While Donald Trump fights with the Republican party, its presidential candidate has also created a conundrum for Hillary Clinton who must decide how to respond to his tough rhetoric and frequent policy shifts.
Aside from his tendency to call his rival “Crooked Hillary”, Mr Trump has provided opportunities and challenges for Mrs Clinton with a string of recent contradictory statements on economic policy. His remarks on the minimum wage, national debt and tax policy were aimed at prising middle-class voters away from the Democrats, while ensuring that traditional Republicans were not repelled by his brand of economic populism.
But they also have made him a moving target, particularly given how quickly he can shift his policy views.
Over 24 hours starting on Sunday, Mr Trump talked about raising taxes on the rich — a message that played well with the Republican party’s anti-establishment base during the primaries but would mark a massive departure from Republican economic orthodoxy — but also suggested that the rich would pay lower taxes under him. The Clinton team scrambled to arrange a call with reporters to attack Mr Trump’s “reckless” policies.
“There is a frustration that he is playing by different rules, but there is a belief that it has got to catch up with him,” said one person close to the Clinton campaign, adding that there was no consensus over the best response.
The emergence of Mr Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee has sparked a debate inside the Clinton campaign over how she should respond to a man who has convinced many Republican voters — and some Democrats and independents — that he is an authentic anti-establishment candidate. Their stance has also been complicated by the fact that he has largely been treated with kid gloves by US television networks that, with a few notable exceptions, have been more interested in the ratings bonanza than challenging him on positions.
During the 1992 race between Bill Clinton and George Bush, the Clintons understood the risk of not responding to attacks because of the famous Willie Horton advert — which suggested a black man on a weekend pass from prison had raped a white woman — that partly doomed Michael Dukakis in 1988, so they created a rapid response “war room”. While some aides want Mrs Clinton to take a similar approach, others caution that doing so would feed the anti-establishment mood that has propelled his campaign.
“Is that still the right model? . . . It is a dilemma. Do you respond to him or do you ignore him?” said the person close to the campaign, adding that they were taking a “wait and see” approach to see if Mr Trump would face tougher media scrutiny. “He is authentic and authenticity is powerful.”
Since the primaries give the Republican and Democratic bases — which are respectively more conservative and liberal than their parties — disproportionate influence over the result, it is common for nominees to pivot to the centre before the general election. But Mr Trump has baffled observers with his penchant to shoot from the hip in ways that sometimes appears calculated to bridge the divide but often suggest that he was unprepared.
“The primary Clinton attack will be to question his character, and shifting positions doesn’t help you in a character debate, especially when you don’t know what you believe two days in a row,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser to John McCain during the 2008 campaign. “But Trump is a genius at deciding on what playing field the battle will be fought on, and she is going to have to find a way to deal with that.”
Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of the 1992 “war room,” said Mrs Clinton would on balance gain from the fact that Mr Trump was unpredictable, even if his approach complicated the immediate response. “They are going to spend time now really defining her agenda . . . because that is something that they can control.”
Mr Trump has also been flexible on the national debt. In an apparent sop to hardline fiscal conservatives, he vowed to pay off the $19tn debt over eight years — which economists say is inconceivable. He recently described himself as the “king of debt” and suggested he lessen the burden by buying back government debt at a discount. When economists said he was flirting with default, he insisted that the US never need default because “you print the money”.
He has also flip-flopped on the minimum wage. After stressing during the primaries that he did not want to touch the wage to ensure US competitiveness, he recently said he was open to an increase, before saying that such a move should be left to the states. Similarly, he has been unclear about the H-1B visas that bring highly skilled workers into the US, calling for restrictions and saying he was “softening” his position because of the need for talented people.
Norm Ornstein, a politics expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mrs Clinton would be wise to stay above the fray to look presidential. But he said Mr Trump might continue to get away with contradictions as the press corps following the campaign was “listening for key words or catchwords and not for nuance or detail”.
“He is really, really good at marketing,” added Mr Ornstein. “He knows how to sell something even if he is not actually selling it or is selling something completely different.”
White House Countdown: Sign up for our free daily US election email
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on US presidential election when a new story is published