The Optics of Clinton’s Collapse
Hillary Clinton’s Love Hate Relationship with the Spotlight.
There’s this thing in politics which is referred to as optics. Basically, this refers to how the general public views any thing, any situation, any statement. This perception of the public can best be explained with the phrase “how things look.” The additional layer to that, however, beyond how things look is how the average person feels about how things appear to be. ”Optics” are actually a very powerful thing for politicians and political campaigns. Regardless of what is real and what is fact, how things appear and how that appearance makes the average person feel can make or break a candidate.
Both Clinton and Trump have made certain that optics have been even more elevated for the 2016 election. It’s become the obsession of the media. Implying something, absent any proof whatsoever, is the new campaign strategy. Trump is masterful at this. Clinton has had a few successes but mostly she fails to connect many punches — — mainly because Trump doesn’t hide much. Therefore, whatever you say about him, people pretty much respond with a shrug and say something along the lines of, Well yeah, but he said that himself. When people say they like Trump because he says what he thinks, they really mean that they feel like he is honest and they can trust him at his word.
Let me clarify here. Believing someone is honest and that you can trust them does not mean you automatically think they are a good person. Nor does it mean you actually agree with them. In fact, often, it can mean just the opposite. Honest by definition typically means factual and lacking of deceit. However, honest can also mean sincere; honorable in principles, intentions, and actions; upright and fair; candid, frank, open.
There are people who will state wildly unpopular, sometimes frightening, beliefs. In spite of this, people will still say they are “honest” because they are. Even in the face of saying something which won’t be well received, they still say it. For a lot of people, this ability to know where you stand with someone, even if you hate every word that comes out of their mouth, creates a sense of trustworthiness. Regardless of whether or not that should actually be trusted, people feel like the person can be trusted.
There is a perception that Trump is the tell it like it is candidate and those optics are the new I’d like to have a beer with them measurement of a candidate’s connection with the general public. Even if most people would opt to not join Trump for a beer, they feel that they know who Trump is. Even if Trump says contradictory statements in the same speech, even in the same paragraph of that speech, that is Trump. That is how Trump is. It is what people expect and perceive, regardless of whether they plan to vote for him or not. Even with voters saying that Trump isn’t qualified, isn’t consistent, and doesn’t have the temperament required for the presidency — when it comes to honesty and trustworthiness, Trump consistently finds himself at worst within the margin of error compared to Clinton, sometimes even rated as more honest. Ultimately, Clinton’s complete failure to effectively manage the optics of her campaign have steadily chipped away at the boosts she receives due to her experience and overall view of her potential to lead the nation.
Let us take a look at a recent optic issue faced by each campaign, beginning with Trump. Mere days ago, Donald Trump was facing mounting criticism for a 2013 donation to a political group which was backing Pam Bondi, the Attorney General in Florida. This donation happened days after a potential investigation was announced by Bondi’s office. This potential investigation was triggered by claims of fraud at Trump University, another topic Trump has actively attempted to avoid in his campaign. After the donation, Bondi’s office said it would no longer investigate Trump University. It was the making of a perfect political scandal.
Except for one thing. It was not new news. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group, filed a complaint with the IRS on March 21, 2016. In this complaint, they detailed their discovery that a donation listed by the Donald J. Trump Foundation to a charity in Kansas, “Justice for All”, was never received by the group. They also provided evidence that the money was actually given to “And Justice for All”— a political committee and pro-Bondi group.
The following day, The Washington Post ran an article titled Trump Camp Says $25,000 Charity Contribution to Florida AG Was a Mistake in which Allen Weisselberg, CFO of the Trump Organization and Treasurer of the Donald J. Trump foundation stated, “All these years, we had no idea anything happened.” The entire event was explained away by Weisselberg in that March 22nd WP article. An accounts payable clerk processing the request for the $25,000 payment to the pro-Bondi “And Justice For All” held responsibility for withdrawing the donation from either the account for the Donald J. Trump foundation or from Trump’s personal account.
