Clinton and Trump Enter the Home Stretch

By Carl M. Cannon and Emily Goodin

WASHINGTON – Once upon a time in American politics, Labor Day signified the beginning of the general election campaign. Today’s election cycles never really end—the notion of the “permanent campaign” is quite real—but one thing remains the same: The voters who determine the outcomes of close elections will decide, starting now, who they want to see in the White House.

Will 2016 turn out to be a close election? That question is yet to be answered, but during the first week of September the head-to-head national polls did tighten. As the race stands now, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by 2.7 percentage points in the RCP polling average. Clinton has led Trump in the average every day since the conventions ended.

As the first week after Labor Day week began, each camp hoped to demonstrate the competence, physical fitness, and leadership ability of America’s next commander-in-chief and the next leader of the free world. But these intentions rarely go according to plan—as Mrs. Clinton demonstrated at a 9/11 memorial service.

Hillary’s Health

American voters interested in transparency in their candidates have been consistently thwarted this year.

Trump, in a complete break with U.S. precedent, has steadfastly refused to release his tax returns. Likewise, Clinton has been consistently coy about her health records, despite some worrisome medical incidents.

In 2012, Clinton fainted in her home, hitting her head and leaving her with a serious concussion. In recent campaign events, she’s had coughing fits, which her campaign later said were induced by allergies.  On Sunday, at a 9/11 commemoration in New York, Mrs. Clinton again took ill, fainting while waiting for her limousine.

Later, her campaign announced that she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia, but the upshot is that another worrisome X-factor has become part of the campaign narrative.

Commander-in-Chief Forum

A week focused mostly on national security issues came to a head Wednesday when Clinton and Trump participated in a nationally televised forum with military veterans. Although NBC News billed the event as a kind of dress rehearsal for the first presidential debate, the candidates did not actually face each other.

Moderated by “Today” show host Matt Lauer, the session consisted of back-to-back 30-minute interviews that exposed of each candidates’ vulnerabilities—and NBC’s, too.

Trump spoke in generalities, while answering even specific questions with a lack of detail that frustrated some of the military people in the audience. The Republican nominee also continued to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin, an inexplicable stance that puzzles and annoys many of his fellow Republicans. On Wednesday, Trump was at it again, actually favorably comparing Putin to President Obama. The Russian strongman, Trump said, is “a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”

Later in the week, Trump doubled-down on his praise for Putin, telling Larry King in an interview that aired on the Russian-owned RT network that he thought it was “pretty unlikely” Russians would interfere in the U.S. election.

The Republican Party’s mascot is an elephant, which seemed fitting this week: Other GOP leaders found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to clean up after the lead elephant. “Vladimir Putin,” noted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, “is an aggressor who does not share our interests.”

Yet for all his shortcomings, Trump continues to deftly capture Americans’ current fears and angst.

“In crass political terms, Trump did well,” wrote influential liberal commentator Peter Beinart. “He did well because he capitalized on the public’s sour mood: He said the war in Iraq was a disaster, the withdrawal from Iraq was a disaster, the war in Libya was a disaster, and the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a disaster. And he blamed Clinton because she was part of those decisions and he was not.”

Yet, Trump can never stop himself from going too far, as he did when he seemed to be telling Matt Lauer that the United States should steal Iraq’s oil.

“We go in, we spent $3 trillion,” he said. “We lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then look, what happens is we get nothing. You know, it used to be [to] the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, take the oil.”

Hillary Clinton also foundered with the NBC format. Although her email controversy is now a year-and-a-half old, the former secretary of state still could not provide a convincing account in her exchange with Lauer about why she circumvented federal open-government law by setting up a secret server—and then had her lawyers destroy half of her emails when their whereabouts became an issue.

Clinton also struggled to articulate her vision for U.S foreign policy and America’s place in the world. As the bookend to Trump’s ramblings, she got bogged down in Washington jargon and bureaucratic minutiae.

Asked about the VA’s problems providing health care to military families, for instance, she explained that when people leave the service, their medical records aren’t transmitted to the agency.

She issued a mea culpa on her vote in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, explaining that “it is imperative that we learn from the mistakes, like after-action reports are supposed to do,” without ever describing the lesson she had learned. She defended the administration’s incursion in Libya by saying that if the U.S. had stood on the sideline, Libyans would have become embroiled in a civil war like Syria’s. But as Beinart pointed out, “Libya has followed Syria into civil war, anyway.”

Gary Johnson

Speaking of Syria, Americans who were so disillusioned by Wednesday night’s NBC forum that they found themselves considering third-party candidate Gary Johnson were in for further disappointment.

Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico running in 2016 on the Libertarian Party ticket, was asked on MSNBC’s popular “Morning Joe” news show Thursday what he would do about Aleppo – a city at the center of the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

“And what is Aleppo?” Johnson responded.

General outraged followed that a candidate for POTUS wouldn’t know about a major area of foreign policy.

It was a flub could benefit Clinton more than Trump, RCP’s David Byler writes: “It’s impossible to know what effect, if any, Johnson’s Aleppo flap will have. But Clinton would likely benefit more overall from a wholesale collapse in his support, and Trump would benefit somewhat by grabbing his more conservative supporters.”

Blaming the Messenger

But the toughest criticism of the week landed on the head of Matt Lauer for his handling of the forum.

“In an event aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, the ‘Today’ host was lost at sea,” wrote The New York Times. “Seemingly unprepared on military and foreign policy specifics, he performed like a soldier sent on a mission without ammunition, beginning with a disorganized offensive, ending in a humiliating retreat.”

“Wednesday night’s Commander-in-Chief forum on NBC should have gone down as the first time the two 2016 presidential candidates shared a stage,” added the Huffington Post. “But it will be remembered largely for the shortcomings of the man who was tasked with moderating.” 

Chief among the criticisms leveled at Lauer was that he let Trump skate on his oft-repeated, but highly dubious, claim that he was “totally against the Iraq War.”

And so, with eight weeks to go before Election Day, as Americans observed the 15th anniversary of 9/11, U.S. politics is still roiled by that tragic event and its aftermath.

Carl Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics; Emily Goodin is RCP’s managing editor.