The Saturday before the big debate, Hillary Clinton was closeted with staff doing what she does best: prepare. Donald Trump was out doing what he does best: lie. Trump is the worst and best of liars; easy to catch, impossible to shame. Clinton’s staff, still telegraphing every punch, says she’ll try to expose and thus provoke him. It’s a high risk strategy and even if it works it won’t be enough.
Clinton can’t trade epithets with Trump. The stage is littered with corpses of candidates (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio) who played that game and lost. In her brief twitter war with Trump, Elizabeth Warren did Democrats no favors; it’s how he legitimates himself; by dragging others down to his level. If Clinton sounds like Trump she undercuts her best case, that he’s unfit to hold public office, let alone be president.
All pre-debate TV chatter is of tactics or style. Her people say she must appear less wooden and more forthright. It’s a tall order. It’s hard to relax under the bright lights, and you can’t tell people you’re honest, you have to show them.
In any case, Obama had it right. She’s likable enough. Her problem isn’t personality, it’s policy. If she loses to Trump it won’t be because she’s less respected than he—that would hardly be possible— but because she’s so closely linked to the overarching system failures of global finance capitalism and pay to play politics.
In the `90s, when she shaped White House policy more than any First Lady, vice president or chief of staff in history, she partook of a bipartisan, elite consensus. There was no partisan gridlock at the top, not on the big stuff. Bill, Hillary, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich all thought the information age would create more jobs than it would destroy, that deregulating finance and trade would usher in an era of global prosperity and that fiscal responsibility meant cuts in Social Security.
Every big bill that Bill Clinton or George W. Bush passed was a conservative idea embraced by neoliberal Democrats. For Clinton: crime, welfare, the deregulations of finance and communications, and NAFTA. For Bush: No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D and the Iraq war. All are in disrepute, but what people hate most is what the elites love most: the pay to pay politics that keeps the enterprise afloat.
Most voters see what elites still deny; that global finance capitalism runs more on corruption than innovation. It is what voters mean when they say the system is rigged, and it’s what the primaries were all about. Bernie Sanders’s whole campaign came down to three points: 1. the democracy is corrupt; 2. the middle class is dying; 3. the reason the middle class is dying is that the democracy is corrupt.
In rallies and debates Trump talked more about the rigged system than immigration or terrorism. He traffics heavily in racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories daft enough for a supermarket tabloid or even the Internet. But in the GOP primaries he was the only one to challenge both the political and economic status quo. For Tea Partiers who cry “crony capitalism” he’s a dream come true. Let’s hope his nomination marks the apex of their ascendancy.
We live in a time of global insurrection against political corruption and economic oligarchy. In the primaries the United States seemed part of the revolt. But something odd happened at the conventions. Political and economic reform were taken off the agenda. Republicans conjured up a dystopian nightmare in hopes of scaring us all into voting for Trump. Democrats countered with a sunlit dream of patriotism and national reconciliation.
After all the talk of a rigged system, the Republican platform contains not a syllable on political reform. (The only reform Trump has ever proposed is electing him.) Democrats dropped vows to close revolving doors, defend whistleblowers and end no bid contracts from their platform, retaining only the obligatory call to overturn Citizens United.
The same goes for economic populism. Trump’s consists solely of feigned hostility to free trade. He’s not really against it, he just brags that when he’s president he’ll cut better deals on account of his having such a big brain. (Contrary to what you hear on TV, neither nominee opposes the TPP, only some unspecified portions of it as currently construed.)
Clinton’s for a minimum wage hike, a public option and most of Bernie’s plan for tuition free public colleges and universities. She has proclaimed the 2016 platform “the most progressive platform in history.” If you’ve read many you know it isn’t true. The one from 2008 was better on foreign policy and curbing the power of big money. In any case, voters know that what a platform says matters far less than whether those running on it mean what they say.
This is a huge problem for Clinton, not just because voters doubt her sincerity, but because she often takes positions as one “takes” an opponent’s chess piece; to get it off the table. You see it happen when, after adopting a policy, she never mentions it again without prompting. (See TPP, Keystone pipeline, public option, etc.)
When the conventions broke camp, Clinton disappeared into donor land and Trump went back to running his mouth. Both parties reverted to form, focusing on cultural divisions rather than political or economic reform, when they weren’t busy tearing each other down. Events put racial tension and fear of terrorism front and center, thus reinforcing each party’s proclivities. In the resultant policy vacuum Clinton was put on the defensive.
The first candidate to return to the themes of the primaries can win the general election. That politicians no longer talk about reform doesn’t mean voters no longer hunger for it. As things stand, Hillary Clinton is the European Union and Trump is Brexit. Her one sure path to victory is to embrace political and economic reform and hold on to it so tight voters believe she’ll fight to make it happen.
This too is a tall order for her, but while she has her obvious weaknesses, she also has many strengths. Unlike Trump, she has a platform she can run on. In the battle over the platform her staff didn’t give on the public option till the last night. The public option isn’t a liberal fetish, it’s the only way other than single payer to make health care affordable for millions of middle-aged, middle-class small business owners. She can explain it in two sentences. All she has to do then is run on it.
The same goes for political reform. She is far from the best messenger. But there are ways she can address it. In the last CNN debate, when Dana Bash asked Sanders to name one vote Clinton sold for money, he flubbed the answer, citing her Wall Street ties but no vote. He should have said the problem wasn’t that she was corrupt but that the whole system was corrupt and she didn’t seem to know it.
Clinton could defuse the email scandal just by admitting what it’s really about. Republicans talk as if it were about espionage and corruption, but a yearlong FBI probe found no proof of either. The real issue is secrecy. Clinton should admit her penchant for it. More important, she should tell us she that has learned from her ordeal how much we want the business of government, especially its foreign policy, transacted in broad daylight, and then make a solemn pledge to do just that.
The temptation to expose Trump— his fraudulent life story, proto-fascist politics and sheer craziness—is hard to resist. The media didn’t begin seriously vetting him till after he’d consolidated the nomination. Pundits still muse about whether he can be ‘presidential’ as if they don’t already know who and what he is. Treating Trump as a serious candidate because he can hold it together for a 90-minute debate is like paroling Jeffrey Dahmer because he went a week without eating anyone. In truth, if the media can’t expose him Clinton must try, but she should do it quickly and stick strictly to the facts, trusting the audience to draw the right conclusions.
It’s the corruption, stupid. It’s causing the slow death of the American middle class. Voters want to see a blueprint for fixing it. If none is on offer, they’ll settle for whoever sounds as angry as they feel.