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What a Trump-Clinton Faceoff Could Look Like

Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who came to her rally in costume as Republican presidential candidate Trump and as Mrs. Clinton attend her Super Tuesday night party in MiamiSupporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who came to her rally in costume as Republican presidential candidate Trump and as Mrs. Clinton attend her Super Tuesday night party in Miami
Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who came to her rally in costume as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) and as Mrs. Clinton (R), clown around as they attend her Super Tuesday night party in Miami, Florida, March 1, 2016.Jonathan Ernst — Reuters

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Tuesday’s primary election in New York will satisfy the bloodhounds who need a story to fill today’s pages. The polls had Clinton leading between six points and 15 points in the days leading up to the primary, averaging out to a 12-point lead. She won big among African-Americans, Hispanics and women but lost the white male vote. That will be a story moving forward, as questions are asked about her ability to win enough white men to beat Donald Trump in the Fall. It’s generally hard to meet those numbers on election day. But they seemingly did it.

So what’s likely to happen in the months ahead?

It’s possible that Clinton will secure the democratic nomination before Trump, even assuming that Republicans reach the resignation stage of grief and succumb before the Cleveland convention later this summer. That will give Clinton a strategic advantage because she can turn her attention to the Republicans first. Her main problem will be to build bridges with Sanders, someone renowned for sticking by his principles. A Clinton-Saunders ticket would be many Democrats’ dream. But it’s unlikely given their increasingly tense relationship.

Conventional wisdom has it that, having secured their parties’ nomination, candidates row back to the center in the general election as they seek the support of independents. They proverbially “soften their tone.” Undoubtedly, both Clinton and Trump will try and do some of that if they are the eventual candidates. But it is hard to see that happening effectively in this context. Trump generally “doubles down.” So he will likely try and enamor voters by scaring the pants off them. The antagonism will increase as the months unfold whether Trump directs it toward his opponents, the Republican National Committee or Clinton herself.

I suspect that Clinton will handle Trump’s barbs better that the Republican challengers did. And she will even bait him into being rude so that she can use it as evidence of his hostility to women.

Needless to say, Clinton and Trump arrived at their New York primary election victories from very different trajectories.

Trump began as the celebratory candidate who, pundits predicted, would soon be marginalized. He would add some glitz until the career politicians took over. It didn’t happen. Incredulity and condescension was replaced by panic. Panic was replaced by dogged opposition. And akin to the five stages of grief, resignation may begin to set in at some point as Trump builds on his New York performance and amasses a series of victories.

Clinton, in contrast, began as the processional candidate on her way to be anointed. Indeed, many suggested that she would benefit from having a serious primary candidate who would toughen her up for the general election campaign. Like an athlete she needed a good work out. Bernie Saunders has done much more, and questioned her qualifications to lead – words that will likely come back to haunt Clinton in Republican ads in the fall. I wonder if proponents of the benefits of exercise still feel the same way now.

Politicians and pundits often talk about the preeminent importance of momentum. They conveniently forget that George W. H. Bush famously said after the Iowa Caucus that he had “the big mo” in the 1980 Republican nomination race, only to then resoundingly lose to Ronald Reagan. It’s clear, however, that Clinton’s and Trump’s respective victories in one of the four most significant states has put a dent in the “mo” of their opponents. And both look on course to consolidate their leads in the two biggest primaries –Maryland and Pennsylvania– that dominate the calendar in the next two weeks.

Clearly, Clinton and Trump have felt the pressure of their leading positions in recent weeks. And both have encountered significant criticism from others within their respective parties. But the way that they have reacted couldn’t have been more different. And those differences could prove to be increasingly important in the months ahead.

Clinton’s message has been one of incorporation – largely of Bernie Saunders’ agenda. So she has shifted her attention to focusing on wages, social welfare and fair trade. But in each case what she offers is ‘Bernie lite’: the more policy-oriented and less confrontational version of his policy. A minimum wage of $15 is the new $12.

And her strategy has been one of cooptation – of his admirably enthusiastic and energetic supporters. She has walked a tight line. She has contrasted and conflicted with Sanders. Yet she has occasionally pointed out, as she did in the New York primary election debate, that they vehemently agree on some important issues. And her criticism of Trump is often condemned by Saunders’ supporters as presumptuously looking past their candidate. Yet it can alternatively be portrayed as a way of avoiding engagement with her Democratic rival head-on, while emphasizing what they share.

Clinton’s remedy is one of renewal. She avoids the kitsch triumphalism and bombast of some Republicans. But her very explicit message is “America is still great,” and the implicit one is that we can painlessly and – in a modestly incremental manner — continue on the road to recovery. President Obama’s 5% unemployment rate is the basis upon which to further rebuild a slowly healing economy. Obama’s healthcare reform is the basis for more coverage. There is an unstated message: that those 50+ year-old white men who have lost their manufacturing jobs, and are voting for Trump, are the unintended victims of a structural transformation of the US economy. And those jobs are just not coming back.

So Clinton’s message moving forward is of modest confidence coupled with a policy oriented ‘can do’ vocabulary. And she is likely to exude confidence in proportion to how much she solidifies her hold on the nomination in the months ahead. She doesn’t want to appear to be discounting Saunders’ candidacy too soon, even if privately she may be doing so.

Trump’s strategy could not differ more. Instead of cooptation and optimism, he has pursued alienation as a strategy. First on the list were Mexicans, Muslims and women. Now the Republican establishment and Reince Priebus can be added to that list, the latter for no obvious reason. Unlike his comments about abortion or NATO, there is no walking back from those he has alienated.

His message also differs. It is one of fatalism; the idea that Americans have been cheated by a variety of foreigners abroad, such as the Chinese and the Europeans. And by undocumented, reputedly criminally-minded, migrants at home. Trump’s campaign slogan is making “America great again.” But this is hardly a reassuring message for those independents who will likely decide the presidential election if the way to do so is to stigmatize various minorities and women, undermining the fabric of American multiculturalism.

So, if you thought the process was embarrassing so far, and you had a hard time explaining it to your foreign friends, the likelihood is that the next six months are going to get harder.

Simon F. Reich is a professor of political science and a member of the Division of Global Affairs faculty at Rutgers University–Newark.