In 2004, Mark Schmitt (now of Polyarchy!) wrote, "If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville's 'It's the Economy Stupid': my sign would say, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you."
Watching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaign their way to the Iowa caucuses has left me thinking a lot about that essay.
Hillary Clinton is very good at saying things about issues. Her dominance among Democratic-leaning interest groups is partly a function of her ability to figure out exactly what every group needs to hear and make sure they hear it. Her responses to substantive questions are almost always crisp and informed. Her attacks on Bernie Sanders are exceptionally, sometimes counterproductively, precise — the specific charges are almost always narrowly true even when they are broadly false.
Similarly, her policy proposals are precisely tuned to find consensus even in areas riven by conflict. Liberals were deeply skeptical of Clinton on financial reform, so she worked hard and long with financial reformers to come up with a plan that even the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party agrees goes substantially further than Obama did. Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has become something near to a litmus test with labor unions, and so Clinton, despite having lavishly praised the deal in the past, came out against it.
Clinton knows whom she needs to win over, she knows what they want to hear, and she figures out the policies they need to see.
Donald Trump is a master at figuring out what the issues he raises say about him. The words he says might be wrong, offensive, or completely incoherent — but with Trump it's the meta-message, not the message, that matters.
"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay?" Trump bragged. This is not the sort of argument that's supposed to help you win support. But the meta-message of such Trumpisms is that the Donald isn't like those other politicians — he's not poll-tested, calculated, and afraid of the media's opprobrium. Instead, he's a confident, take-no-shit kinda guy at a moment when a lot of voters think that's what Washington needs.
The same is true for Trump's policies, or what passes for policies in Trumpland.
As Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote, Washington calls Trump "an economic illiterate for threatening China with tariffs. They can't understand that this is not primarily an economic measure, but a nationalist one. It's a signal to voters that one man is here to fight for them, not to school-marmishly tell them that capitalism is helping them when in fact it manifestly helps others a lot more."
As Schmitt wrote in his 2004 essay, "As a candidate, you must choose to emphasize issues not because they poll well or are objectively our biggest problems, but because they best show the kind of person you are, and not just how you would deal with that particular issue, but others yet to rear their heads."
When Trump emphasizes a tariff on Chinese goods and shrugs off the ensuing backlash, he's signaling he's the kind of candidate unafraid to fight for American workers even if it means picking a battle royale with multinationals. The policy is a disaster to anyone who understands its consequences, but then, Trump isn't really talking about the economic effects of tariffs — he's talking about Donald Trump.
The messenger vs. the meta-messenger
Clinton and Trump expose — and could, perhaps, exploit — each other's vulnerabilities perfectly.
Clinton's caution when discussing the issues — remember the months and months when she refused to take a position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline? — can often send the meta-message that she's just another politician; that she's poll-tested, scripted, a creature of the political establishment. Watching her campaign underscores just how unscripted and unpredictable Trump is. If people hate politicians as much as they say they do, a Trump-Clinton race would be an opportunity for them to show it.
What Trump says about the issues often suggests that he's a lunatic — the actual words he says terrify anyone paying close attention, and they underscore Clinton's competence, knowledge of the issues, and attention to coalition building. So as much as people say they hate politicians, they tend to elect them to the presidency, and Trump is a reminder why. "The burdens and intricacies of leadership are special; experience in other fields is not transferable," wrote the conservative National Review in its anti-Trump editorial. "That is why all American presidents have been politicians, or generals."
But before they can campaign against each other, both Trump and Clinton will face primary challengers who are more rounded campaigners than themselves.
Sanders isn't as precise in discussing issues as Clinton is, but he's better than she is at figuring out what the issues say about him. I've been critical of his single-payer plan, and I tend to agree with the folks who argue that breaking up the big banks is not a sufficient approach to financial reform, but the message of those plans is carried more in their existence than in their specifics — both show Sanders is willing to stand up to moneyed interests and shift the Overton window in ways Clinton isn't.
Similarly, Cruz is better than Trump at marrying anti-establishment authenticity to orthodox conservative policies. What he says about the issues is precise, but so is what his issues and political tactics say about him. Cruz's ideology is more or less standard-issue conservatism — but the fights he's picked since coming to Washington have given him a reputation as an outsider unafraid of the Republican establishment. This is, to a large degree, why so many elite Republicans hate him so much — they feel he championed strategies that hurt the party in order to signal his independence from it.
Trump and Clinton are very good at the thing they're good at it. But for candidates who've been as dominant as they are, they're unusually bad at the thing they're bad at. In less than a week, we'll see how much that matters.
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