June 22, 2016
Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a speech devoted to slamming her opponent on the economy. Today Donald Trump responded. Each address was a recitation of the flaws of the other candidate. We heard about all the countries Trump-branded products are made in. Hint: the United States wasn’t one of them. Hillary uncorked a line about Trump books ending in Chapter 11. The speechwriter was proud of himself for that one.
Trump reminded us of the millions of dollars the Clinton Foundation collected from Saudi Arabia. We heard about foreign governments hacking Hillary’s home server, how the FBI is missing 33,000 deleted emails, but the Russians and/or Chinese likely have them and are prepared to blackmail her while in office. The combined charges are too numerous to list.
While fact-checkers can list an exaggeration/technical inaccuracy or seven, most of what each said was somewhat to completely true. Opposing campaigns have accused candidates of all sorts of malfeasance since the republic was new, but the quantity and accuracy of the charges is likely unprecedented. It’s the very definition of a target-rich environment.
Both are clearly encouraging voters to vote against their opponent more than for them. This is not customary. There’s always “contrast” as strategists euphemistically refer to attack ads. But normally, presidential candidates build themselves up while tearing down their opponent. Clinton does run some positive branding advertising, but nobody replays clips of those. They aren’t compelling.
By now, Trump and Clinton are so ingrained in the national consciousness that President Obama seems new and fresh by comparison. When a candidate is running against an unpopular incumbent, they normally attempt to make them the issue. Running against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously said “a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
In this case, we effectively have two very unpopular incumbents running against each other. If 1980 Carter was running against post-Katrina George W. Bush, you’d have a very negative campaign. This is a notch up from that. Many Americans thought Bush 43 was a decent guy who’d made some bad decisions. His current favorability ratings are decent, strong among Republicans.
Carter had a successful post-presidential career monitoring foreign elections, working with Habitat for Humanity, and doing all sorts of charitable/public service things. For years, people said good man, bad president. Only their most loyal supporters think Clinton or Trump are notably good people. Polling indicates Hillary is about as trusted as Richard Nixon at the depths of Watergate. She’s ahead in the race.
Logic is pointing in neon to all negative, all the time. But wait, there’s more. Usually, there’s at least some form of ideological/policy argument. Reagan ran hard against Carter’s record, while the incumbent tried to turn him into Barry Goldwater’s more dangerous brother (Hillary’s technique with Trump this year isn’t new.)
There was still plenty of policy discussion. Reagan had a very different policy list from both Carter and recent GOP nominees. After he implemented much of it during his tenure, it became Republican orthodoxy. You could try to argue Trump is doing the same. He most certainly isn’t a carbon copy of Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or anyone’s idea of what a Republican of the 2010s sounds like.
However, he’s all over the place compared to Hillary. Sometimes he’s to her left, sometimes her right. He appropriates any issue at any time and is liable to move in almost any direction depending on his immediate need to make news or create conflict. Trump argued with himself on abortion in the same town hall event a couple months back. Beyond building a wall, most of his agenda revolves around Americans trusting him to make great deals.
If you have a good idea of what his tax policy would actually look like (he’s already repudiated much of what his campaign released last fall), how TrumpCare would work, or how he would actually force companies like Ford to stop building factories in Mexico, please let me know. Either believe Trump can Make America Great Again or don’t, but you aren’t getting to see the blueprint.
His opponent is well known for uh repositioning herself. Clinton will simultaneously try to win over suburban moderates who have benefitted from NAFTA and other Bill Clinton era economic policies, while attempting to corral Berners who are anti-trade and have spent the past several months hearing how bad the policies of the 1990s were.
Going in both directions would be plenty hard even if she didn’t have the reputation for saying whatever her audience wants to hear and had even the most remote ability to give an inspiring speech. Hillary usually sounds like she’s doing the speech version of paint-by-numbers, while Trump mixes some strong sound bites into a stew of general incoherence. Neither is going to persuade an undecided voter their worldview is the way forward.
We’ve only just begun. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are taking polling support from Clinton and Trump, but it appears almost exactly evenly distributed. Winning 40/38 gets you just as inaugurated as 51/49. The two alternatives are also splitting #NeverTrumpNorHillary support between themselves, so there’s no concern either will start stealing electoral votes. They have some work to do before they can even qualify for the presidential debates and crash the pending battle royale.
There’s simply no good reason for Clinton or Trump to do anything other than get in the gutter with each other and continue the brawl down into the sewage system and out to sea until one finally drowns completely.