Gold Star dad Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was one of the most powerful moments of the 2016 election so far. Now Hillary Clinton is trying to capture that in a new ad where Khan retells, simply and straightforwardly, the story of how his son, US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in action in Iraq.
Humayun Khan saved the lives of his unit by moving forward to stop a suicide bomber, and the bomb exploded.
"I want to ask, Mr. Trump," Khan says, his voice breaking, "would my son have a place in your America?"
The ad will air on TV in several key swing states: Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Like many of Clinton’s anti-Trump ads, it’s arresting and effective.
But usually, political messaging featuring Real People — framed in ways to emphasize how much they are not politicians — usually feels strained or hackneyed. While involving them is meant to put a human face on the stakes of the election, they often seem like props. It’s easy to decide that the ads are simply gimmicks.
But Trump has changed that. Clinton was able to make this ad because Trump himself has created his own worst enemies. By engaging in asymmetric warfare with Democratic symbols such as Khan or former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, he’s made them much more powerful messengers against him.
Nobody remembers John Wiseman. Khizr Khan could be a household name.
In 2012, President Obama’s reelection campaign singled out ordinary people who had lost their jobs after Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital bought their companies for a series of anti-Romney ads. But the men he featured — John Wiseman, Randy Johnson, Jerry Rayburn — didn’t become recurring figures in the campaign.
That’s because Romney and Obama both obeyed the conventional rules of politics: You can attack your opponent, but you don’t attack, under any circumstances, "normal" Americans, even when they’ve put themselves forward in a political context.
"Joe the Plumber," an Ohio plumber actually named Sam Wurzelbacher, became a symbol for the McCain campaign after Obama defended redistribution of wealth to him on a rope line. Imagine the frenzy that would have ensued if Obama had gone on television to criticize Joe the Plumber in personal terms.
That’s exactly what Trump has done. To him, Khan or Machado are political actors, just as much as Clinton herself is.
But by singling them out for criticism, he’s also elevated them. He’s shown the rest of the country that these people have a compelling reason to oppose him. They no longer seem like political props or gimmicks. Instead, Khan and Machado are what every Real Person in a campaign ad is supposed to be: Three-dimensional human beings who can deliver a much more powerful message against Trump than Clinton can herself.