Here is a small prediction for tonight’s debate: the word “Republican” will not cross Hillary Clinton’s lips. (Exception: she might choose to avoid saying Trump’s name by referring to “the Republican presidential nominee.”) Why not? Because Clinton’s main strategy for this campaign has been to hammer home the correct idea that Trump is a unique presidential candidate, one who is totally unfit for the presidency. In so doing, she hopes to win to her side a significant slice of relatively moderate Republican voters (yes, such people still do exist) who have trouble with the idea of Trump as President of the United States.
As I noted earlier, this strategy was already evident at the Democrats’ national convention, but it does suggest a dilemma for Clinton and her party. It means that they can’t bluntly fix the blame for our political and policy problems where it belongs. A big part of Trump’s appeal is that he is some kind anti-politician, a swashbuckling change-maker, who will somehow bust up the dysfunctional gridlock in Washington that has generated so much cynicism about our politics. Another part of his appeal lies in the weakness of the economy, which, despite recent gains has left millions of people still worse off than they were before the financial crisis hit in 2008. Clinton could make a strong argument that the gridlock and economic weakness aren’t a generalized product of “the politicians’” incompetence or venality. They can be laid mostly at the door of the party whose reckless ideological radicalism has repeatedly threatened chaos in Washington and prevented any serious effort to give the economy a needed boost. The party that has made Trump its presidential nominee. But Clinton’s strategy is to target the man, not the party.
Trump is a logical though not inevitable culmination of the craziness that drives the contemporary GOP. Clinton won’t say that; it would offend the many sane Republicans who have resisted confronting the unpleasant reality of what their party has become. I don’t know—maybe that is the best strategy. Maybe it’s the way it has to be, in the interest of preventing the unthinkable in November. But it means that one of the major causes of our political dysfunction–the radicalization of one of our two major political parties–will not be debated tonight.