If I had to bet on this election, I’d still put my money on Hillary Clinton. But there is a big question about why she is not doing better. When presidential candidates face opponents who can’t even command the support of their party’s leadership and leading interest groups, it’s usually landslide time. Think of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Richard Nixon against George McGovern in 1972. And Trump has less support in his party’s leadership than either Goldwater or McGovern had. Yet if the polls are to be believed, the race between Clinton and Trump is close.
I don’t accept some of the explanations proffered by her supporters: that the media tilts toward Trump or that there is a silent majority of racists and sexists in America. I think she does suffer from representing the party that has controlled the White House for the last eight years and for 16 of the last 24. In these cases, voters accumulate grievances with a long half-life that affect their view of the current candidate. And the candidate finds it difficult to advocate dramatic change without appearing to repudiate her predecessors. But I think that in addition to this handicap, Clinton suffers from having run a less than stellar campaign – one sadly reminiscent of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Beyond not wanting her opponent to be president, I have my reasons for supporting Clinton – and they begin with Supreme Court nominations – but I can’t think of three positive reasons why the average voter would support Clinton. Her own ads have been almost entirely devoted to warning about a Trump presidency, which is why complaints from her camp that the media devotes too much attention to Trump run hollow. Voters want to know what she really wants to do as president. When I presented this conundrum to a friend, he pointed me to Clinton’s website, where there are detailed proposals on 38 issues – from climate change and campus sexual assault to HIV and AIDS and protecting animals and wildlife. But that’s not really what I mean by standing for something.
Political campaigns are thematic. They are not about detailed proposals. That’s what governing is partly about, although politics is crucial to governing, too. The most successful campaigns can be summed up in slogans and simple demands. I think of Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 (who had to face the third term problem), Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008. These campaigns had easily remembered slogans — yes we can, compassionate conservatism, putting people first, kinder, gentler nation, making America great again (Reagan and Trump) and they had simple programmatic proposals – end welfare as we know it, an across the board 33 percent tax cut, read my lips; no new taxes, withdraw from Iraq, and not a dime from special interests. Trump’s campaign is very much along these lines, which is one reason he has gotten this far. Clinton’s is not. Nor was that of Dukakis (competence, not ideology) who at one point in the summer of 1988 was 17 percentage points up on Bush.
There is one important aspect to many of these thematic campaigns. What a candidate is against is as important as what a candidate is for. And I am not referring to being against your opponent. It’s a simple principle of linguistics. Positives are defined by negatives, and vice versa. As the philosopher John Austin once remarked, what “real” means depends on whether it is being used in opposition to being toy, artificial, virtual, insincere, or apparent. Franklin Roosevelt was famously against “economic royalists,” Reagan was against “welfare queens” and the “evil empire.” Presidential candidates can’t declare too many enemies for fear of losing votes. Clinton dumping Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables” certainly wasn’t good politics. But if candidates have no enemies, their message becomes fuzzy.
Compare for a moment Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s response to the consumer fraud perpetrated by Wells Fargo. During Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, Warren told Stumpf, “You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
By contrast, Clinton’s response was an open letter to Wells Fargo customers. “I was deeply disturbed when, last week, we found out that Wells Fargo had engaged in widespread illegal practices over many years… Today, Wells Fargo’s CEO will appear before Congress. He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch. There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.” Clinton then went on to present a raft a proposals for reforming the banking system:
First, we need to defend the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau… Second, we need real consequences when firms on Wall Street break the law…it’s frustrating that a bank can simply pay a fine and keep doing business as usual – with massive compensation for the executives responsible. That compensation should be clawed back. I’ve put forward an agenda to enhance accountability on Wall Street. Executives should be held individually accountable when rampant illegal activity happens on their watch. .. Third, we need to make sure that no financial institution is too big to manage. I’ll put additional safeguards in place to address the risks that the big banks continue to pose to our system. .. I’ll appoint regulators who will stand with taxpayers and consumers, not with big banks and their friends in Congress.
These are reasonable proposals, but they belong in a transition committee’s report on financial reform. Did Clinton expect that many of Wells Fargo’s customers would actually read this letter (I significantly condensed the proposal section)? By not singling out Stumpf and not taking the kind of tough stance that Warren did, Clinton missed a golden opportunity to tell voters what she really cared about – and do so without alienating a significant bloc of voters. And it certainly wouldn’t have put her at odds with Obama. I simply don’t understand why Clinton and her campaign took a pass, but it’s more or less characteristic of her campaign, and it is one important reason Trump has pulled close to her in the polls.
Clinton and her campaign do see a problem. They recently put out a positive (non-Trump) ad showing, in the campaign’s words, “Hillary Clinton’s lifelong record fighting for children and families.” But I’m not sure that kind of ad does the trick. Sure, she’s for families and children, but the ad lacks any edge and dramatic demand and there isn’t an enemy lurking in the back yard that needs to be slain. Will average voters, after seeing this ad, feel Clinton cares about their own family and children? I doubt it. Clinton’s got demographics on her side in this election, and she’s facing a damaged opponent. She should win. But by this time, she should be well ahead, as Johnson was in 1964 and Nixon in 1972, but she’s not, and I think some of the fault lies in the kind of campaign she and her advisors are running.