This decision is made by consulting a reference book which lists charities and prevents potential violations of the IRS Guidelines which state “all section 501©(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Within this reference book, according to Weisselberg, a listing was discovered for And Justice For All. This name is identical to the political committee, but is the name of an organization in Utah which provides legal support to low income and disabled individuals.
Later, in 2013, when the Donald J. Trump foundation’s donations were compiled, it listed the donation as being made to Justice for All, in Kansas. Justice for All describes itself as “a non-profit educational organization which partners with local church communities to train followers of Christ to make abortion unthinkable.” Thus, when this story first broke in March, a chain of events was provided, which in spite of the challenging task of detailing how things unfolded, provided a reasonably plausible explanation for why The Donald J. Trump foundation claimed it had made no political contributions in 2013.
Still, even with that explained, surely the fact that Donald Trump requested a $25,000 payment be made to And Justice For All, a group which supported an Attorney General who was considering investigating Trump University would still lead to something, right? Not necessarily.
Donald Trump himself spilled this news, in his own way, over a year earlier when he was still a candidate for the GOP nomination. It started in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in July 2015 . In this interview, Trump said, “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do. As a businessman, I need that.”
On stage in August 2015 at the Cleveland Republican primary debate, Trump was asked about this statement. He responded, “You’d better believe it. If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.” He then spoke of donations to Clinton, as well as the Clinton Foundation. “With Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding. You know why? She didn’t have a choice because I gave [to the Clinton Foundation].”
In that moment, Trump the candidate put on his hat of Trump the businessman and spoke of what most Americans feel is true. Money talks. Without money, politicians don’t really care. They are motivated by donations and act accordingly. These were good optics. They were good optics because they matched Trump’s brand at the time — non-establishment, outsider. He was not yet a Presidential Candidate. In fact, now that he is a Presidential Candidate and potential leader of the United States, Trump insists that because he knows this game, he is immune to it. He can’t be bought.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post broke news that The Donald J. Trump Foundation paid a $2500 fine to the IRS over the issue of the donation. However, by this point, Donald Trump had reimbursed his foundation from his own personal funds, effectively reversing the clerical error, and had paid the fine the mistake had caused. The only lingering aspect of the entire story was whether the purpose of the contribution was to incentivize Bondi to stop poking around Trump University. Trump went on record stating, “I never spoke to her, first of all. She’s a fine person, beyond reproach. I never even spoke to her about it at all. She’s a fine person. Never spoken to her about it, never. Many of the attorney generals turned that case down because I’ll win that case in court. Many turned that down. I never spoke to her.”
And thus, it became necessary to discover additional donations to other attorney generals in order to make it concrete that anything inappropriate had actually occurred between Trump and Bondi. Trump surrogates were quick to hit the airwaves and cable news shows. In an interview with CNN, Republican National Committee spokesman and chief strategist Sean Spicer noted, “The only one (AG) that did was (New York Attorney General) Eric Schneiderman, who is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Of all of the 50 states where this was brought up, only one state pursued it, New York.” For her part, Bondi also denies any wrong-doing and points blame to Clinton for an attempt to create a situation which in reality did not exist. She stated, “Of course I asked Donald Trump for a contribution, that’s not what this is about. (Clinton) said he was under investigation by my office, at the time, and I knew about it. None of which is true.”
Trump’s boastfulness and bragging in both print and video was ultimately his saving grace. Also, the willingness of his surrogates to casually admit to mistakes, errors, potentially questionable timing, even potentially questionable activities served to effectively dismiss all attempts to get something to stick. Obviously Trump would provide a payment to someone bugging him or someone he wanted to attain leverage. He said so himself to the Wall Street Journal. He said so on stage at a Presidential Primary Debate. How was this news?
