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How Hillary Clinton can win the first debate

Signs in preparation for the upcoming presidential debate

Signs in preparation for the upcoming presidential debate at Hofstra University. Credit: Signs in preparation for the upcoming presidential debate at Hofstra University.

As we head into the first presidential debate, the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seems to be in a dead heat. Many say Trump’s momentum has halted; others see further declining fortunes for Clinton. So what’s the road from here?
For all my personal and political misgivings about Clinton — and my belief that shutting Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson out of the debate shows how hidebound and arrogant the two-party leviathan is — I am convinced that a Trump win in November would be a near-certain disaster for this country. My unabashed focus, therefore, is on what Clinton needs to do to ensure his defeat.
Despite Clinton’s shrunken lead and her recent, sometimes literal stumbles, this is still her race to lose. The renewed controversy around Trump’s birther crusade against President Barack Obama has helped shift the focus back to the Republican candidate’s position beyond the pale of decency and his links to the hard-core racist elements of the far right. The resurfaced fact that some Clinton supporters, including a close associate of hers, stoked birther rumors about Barack Obama in 2008 is also a reminder of the trail of political sleaze that makes people mistrust Clinton; but on this issue, the balance is still in Clinton’s favor.
In recent days, Clinton has heavily stressed Trump’s own baggage of bigotry — which, in this case, is appropriate. But she also runs the risk of positioning herself as the candidate of women and minorities in a way that signals to straight white men that her campaign is not about them. That’s a mistake for both immediate political reasons — a campaign wedded to the identity politics of gender and race will alienate not only men but also many white women, married women, in particular — and for civic ones further down the line.
In this extraordinary election year, Clinton has some unorthodox potential constituencies, including moderate and even conservative but not far-right Republicans, some of whom have endorsed her with varying degrees of reluctance. There are several things she can do to cultivate these voters.
With some violent crimes going up in some large cities and with shootings of police officers in the news, Clinton needs to show that her commitment to curbing police brutality is matched by strong support for good policing — which is in the interests of both cops and communities. She needs to send a strong message on the issue of Islamist terrorism. She needs to reach out to veterans (expect Trump’s slam at John McCain’s years as a prisoner of war to come up in the debate).
On a more symbolic level, Clinton must signal her readiness to stand for our common identity as Americans, transcending ethnic and gender-based divisions. She also would do well to affirm, as Obama has recently done, that the pursuit of social justice should not turn into a rigid orthodoxy that excludes and suppresses disagreement and dissent. That would put her in a good position to remind Americans that rejecting “political correctness” does not mean rejecting decency and civility.
finally, while Clinton absolutely should continue to hammer Trump on his long record of indecent behavior, she should be careful to avoid what may look like petty and trivial charges. Last week, Clinton sent out a tweet excoriating Trump for rating women’s looks on a scale of one to 10. I’ll venture to say that for most Americans outside gender-studies classes and feminist blogs, this kind of attack looks like, well, political correctness.
A more centrist Clinton pivot may alienate some of her ultraliberal supporters. But it can also mean a more decisive victory — and a better Clinton presidency.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.


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