Back in October 2015, Hillary Clinton referred to Republicans as her enemies. But during Monday’s “Morning Joe” appearance on MSNBC to discuss the terrorist attack in Orlando, she struck a different tone: “I want to echo something that I heard my friend and former [Republican] colleague Peter King saying as I was listening here,” Clinton said. “This is a moment for Republicans, Democrats and independents to work together as one team, the American team. And it’s a time for statesmanship, not partisanship.”
The use of bipartisan rhetoric is a trend for Clinton’s campaign. The other week, she gave a foreign policy speech that could have been delivered by Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone on Jimmy Fallon’s show last week, saying: “There are wonderful Republicans out in the country who want what’s best for the country, and may disagree with me on some things but are good, decent people.”
Republicans are people, too, it seems!
Political comity is to be commended, but there is a method to the madness: Team Hillary wants to keep “Never Trump” Republicans on the sidelines.
Now, you might be thinking that Clinton has this election in the bag, that she shouldn’t waste her time trying to avoid unnecessary collateral damage that might awaken sleeping conservatives. Maybe we’ve become so polarized that there is no use in trying to suppress Republican voters, much less persuade them.
But maybe this election will be closer than you think. Maybe Clinton representing the status quo in a year when voters are dissatisfied will be a problem. And maybe, as The New York Times suggested on Friday, “Mr. Trump has a larger pool of potential voters than [was] generally believed.” Maybe keeping a portion of these voters on the sidelines will matter after all.
This will require a lot of precision. It’s a delicate dance. She needs to surgically “otherize” Trump while resisting the temptation to cast aspersions on the rest of us.
Here’s why: When people feel attacked, they band together with their tribe. This is why Republicans are stupid to be generally perceived as anti-Hispanic, and it’s also why it would be counterproductive for Clinton’s campaign to try to vanquish Republicans this year when many aren’t self-identifying as Trump supporters.
To put it another way, if Hillary laughs with us at Trump, we will enjoy it. But if she’s laughing at us, well, that’s a different story.
So, she has two options: be magnanimous and focus her ammunition solely on Trump or score partisan points by trying to smear the GOP brand and vanquish her enemies.
The former is certainly best for the country (it would reduce our polarization) and, arguably, even best for her. But the latter is what her base will demand, and it’s also what her party, hoping to take back the Senate, will command (although, one could certainly argue that keeping anti-Trump conservatives at home on Election Day would be shrewder).
Now, I suppose there’s a way she can try to have her cake and eat it, too. She could let Obama, who has rarely missed an opportunity to build straw men and bash Republicans, play bad cop, as he did during a recent speech in Elkhart, Indiana, where he said, “The primary story that Republicans have been telling about the economy is not supported by the facts.” And she can focus her ammunition solely at Trump. But that’s a hard role to play for five months.
Just last week, Clinton addressed Planned Parenthood. And this week, she called for a ban on assault weapons. She has to do these things, of course. The hard part will be to do them without demonizing Republicans in the process.
My guess is that the vast majority of “Never Trump” Republicans will be “Never Hillary” come November. There are too many incentives for it to be otherwise. On the other hand, this is a game of inches. In a close election, every single voter — even the one that stays home — could matter. Clinton might be wise to remember an old saying: When you want to kill a mosquito, you don’t use a cannon.
Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.