Suddenly, after months of schoolyard taunts and sloganeering, everyone wants to wear the mantle of substance.
Donald Trump would much rather run an election “based on issues and policy” rather than personal attacks, he told ABC News on the very day his campaign launched lyingcrookedhillary.com. “I think we win on issues and policy,” he said.
The next day, here in Raleigh, Hillary Clinton tried to exhibit her own commitment to issues and policy. In delivering Part II of her dual wonk-a-thon speeches on economic policy, she rehashed all the homework she’s done on taxes, Wall Street reform, college debt and other serious-minded concerns.
It was all part of a plan to illustrate that she, in her words, “sweat[s] the specifics because they matter.”
It’s not clear voters feel the same way, though.
About specifics, I mean.
When I asked Clinton rally attendees what they liked most about her policy platform, the most common response I got was some version of: She’s not Trump.
When I pressed further about particular ideas of Clinton’s that stood out, the answer was again some version of: She’s not Trump, who has all the bad ideas.
Finally, when I requested examples of her most compelling economic policies — noting that the day’s event was billed as an economic policy speech, after all — I sometimes got something more specific.
“Well, she isn’t going to be proposing Reaganomics supply-side ideas,” one attendee, Wade Horne, 34, told me.
To which he added: “Unlike Trump.”
In other cases, when I prompted attendees on which of Clinton’s detailed policy proposals they found most appealing, responses fit into some version of: I just find her so inspiring!
Of course, the small sample of rally-goers I accosted is not necessarily representative of Clinton’s overall fan base. But their words jibe with two common narratives about this election: First, that Clinton backers are as likely to say that they’re voting Clinton because they support Clinton as they are to say they’re voting Clinton because they oppose Trump, according to a recent Post-ABC News poll. (Trump voters were actually more likely to say their vote would be driven by revulsion for his opponent.)
And second, that despite what the candidates lately might insist, this election is not about substance or ideas or policies or sweaty specifics but still — ever and always — about personality.
Which is a shame.
I say this partly out of self-interest. (My own place in the punditsphere is probably more dependent on public appetite for wonkery than interest in candidate psychoanalysis.) But I say this also because Clinton has abundantly more thoughtful and informed ideas than her opponent — and voters should give her credit for doing so much homework on their behalf.
When Trump pitches a policy idea — whether on taxes, immigration, national security or really anything else — you get the sense he starts with a catchphrase and then works backward to what the mechanics of the policy could possibly be. And half the time he doesn’t even bother to do that; he just repeats the catchphrase and bats away any questions about how the underlying proposal might work.
I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s policies, which on occasion can also seem like craven attempts to pander to important voter demographics. (Her stances on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the “Cadillac tax” on higher-cost employer health plans come to mind.)
But most of the time there’s evidence that she’s actually consulted with people who know something about the thing she’s talking about. Her ambitious and somewhat technical Wall Street reform proposal, for example, is clearly the handiwork of a team of lawyers and economists who understand the arcana of financial markets.
She’s outsourced much of her policy research to real experts, and for that she deserves props. In fact, I’ve been disappointed that she’s offered so little expert-informed detail on more recently released proposals, such as capping child-care costs at 10 percent of family income (an idea that gets applause at rallies but whose mechanics have never been explained). Presumably she’s gotten less specific over time because her campaign has realized voters don’t actually “sweat the specifics” all that much.
Perhaps the optimistic way to interpret the comments I heard from Raleigh rallygoers is that they’re engaging in the same exercise I’ve admired Clinton for: outsourcing. They don’t sweat the specifics because they trust their candidate to. Hopefully she’ll continue doing so, even when the perspiration goes unheralded.
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