GOP and Media Test New Anti-Hillary Themes After Failing to Derail Her

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

On July 14, we published The Great American Brainwash: Half a Billion Dollars to Turn the Public against Hillary. Our objective was to expose the conservative attack machinery behind anti-Hillary talking points and narratives:

The New York Times looks behind the curtain of the shadowy conservative effort to demolish Hillary Clinton’s favorable public image: 

"An expensive and sophisticated effort is underway to test and refine the most potent lines of attack against Mrs. Clinton, and, ultimately, to persuade Americans that she does not deserve their votes. While the general election is 16 months away, Republican groups are eager to begin building a powerful case against the woman they believe will be the Democratic nominee, and to infuse the public consciousness with those messages.  The effort to vilify Mrs. Clinton could ultimately cost several hundred million dollars, given the variety and volume of political organizations involved." 

Crossroads, the group behind this effort, is led by none other than Karl Rove, the strategist who brought us George W Bush.   

"Crossroads plans to use a kaleidoscopic approach for its anti-Clinton campaign. In order to target particular voters with tailored messages, the campaign will feature tools including television and radio spots, digital ads on mobile devices, and pre-roll, the commercials that play before videos online."

The goal is to indoctrinate the public with anti-Hillary narratives, to insert carefully tested negative memes into the public debate. It is a form of mental manipulation, intended to discourage critical thinking and create predetermined biases in the minds of voters. 

So far, Hillary has withstood decades of such coordinated attacks, emerging stronger than ever for this presidential run. That doesn’t mean these GOP brainwashing tactics aren’t a serious threat.

Fast forward three months, and indeed the tactics have been harmful to Hillary, putting a dent in her public image. The problem for Hillary’s detractors is that the dent hasn’t been nearly significant enough to derail her campaign. Another problem for Hillary’s detractors is that the debate underscored the danger of using artificially created attack lines: when the unfiltered Hillary shows up, the dichotomy between the fake image and the real person can be dramatic. As it was on debate night.

Realizing that Hillary is still on track to win the Democratic nomination, the GOP and their allies in the media and commentariat are test-driving new attack lines. Their top choice is a favorite from 2004: "flip-flopper."

Daily Mail:

The Republican Party is going after Hillary Clinton with a unique strategy - tying her to the party's unsuccessful presidential nominee John Kerry as a notorious flip-flopper. 

A new ad by the Republican National Committee compares the former secretary of state's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to Kerry's ill-advised remark in 2004 that he initially voted for the Iraq War before later voting against it.

The ad also uses a pointed question CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked Clinton during Tuesday's inaugural Democratic presidential debate: 'Will you say anything to get elected?'

Anderson Cooper’s use of the tired “will say anything to win” recalls our list of anti-Hillary memes developed and tested in conservative oppo shops:

• CALCULATING (Scheming, crafty, manipulative)

• SECRETIVE (Suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative)

• POLARIZING (Divisive, alienating)

• UNTRUSTWORTHY (Corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical)

• OVER-AMBITIOUS (Will do or say anything to win)

• INAUTHENTIC (Disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere)

• INHUMAN (Machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold)

• OVER-CONFIDENT (Inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal)

• OLD (Out of touch, represents the past)

Some of these lines have been in use for decades. Many of them are infused with implicit or explicit gender bias. Flip-flopper, when tied to the “over-ambition” frame, is meant to convince voters that Hillary is unprincipled.

CNN’s Jake Tapper pushed the point in an interview with Hillary on October 16th. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who has become a reliable Hillary-basher, writes: Why it's tough for Hillary Clinton to explain away her flip-flops. Politico’s Jack Shafer, another virulent Hillary detractor, refers to The Hole in Hillary’s Flip-Flop Excuse.

Peter worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign and remembers the pervasiveness (and deceptiveness) of that line, replete with rightwingers holding actual flip-flops to illustrate their point. He also recalls who was behind it: the same Karl Rove who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to destroy Hillary’s image in 2016.

As far back as May, Peter argued that 2016 would be a replay of 2004:

The 2016 election is not a replay of 2012 (the data election); it is not a replay of 2008 (the dueling histories election); it is a replay of 2004 (the swift boat election). The well-coordinated assault on the Clinton Foundation, the pillar of the Clintons’ many achievements, is analogous to the brazen assault on the pillar of John Kerry’s career, his decorated military service.

Will “flip-flopper” work against Hillary 12 years later? We doubt it. There isn’t a single candidate in the race who hasn’t changed positions over the years. For that matter, there are very few individuals in any field who haven’t changed their views with the passage of time. It’s part of being human.

Any attack line repeated enough can do damage, and there’s no doubt Hillary’s opponents will settle on one and hammer away. But it will take a lot more than trotting out “flip-flopper” to change the trajectory of the Democratic primary. Especially when the so-called "flip-flops" involve Hillary adopting strong progressive positions on key issues.


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.