Can Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in part by laying out a programmatic economic agenda that is designed to make a concrete difference in Americans’ lives? Or does that risk being too conventional an approach that fails to reckon with the unpredictable nature of Trump’s appeal?
In an interview with me, Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, previewed some of the Clinton team’s lines of attack on Trump. In so doing, he brushed off much of the conventional wisdom about the race, arguing that no matter how creatively Trump has employed his celebrity and business alpha-prowess, he’d succumb to an attack revealing that he isn’t actually on the side of ordinary Americans, and that ultimately, voters would choose Clinton over him on the economy for the simple reason that her policies and priorities are better.
“His entire life, he’s been in it for himself — he’s a self promoter,” Benenson said, adding that Trump’s bankruptcies would provide fertile ground to demonstrate this vividly: “The reality is he’s left in his wake small business contractors and working people who worked on a lot of these jobs.”
Trump, of course, is not Mitt Romney. The latter was more easily painted as a heartless, plutocratic symbol of the ways in which global capitalism has destroyed countless lives in America’s industrial heartland. Trump, a celebrity billionaire, has sought to speak directly to American workers by vowing to kick the asses (this really is what he is promising, at bottom) of other countries, international elites, illegal immigrants, outsourcing CEOs, bought-and-paid-for politicians, and all others responsible for their plight. Unlike Romney, Trump cheerfully cops to having been in on the elite scam that has ripped off American workers for decades and now promises to put his inside knowledge to work on their behalf.
But when I pressed Benenson on whether that difference might make Trump a more elusive target for the argument that he isn’t really on American workers’ side, the senior strategist disagreed.
“Credibility matters,” Benenson said. “I don’t think he’s got credibility to make that argument. You have to have proof points.”
In other words, the Clinton team is betting, contra some of the pundits, that Trump’s big storyline about the economy will not end up having some kind of otherworldly persuasive power, absent an actual record of accomplishment and a credible economic policy agenda. Republicans who are now stuck with Trump as their likely nominee are trying to persuade themselves otherwise. On Face the Nation yesterday, RNC chair Reince Priebus said twice that voters would ultimately choose the candidate who promises to bring an “earthquake” to Washington — in other words, that they’ll vote for the candidate who promises the most disruption, regardless of the details.
But Benenson made a case that — relative to Priebus’s — sounds oddly conventional. He argued that the things Trump says and proposes about the economy will actually matter, and that voters will make their choice by comparing the two candidates’ actual agendas. Clinton recently rolled out a plan to improve childcare and make it more affordable. Where Trump has vowed generally to put miners back to work in coal country and to bring jobs roaring back to the U.S. from China, Clinton has offered plans to help miners transition to new lines of work and to boost U.S. manufacturing via tax credits and more government investment. Where Trump has fudged endlessly on the minimum wage — claiming he generally wants to see wages get higher while opposing the existence of any federal minimum wage — Clinton supports a minimum of at least $12 and edged towards Bernie Sanders’s $15 proposal. Clinton supports pay equity and has called for student debt relief (albeit significantly more modest than Sanders’s plan provides).
But is this enough? Does Clinton have to speak more directly to a widespread belief that our economic and political systems are fundamentally failing people? Does she have to do more to dispel the sense — which Trump will encourage — that she’s a creature of a corrupt system, by standing more forcefully on the side of fundamental reform? I asked Benenson what Clinton’s big affirmative argument would be.
“She’s the only candidate who’s talked about a real jobs plan, with manufacturing and small businesses at the center of it; a real approach to competing and winning in a global economy, where we make more goods here that we sell to 95 percent of the consumers who live outside the United States; about a plan to raise wages; and a plan for equal pay for women,” Benenson said. “This isn’t about bluster. It’s about having real plans to get stuff done. When it comes to the economy, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with plans that have been vetted and will make a difference in people’s lives.”
And of course, there are Trump’s business record and his own words. Benenson argued that Trump was already in trouble with women across the board — blue collar and college educated white women alike — and that in the end, he would actually prove less competitive with blue collar whites in a general election than commonly expected. “Trump makes more blue collar working class voters accessible to Hillary Clinton than the other way around,” Benenson said. “When he plays offense, he continues to alienate the very people he needs to persuade.”
A certain species of fatalism has taken hold among our political classes in general and among Democrats in particular. The idea is that, because Trump has successfully broken so many of our rules — he dispatched a supposedly deep bench of GOP challengers while spending virtually nothing, and while blowing past norms that used to require candidates to adhere to some nominal standard of respect for facts and consistency — it must mean he has a chance at blowing apart the old rules in the general election, too.
And so, you often hear it suggested that Trump can’t be beaten on policy, since facts and policy positions no longer matter; that he is going to attack in “unconventional” ways, so there is more to be feared; that he may be able to ride Rust Belt working class white anger into the White House in defiance of demographic realities; and that he has some kind of magical appeal that Democrats fail to reckon with at their own extreme peril. I don’t mean to suggest Trump should be taken lightly or to denigrate those worries; I have on occasion shared them, too.
But what if this is all wrong? What if it turns out that Trump can be beaten with the relatively conventional argument that Clinton’s priorities and policies are better for a majority of Americans than his are, and with a more effective series of negative attacks on him than he is able to land on her? Maybe the world hasn’t gone as crazy as the GOP primaries have made it seem.