Shribman: A look ahead to Trump vs. Clinton

David Shribman

She is going to say he is too unreliable (the way Barry Goldwater was in 1964). That he is too uninformed (the way Ronald Reagan was in 1980). That he is out of touch (the way George H.W. Bush was in 1992). That he is too much of a plutocrat (the way Mitt Romney was in 2012).

He is going to say that she is too liberal (the way George McGovern was in 1972). That she is too much a prisoner of special interests (the way Walter F. Mondale was in 1984). That she is too Ivy Leaque elitist (the way Michael Dukakis was in 1988). That she is too much a failure at her last job (the way Bill Clinton was in 1992).

And those are going to be the benign things Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton say about each other if both are nominated by their parties to run in November.

In August 1988, after Dukakis and George H.W. Bush were nominated, Roger Ailes, the onetime Republican consultant who now is the head of Fox News, predicted a vicious campaign. “Hide the children,” he said.

This year you can almost hear the sound of cellar bulkheads opening all across the country as parents, terrified of what their children will hear on public-affairs television, hurry their youngsters into hiding. (Note to mom and dad: Take away those cellphones and iPads before you slam shut the cellar door. Your child might upload the debate in Dayton Sept. 26.)

Of course you might expect a negative debate from two candidates possessing what political professionals call “high negatives.” Clinton, by a 56-to-39 margin, is regarded negatively by the public, according to the Quinnipiac University poll, while Trump does no better, with a 59-to-34 margin. And according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 2 out of 5 Americans said they had “very negative” views of Clinton, while half of Americans expressed the same view of Trump. And these are the candidates who lead in delegates.

But these two also are candidates who are, or have been, angry, with Clinton once complaining about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” and Trump, in one unforgettable sentence, calling one of his opponents “a liar’’ and the other “a choke artist.” These are not the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The two — perhaps testing applause lines — blasted each other after their Super Tuesday triumphs, with Clinton, in a clear reference to Trump, saying that “trying to divide America between us and them is wrong, and we’re not going to let it work.” And Trump saying her potential nomination would be “a sad day for this country.”

Clinton and Trump differ substantially on major issues such as immigration, but their views are closer than they might otherwise admit on issues such as health care and trade. Trump is more outspoken on most of his policy goals than Clinton, whose default argument consists of claiming that she has spent a lifetime fighting for hers.

If the race maintains its current shape, Clinton now faces the fight of her life, far different in amplitude and volume than her earlier battles for the overhaul of education and health care, though perhaps matching the stakes of her fight on behalf of her husband when he faced charges of sexual misconduct that led to his impeachment and trial.

Trump is an opponent of an entirely different character than Kenneth W. Starr, who ran the investigation into President Bill Clinton’s economic and personal affairs, or even Newt Gingrich, perhaps the original modern Republican insurgent. Starr was persistent but seemed prurient, and Gingrich was smart but seemed smarmy. Trump has many critics — for his style, for his manners, for his policies — but he has more self-confidence than Clinton’s earlier opponents and is playing on a bigger stage.

At the same time, the Manhattan businessman has cause to worry about Clinton, who is better prepared than any commercial rival he has faced and who has an exceedingly powerful background: Wellesley College, Yale Law School, first lady of Arkansas and the United States, senator, secretary of state, and experience in countless international and domestic forums where she has defended unpopular positions with steely intelligence and grace.

For each of them, it will be the fight of a lifetime. For the country, it is the fight for the ages — and for the age.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.