The Slatest

How Team Clinton Is Planning to Defeat Trump

Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at a campaign event at the Clark County Government Center on Feb. 19 in Las Vegas.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republicans aren’t the only ones coming to terms with the reality that Donald Trump is looking more and more like the presumptive GOP nominee—so too is the Clinton campaign. Now the question is: What are Hillary and her allies planning to do about it?

The New York Times attempted to provide the answer on Tuesday with a lengthy look at how the Clinton machine is preparing for what would be a nasty general election fight with the celebrity billionaire. According to the Times’ reporting—which included “interviews with more than two dozen advisers, strategists, and close allies of the Clintons”—several Clinton-aligned groups including super PACs Priorities USA Action, American Bridge, and Correct the Record have already begun plotting specific attacks. The goal will be to portray Trump as a “misogynist and an enemy to the working class whose brash temper would put the nation and the world in grave danger.”

Such attacks are hardly new, but Hillary’s not-so-secret weapons will be two rather high-profile surrogates that you might have heard of:

To fight Mr. Trump’s ability to sway the news cycle, [Bill] Clinton would not hold back on the stump, and President Obama has told allies he would gleefully portray Mr. Trump as incapable of handling the duties of the Oval Office.

Bill and Barack will make for a formidable 1-2 punch, particularly if the goal is to convince voters that Trump is unqualified to serve as president. One question, though, is just how big Bill Clinton will be allowed to swing. The former president turned in a clutch performance at the Democratic National Convention four years ago when he delivered an instant-classic stemwinder in support of Obama. But providing a prime-time policy critique of Mitt Romney is a far different task than slinging mud at Trump on cable news. As Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are learning this week, the Donald has far more experience dominating the airwaves with juvenile one-liners than any traditional politician. If you sink to his level, you risk playing right into his hands—and damaging your own reputation. (Trump also won’t hesitate to remind voters that many of the Clinton attacks are being paid for by super PACs.)

And just how confident is Clintonland? According to the Times, there are two camps: the first believes Clinton “would easily beat” Trump while the second—led by Bill—believes such conclusions ignore the reality of the past year, during which Trump has dominated the GOP race. “He’s formidable, he understands voters’ anxieties, and he will be ruthless against Hillary Clinton,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told the paper. “I’ve gone from denial—‘I can’t believe anyone would listen to this guy’—to admiration, in the sense that he’s figured out how to capture everyone’s angst, to real worry.”

In many ways, the conversation in the Clinton war room mirrors the one that has taken place among pundits and the political press since Trump’s runaway win in Nevada last week. Here at Slate, for example, Jamelle Bouie and I agree that Clinton would be the favorite in a general election matchup with Trump, though we differ on just how much his critics should be worried about his uncanny ability to defy the normal laws of politics. I’m filled with considerably more epistemological dread than Jamelle is and tend to agree with Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004, who put it thusly to the Times: “Hillary has built a large tanker ship, and she’s about to confront Somali pirates.” The tanker wins that confrontation more often than not—but no one onboard the ship should feel safe when they see pirates on the horizon.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.