For years I have been distressed about how our campaigns have become disconnected from the problems and circumstances that our government must address. But I have been comforted in the past by the fact that we have mostly had solid candidates who have been trapped in a system that makes it easy to run campaigns that don’t educate or honestly inform voters about our problems or options. The people were usually good, but the process was bad.
But in the 2016 presidential race, I don’t see good candidates stuck in flawed campaigns. I see flawed candidates running the worst campaigns ever, and of course, in politics, bad gets worse. Just look at today’s headlines: Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a bigot (she’s not), and Clinton is claiming a racist group, the “alt-right,” has effectively taken over the Republican Party (it hasn’t). There doesn’t appear to be anything about this campaign that is going to help the next president govern.
For example, just in the past week, much has been made of Trump’s “softening” on immigration, as he said some new disjointed things about a deportation force and the possibility of granting some leniency toward those illegal immigrants who are already living and working in our country and who have not committed any crimes. Trump is terminally short on details, so it’s hard to draw an accurate comparison between what he is saying on immigration now vs. what was in the Gang of Eight bill or what, say, Jeb Bush was advocating for, but many in the media want to suggest that Trump could be moving in a more mainstream Republican direction on the issue.
Actually, it is kind of fun watching the media try to parse Trump’s recent comments as they suggest there has been some meaningful change in his thinking. There hasn’t been any real shift because with Trump, there was never really a serious policy plan to begin with. Trump doesn’t really flip-flop; he just says what he thinks works in the moment. He doesn’t have a thoughtful point of view or set values on any particular issue, and he doesn’t know how to deploy the government to solve problems. Furthermore, does anyone think Trump could give an effective 50-minute lecture to a high school civics class? No way. And the positions he does stick with, such as building a wall that Mexico will pay for, are prima facie dishonest.
Regardless of how Trump’s disjointed approach to immigration plays out in the days ahead, it is no worse than the jaw-dropping, laughable change in position Clinton has announced on trade, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The paperback version of her latest book has been trimmed, hiding her previous support and outright cheerleading for the TPP. Plus, the back-and-forth about what donations the Clinton Foundation will or will not accept if Hillary Clinton becomes president proves that the Clintons will say anything to try to appeal to voters, even if they have absolutely no intention of following through — or are actually planning to do the exact opposite of what they say.
The handling of immigration and trade by the candidates and in the media are just two examples of where this campaign is phony, ignorant and deceitful. I can’t imagine that an enlightened and empowered president will emerge from this train wreck.
Both Trump and Clinton are guilty of being dishonest, but there is a subtle difference in how they approach voters. Specifically, Trump will rant, and Clinton will pander. Clinton will say anything, and Trump will say everything. But one doesn’t necessarily make for a better president than the other, even if pandering is more common from a politician and easier to accept as normal. No matter what, our next president will be a flawed character.
Anyway, it is still puzzling to me that it has to be this way. It’s not as if voters are clamoring for the campaigns we give them. In a Pew Research Poll this summer, 41 percent of voters said “it is difficult to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton because neither would make a good president.” Polls are also clear about what voters care about, and in that same Pew Research poll, only 27 percent said the campaigns were focused on “important policy debates.” It’s as if the candidates and the media have conspired to highlight distractions and peripheral side shows rather than stick to coverage of what voters say they care about.
Maybe we are in a downward spiral driven by the belief among the political class that negative campaigns are easier to run and are often more effective, combined with the media’s obsession with driving up ratings, resulting in a lack of incentive to “stick to the issues.” Regardless of the political climate, the fact is the issues do matter and our problems are getting worse. If our campaigns don’t illuminate our problems and the serious options we have to fix them, it is unlikely our president will have the mandate to do much once elected. As I said earlier, this problem has been getting worse — well, in 2016 it has gotten a lot worse, and we will all pay a price.