Why Is the Trumpish Right Inept at Hardball Politics?

Making stuff up about their opponents’ health isn’t going to work.

Kelli Ward
Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward speaks at Arizona State University in Tempe on May 8, 2015.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC

We’ve only a few days to go until the Arizona Republican Senate primary, and death is on the mind of Dr. Kelli Ward. The former state senator is trailing, significantly, in her bid to oust Sen. John McCain. But it’s not her campaign’s impending death that consumes Ward. It’s John McCain’s.

“I’m a doctor. The life expectancy of the American male is not 86,” she told Politico on Thursday, referring to the age McCain would be at the end of the sixth term he’s seeking. “It’s less.” Ward’s campaign has consistently teased around the issue of McCain’s age. She frequently speaks of how it’s time to “retire” McCain after his many, many, many years in Washington—so many years that, golly, he must be pretty old by now. (McCain turns 80 on Monday.)

Now, in the closing-argument segment of the race, she appears to be dispensing with niceties entirely. Even if McCain doesn’t die any second now, we’re told, his advanced age is making him more senile. “There are things that happen physiologically with the body and the mind. One of them is control over your anger, and he’s already known as an angry man,” she told Politico. “It becomes more and more difficult to control those kinds of outbursts. And we have to have someone with a steady hand, someone with the ability to think on their feet.”

This is not an example of a candidate straying off her talking points and later requiring cleanup by the communications office. These are the talking points, and she appeared on MSNBC Thursday afternoon to boost the signal. “I see the physiological changes that happen in normal aging, in patients again and again and again over the last 20, 25 years,” she told Chuck Todd. “So I do know what happens to the body and the mind at the end of life.” The end of life. She’s practically rolling him into the hospice wing.

Let’s think about intended audiences. There are the Arizona Republicans who already hate John McCain with the passion of a thousand suns and are willing to believe anything about him. Then there are the Arizona Republicans who think this is a strong political attack. The overlap between these two groups is somewhere around 100 percent, and it’s looking as if their numbers do not constitute a majority of Arizona Republican primary voters. Arizonans already knew that McCain was gettin’ up there and had a temper, and they’d baked that into their voting calculus. To everyone outside the far-right echo chamber, this just comes off as nasty and not a little bit kooky, and they’re likely to assign those qualities to the originator of the attack.

But at least Ward, 47, actually is younger than McCain. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is two years older than his opponent. This hasn’t stopped him and his surrogates from suggesting that the aged Hillary Clinton is deeply ill and, like McCain, presumably going to die within the next 10 or 20 minutes. Trump-loyal conservative media, which includes the National Enquirer, is aflutter with such theories. The evidence behind all this is typically a photo of her walking up the stairs in February with some help. Another related sub-branch of the “Hillary is dying” theory holds that she sometimes sits in a chair or on a stool. Don’t believe those who would tell you that maybe Clinton sits because sitting can be pleasant. Sitting, you see, is a classic tell from a politician who’s trying to conceal her imminent death.

Sean Hannity has devoted numerous segments to questions about what particular deathly disease Clinton is dying of, and surrogates like Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy have discharged their just-askin’-questions duties on cable news. Trump himself has taken to questioning Clinton’s “mental and physical stamina” and her supposed proclivity for napping. “She’s got problems,” Trump said earlier this month. “Honestly, I don’t think she’s all there.”

Again, let’s think about intended audiences. There are the Republican voters who hate Clinton with the passion of a thousand suns and are willing to believe anything about her. Then there are the Republicans who think this is a strong political attack. Again, the overlap is about 100 percent. To everyone outside the bubble, which is a majority of voters, it’s completely hilarious and baffling that they’re running with these attacks. It’s bizarre, back here on planet Earth, to hear the Republican presidential candidate, his loyal media, and some of his leading surrogates run wild with a theory about how Hillary Clinton is probably dying because she sits down.

If there were any evidence that these attacks might be politically beneficial, we could at least respect their originators as political operatives. But all they do is please a narrow minority of conservatives and turn everyone else off with their comical bumbling. What the hell’s going on here?

A foundational belief among hardcore conservatives in the Obama era is that Republicans refuse to fight, and this more than anything else is to blame for the party’s electoral and legislative failures. Per this school of thought, a central reason McCain lost the 2008 presidential election was that he didn’t go hard enough after Barack Obama’s relationships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. It couldn’t possibly be that those issues had already been litigated earlier in the campaign and baked in, and the McCain campaign found that they didn’t have much cachet outside conservatives. To continue harping on them might have come off as some combination of hilarious, tiresome, and bizarre to swing voters.

It was the same deal with Romney and Benghazi in the late stages of the 2012 campaign. On the legislative side, it’s held as an article of faith that the reason the Affordable Care Act was passed in the first place and hasn’t since been repealed is that Republicans haven’t fought hard enough on either occasion. Republicans, in truth, fought quite hard to block “Obamacare” and have since fought as hard as they could to tank it. They just haven’t had the numbers in Congress or control of the White House.

When I was following Ward earlier this summer to report a story on the Arizona Senate race, she seemed to be throwing haymakers for the sole purpose of showing Republican primary voters that she could throw haymakers. At a Tea Party meeting, she proudly read aloud a nasty press release from earlier that day calling McCain “directly responsible for the rise of ISIS.” Her point was to show Tea Partiers that she was willing to say something like this, unlike the effete wusses back in D.C. Presumably, if she were to reach D.C. as a senator, she would just hurl a lot of strange insults and innuendo at a physical printout of the Affordable Care Act until it spontaneously combusted.

Conservative media has been the lifeblood of Ward’s campaign, and with Trump’s hiring of Steve Bannon, it is in direct operational control of the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign. And so crappy attacks, workshopped inside the conservative tabloid media bubble, get greenlit even if they confuse 70 percent of the electorate. Trump was able to say a lot of stupid things and get away with them in the Republican primary, but the lesson from that shouldn’t have been that the idea was replicable: He was in a 17-person field, against a group of mostly undefined opponents, depriving them of oxygen. And he could at least be funny. John McCain and Hillary Clinton have total name recognition and well-known histories. It doesn’t convert anyone new to suggest, sans evidence, that they’re near death. It just hastens the death of the campaigns suggesting it.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.