Even when it appeared that a deliberate attempt had been made to deceive the IRS and hide the political donation, instead of increasing the demands that Trump release his tax returns, this was also easily explained. The entire question of paying off Bondi? Trump simply showcased that 48 other attorneys generals declined to pursue the case. It doesn’t matter that Trump University received claims of fraud in all 50 states. That becomes background. People ignore that because it shows that Bondi likely decided, like 48 others that there was no case to investigate. It makes Eric Schneiderman with his New York connections to Clinton seem like he is on a mission more related to a desire to help Clinton than to prosecute Trump. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter. The optics of the entire thing seems like a non-event. It allowed Trump to state that there is nothing to see in his tax returns. In a very political way, Trump stopped a scandal before it became a scandal.
All of this is due to transparency. Trump says money makes politicians do what you want. He says he knows this because he’s done it himself, even with his opponent. When this news first broke in March, the Trump campaign did not circle the wagons and attempt to avoid any statements. They did not hide Trump away and cancel press conferences. Instead, they admitted to the donation and also admitted that his foundation messed up, as did his accounting firm. They didn’t claim that Trump University was scandal free. In fact, they used the fact that all 50 states considered opening an investigation into fraud as proof that Trump wasn’t in fact, actively making political donations to try to stop these investigations. They were proactive in correcting the issue once it was made known and paying the fine associated with it. They have not avoided questions about it and in fact, his surrogates seem to be delighted to discuss how all of this was already dealt with months ago. It serves as a remarkable and brilliant display of politics in 2016.
Hillary Clinton now dominates the news cycle. The reason? What is the huge scandal which has finally caused legitimate fear and panic within the Democratic Party so much that the Clinton Campaign itself is issuing mea culpas about their handling of the entire debacle? Pneumonia. A common illness that 3 million Americans deal with every single year. Yes, a simple illness has now become a major political scandal and the focus of 24 hour news coverage. The reason? A lack of transparency and the optics of being Hillary Clinton.
This is, of course, Clinton’s Achilles’ heel. For the bulk of her public life, secrecy and a veil of limited access has been synonymous with the Clinton brand. This recent event only highlights how absurd this level of paranoia has become within the Clinton campaign. Regardless of whether it is fair, whether it is related to her gender, whether or not any investigation has ever led to anything beyond the investigation itself — Hillary Clinton is not viewed as being trustworthy — and facts are facts and reality can not be ignored. People do not trust her. They do not like her. It doesn’t matter if that is fair or justified. You do no good when you harp about that aspect of it. Regardless of whether it hurts her feelings or makes her sad, Clinton isn’t very popular. The general public doesn’t really want to have much to do with her.
It appears, based on how the Clinton campaign behaves, that the feeling is mutual. The Clinton campaign could have reacted very differently to this entire event. After weeks of dealing with “Hillary’s Health” and denying any issue at all, culminating in the pickle jar demonstration of strength — the Clinton campaign faced a very real issue. Their candidate could not stop coughing and on Friday, Clinton received a diagnosis of pneumonia. A logical decision? Let’s issue a statement explaining the cough. The Clinton Campaign decision? Let’s not say anything. Let’s push through and keep the schedule. Let’s do the events and the interviews. Let’s not risk anyone having any chance to question Hillary’s Health. Let’s keep a secret.
Like all of the other bad decisions made by Clinton over the years, this decision eventually blew up into a full scale political drama. On Sunday, Clinton’s attempt to flee a 9/11 Ceremony ended with what appears to be a Presidential candidate so weakened that she had to be dragged across a sidewalk and heaved into her campaign vehicle. Worst of all? This happened at a location and on a date which will forever remind Americans of their weakest moment. A moment when they had to rally all the strength they could and somehow find a way to continue forward. In terms of optics, it doesn’t really get much worse than this. Falling victim to an illness isn’t a good look for any Presidential candidate. Doing so in a setting with such emotional and historical context is the stuff of a campaign manager’s nightmares. And, as usual, there is no one to blame except the Clinton campaign itself.
