As they look ahead to the general election, some commentators envision a campaign in which Donald Trump attacks viciously and Hillary Clinton makes a virtue of her refusal to stoop to his level. “I think Trump’s method will be to turn on the insult comedy against Hillary Clinton,” declared GOP consultant Mike Murphy earlier this week. “Her big judo move is playing the victim.” Vox’s Ezra Klein speculated earlier this year that “Trump sets up Clinton for a much softer and unifying message than she’d be able to get away with against a candidate like [Marco] Rubio.”
I doubt it will play out that way. Rope-a-dope isn’t Clinton’s style. When facing political threats, her pattern has been to strike first—and with great force.
In Carl Bernstein’s biography, A Woman in Charge, he notes that when Clinton was four, a bigger girl bullied her. Declaring, “There’s no room in this house for cowards,” Dorothy Howell Rodham told her daughter to punch the girl, which Hillary did. That’s pretty much been Hillary’s instinct since she and Bill entered politics. In his first campaign, a bid to unseat Republican Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt in 1974, Bill Clinton vowed to eschew negative attacks and “just stick to the issues.” But in their biography, Her Way, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. claim that Hillary urged attacking Hammerschmidt’s “morals and his judgment.”
In 1980, when it became clear that Bill might lose his bid for reelection as Arkansas’s governor, Hillary called in Dick Morris. According to Gerth and Van Natta, one campaign staffer objected: “This guy is poison.” To which Hillary responded, “If you want to be in this kind of business, this is the kind of person you have to deal with.” In her book, For Love of Politics, Sally Bedell Smith quotes Hillary saying, “We need to learn how the bad boys do it.”
Morris would later tell Bernstein: “She believes always in taking the fight to the other side. In every campaign strategy meeting I’ve ever been in with her, she always wants to run negative ads. She always wants to go on the attack.” Stanley Greenberg, whom the Clintons brought in to help run Bill’s gubernatorial reelection bid in 1990, observed the same thing. He arrived to find the Clintons debating “how aggressive to go in attacking the opponent and when to do it. And I can tell you she came down on the side of aggressive.” Hillary, Greenberg noted, thought: “Democrats were soft in campaigns. They didn’t fight … And I think that Hillary was of that point of view that you were not going to have people’s confidence unless you could show that you’re strong and tough against your opponents. Your opponents need to know that you’re not going to be passive, you’re not going to be a punching bag.”
In 1992, when Gennifer Flowers’s affair allegations threatened to derail Bill’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary urged attacking both her veracity and her motives, according to campaign aide Dee Dee Myers. Bernstein claims Hillary also urged the campaign to peddle stories about George H.W. Bush’s alleged affairs. In the words of one aide, “She’s happiest when she’s fighting, when she has identified the enemy and goes into attack mode … That’s what she thrives on more than anything—the battle.”
Trump calls himself a counterpuncher. But Hillary Clinton likes to strike first. In the first Democratic debate last October, many pundits assumed Bernie Sanders, as the insurgent, would go on the attack. Instead, Clinton did. First she mocked Sanders’s suggestion that America should resemble Denmark. Then she attacked his votes against gun control. It’s likely Clinton will try to do the same against Trump. The New York Times has already reported that, rather than staying above the fray, the Clinton campaign plans “sustained and brutal attacks on Mr. Trump” for his temperament, his business dealings, and his remarks about women.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s penchant for gutter politics makes him difficult for Clinton to handle. I suspect that’s wrong. Clinton’s instinct is to use hardball tactics in pursuit of what she sees as the greater good. Barack Obama and Sanders, by running as high-minded idealists, made that harder. Every time she attacked them, she risked playing into their depiction of her as ruthless and unprincipled. Trump, by contrast, because he’s so odious, liberates her to wage total war. Which is exactly what she likes to do.