’s already made it harder for Clinton to make the case by calling her crooked.
Most of Trump’s fellow Republican candidates tried to take the high road until he broke them down and made them fight on his level. Marco Rubio’s penis-size jokes and Ted Cruz’s diatribe on dishonesty and infidelity are among the most memorable moments of self-immolation at the altar of Trump. They were way too late, and even the harshest charges about his personal and political shortcomings didn’t stick to the Teflon Donald.
If Clinton wants to avoid the same fate, she’d better move fast to project some of her less attractive traits onto Trump. If they stick to her, maybe they’ll stick to him, too.