Hillary Clinton's speech Thursday attacking Donald Trump for allegedly promoting racism was significant, not because of anything she said, but because she and her campaign found it necessary for her to give the speech in the first place.
They deemed it necessary because of Trump's recent pivot to a softer and more mainstream message. Just how much does that shift frighten Team Clinton?... enough to actually make a speech reminding everyone how racist and scary Trump used to be.
Oh, of course that's not how the Clinton speech framed it. The official message was that Trump has all along been embracing what her campaign calls the "alt-right" political philosophy. That's the official new pseudonym for "racism and bigotry." Up until now, the Clinton campaign itself has been very careful to never explicitly call Trump a racist or compare him to Adolf Hitler while allowing its many non-officially connected surrogates and supporters to do so on a daily basis. Thursday, Clinton basically took the gloves off in a clear attempt to blunt and poison any of Trump's continued overtures to minority groups.
Clinton spent much of the short speech explaining what the "alt-right" movement is, including describing its ties to racism and an overall gloomy view of the country overall. The other general message wasn't that you shouldn't vote for Trump because he's promoting racism, we've gone beyond that now. No, the added message was that anyone voting for or consisting voting for Trump should be ashamed of themselves. Again that isn't a new message from Clinton's allies, but it is the harshest rebuke of Trump and his supporters that she's personally issued so far.
This might have been a great tactic for the Clinton team a few weeks ago, especially right after the Democratic convention when Trump fell into the trap of personally attacking the Muslim parents of a slain American soldier who spoke at the convention. It was then that the Clinton campaign message that Trump is a volatile racist was reaching its crescendo of effectiveness. In fact, Trump still hasn't completely recovered from it in the polls and the jury is still out on whether he ever will. But now that Trump has recently expressed regret for his past hurtful comments, and started to send direct messages and met with black and Latino voters, Clinton's handlers must think they need to give America some kind of refresher course on the "Bad Trump" before his moderating attempt gains any momentum.
All of this is more proof of the danger Clinton's campaign took on when it clearly decided to let this election become a referendum on Donald Trump. This has gone well beyond just staging a mostly negative campaign. Team Clinton has been so sure of Trump's erratic and self-destructive behavior that it ceded the electoral stage to him a long time ago. And now that Trump is starting to speak and act differently on everything from race relations to immigration enforcement, it seems to have dawned on Clinton Campaign Manager Robby Mook and the rest of the enormous Clinton staff that maybe this wasn't such a great strategy after all.
Suddenly, it's Clinton who desperately needs to change the narrative. She tried to do that this week by slamming the pharma company Mylan on her Twitter feed for jacking up the price of EpiPen. But the Clinton Foundation headlines are still dominating the news sites, and the fact that Mylan also happens to be a Clinton Foundation donor probably won't help Hillary's cause.
None of this would have been necessary if Clinton had done something other than basically duck and cover once she defeated Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Instead of showing up at Tim Cook's ritzy fundraiser and appearing on a Kimmel show with a 0.4 rating, she could have gone to flood ravaged Louisiana, fire-ravaged Southern California, or – if racism is really so important to her – maybe gone to Milwaukee to talk to the community there after the recent riots sparked by the police shooting of an African-American man. Instead, she decided to do a brilliant impression of Thomas Dewey's 1948 campaign when he basically fell out of sight for months. In case you didn't know, he lost.
So, now Team Clinton is ratcheting up the "Trump is a racist!" drum in hopes of getting the pundits and the voters to talk about something else. It could work if it were something new. But it's literally been the primary jab at Trump since he announced his candidacy.
Other than Trump's recent actual visit to Louisiana, it's amazing how little these candidates have even made token efforts to chase positive photo ops or messaging. Instead Clinton looked dead serious and foreboding Thursday, apparently to make sure everyone knows how scary Trump is. Considering that Democrats have denounced every Republican for high office as a racist for more than 30 years now, there's a "crying wolf" aspect to it all. And in the midst of the continuing email and Clinton Foundation scandals, it might have been better to try a different diversionary tactic altogether.