If, instead of pushing through her schedule, Clinton had seized the opportunity, this could have played out very differently. Had she cancelled events and made a call to CNN rather than a sit down interview with Chris Cuomo, Clinton could have stated that she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia and was under doctor’s orders to lessen her schedule and recuperate. This could have been her chance to say something along the lines of I can not imagine not being present on Sunday for the memorial service in New York. As the Senator of New York at the time, the events of 9/11 are deeply personal for me. Being able to attend that memorial means more to me than the interviews and the fundraisers. Because of this, I am taking time to rest and will attend the memorial only partially on Sunday.
At that point, the coughing is explained. The secretive and private Clinton broke pattern and revealed an actual sickness. Hillary’s Health had been revealed. The entire notion of a cold and calculated Hillary Clinton could have been slightly thawed. The image of a politician sacrificing the possibility for airtime and donations due to a deep desire to stand in solidarity with the city of New York on the anniversary of such a historic date could have served Hillary Clinton in a massively positive manner. It could have been an opportunity to make people question whether or not they were right about her. Yes, obviously, even pneumonia would have led to attacks and potential health speculation. However, that risk, in no logical thought process should have ever outweighed the potential payout which was available in simply being transparent.
Instead of that image of Hillary Clinton, we have a very different image — an image which has been on repeat nonstop for over 24 hours. It will continue to be seen over and over again. It will likely find its way into campaign ads. When Donald Trump mentions her stamina, we will all see it in our minds — Hillary Clinton attempting to move legs which jerk and eventually buckle, being lifted under her arms, three people attempting to prevent her from dropping to the ground. Various media outlets have declared that a once conspiracy theory is now a valid campaign issue. Hillary Clinton not only caused an even deeper doubt about her health in general and what, if any, honesty she or her campaign might be willing to have around her health — she also verified and amplified her biggest liability. She wasn’t honest. At least, that is how the optics look.
Maybe at the time she opened that jar of pickles she was feeling fine. Maybe Clinton did believe she was suffering from allergies. Maybe Clinton truly did fear giving even a small opening to her detractors by admitting she did, in fact, have an illness. But the consequence of the decisions made in the moments following the diagnosis of pneumonia has created a situation in which Hillary Clinton suffered a “medical emergency” over the weekend. Instead of disclosing her diagnosis, cancelling events and resting being a choice Hillary Clinton made — it was something she was forced to do when there were no other options available to her. Being open and transparent yet again appears to be the very last option Hillary Clinton is willing to consider. Regardless of whether this is a learned behavior due to decades of unfounded attacks, Clinton’s seeming lack of realization that this specific behavior is the root cause of all of her issues only further erodes the little public faith she possesses. It fuels Trump’s ability to attack her. In fact, it has enabled Trump to damage her by staying relatively silent and saying he hopes she recovers quickly. There is no need to say I told you so because it is obvious. The optics are clear.
Even as her campaign admits mistakes and promises to be more forthcoming and transparent, one has to wonder if it is a case of too little too late. Will Hillary Clinton make changes after her R&R in Chappaqua? Even if disclosures are made and the veil of secrecy is pulled open, will the average voter believe that there is true honesty being offered? Or, will they assume that whatever is shared was carefully scrutinized, crafted of half-truths and cherry picked information, and presented solely to provide the appearance of transparency? If the disclosure of pneumonia was deemed off limits to the American public and led to such a massive fall out and damaging aftermath, can the American public believe that Hillary Clinton will ever play it straight with them? Will they ever be able to shake off the belief that Clinton will always be a walking example of Murphy’s Law? Will they be able to place faith in her to be their President? Only time and polls will reveal the answers to those questions.
But beyond the questions about whether or not they can trust Hillary Clinton as a person, there is now an unforgettable image which, unfortunately, begs the question of whether Trump’s claims about her “energy and stamina” are more factual than they first appeared. It is an additional piece of baggage Clinton did not need to drag around with her heading into the debates. There is no one to blame for this but Clinton herself and her campaign. Clinton argues that she is more transparent than Trump, but she speaks about factual data and factual data matters not in political campaigns. What matters in campaigns is the perception of transparency. — the optics of the race. If optics determine the eventual winner of the race, Clinton has fallen behind, perhaps more than she will be able to recover.