It seemed pretty obvious yesterday morning that the political world was prepared to focus almost exclusively on Hillary Clinton's health -- probably for quite a while. The Democratic presidential campaign had acknowledged the candidate's bout with pneumonia; a spokesperson conceded the campaign hadn't handled the issue well; and Donald Trump had spent months raising outlandish questions about Clinton's well being.
The media's interest was intense and there was little doubt that this story was going to dominate the political conversation for a while. And that's when Team Trump decided to ... change the subject.
On Friday, Clinton delivered a speech in which she condemned the Republican candidate for having lifted up "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamaphobic" Americans. Trump and his aides were apparently so outraged, they launched a new television ad highlighting Clinton's criticisms, followed by Trump complaining bitterly yesterday about the Democrat's rhetoric and her reference to the "basket of deplorables" that makes up so much of Trump's right-wing base.
The story quickly followed the exact trajectory one might expect: coverage focused on the fact that Trump really does rely on "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamaphobic" supporters; Trump has made many comments that have been far more offensive towards the American mainstream; and his desperate desire to exploit Clinton's accurate assessment made it seem as if he were defending some of society's most indefensible voices.
Making matters worse, Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), appeared on CNN yesterday, where he was asked about former KKK leader David Duke's support for the Republican ticket. Wolf Blitzer asked if Duke would "fit into that category of deplorables." Pence said he doesn't want Duke's support, but the host pressed the specific detail:
When Blitzer pushed Pence on if he'd call Duke, who is running for the Senate in Louisiana, a "deplorable," Pence answered, "No I'm not in the name calling business..."
It was an answer that delighted David Duke and frustrated Republican officials. Pence nevertheless refused to refer to the former KKK leader as "deplorable" again this morning, which led to another round of headlines.
Remember, this is the debate Team Trump chose -- not questions about Clinton's health, but rather, Clinton's criticisms of Trump's "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamaphobic" backers.
Indeed, eager to keep this discussion going, the Clinton campaign unveiled a new television ad on this very subject this morning.
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent made the case this morning that the more the national media focuses on the racism pervading Trump's campaign, the better it is for Team Clinton. I completely agree. But let's also not lose sight of the fact that this is the fight Trump himself wants to be waging right now -- even if that means stepping on coverage of Clinton's pneumonia.
If there's tactical wisdom behind this strategy, it's hiding well.