Policy statements by Hillary Clinton will only alienate the voters she needs. As a result, she won’t talk policy, and of course, Donald Trump won’t either. Which means we’re in for five months of empty talk.
Imagine for a moment that you are strategist for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Your base is mainstream Democrats and minorities. Trump’s base is middle-aged-and-older white people who want to turn back the clock. You aren’t going to win his base, and he isn’t going to win yours.
The three groups of uncommitted voters
So who’s in play — who hasn’t committed? Three groups.
- Bernie Sanders voters. They liked Obama, they’re young and liberal, and they want government to correct the wrongs of the world. And they’re not worried about higher taxes.
- Mainstream Republicans and independents. They liked Romney, they’re pro-business, they like stability and hate regulations, and they’re not really worried religious-right issues.
- The religious right. Pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage Christians, mostly rural and in the south.
The fascinating thing this year is that the challenge is not who wins these groups. It’s whether they’re going to vote at all, because none of them really like Trump or Clinton.
The religious right is not going to vote for Clinton. The challenge for the Clinton strategist is the other two groups. Any policy statement is only going to win over one of them.
Break up the big banks, raise the minimum wage, promote social justice for blacks and minorities, protect LGBT rights? These would win over the Sanders voters but alienate the mainstream Republicans.
Cut regulations, embrace free trade agreements, lower taxes? These might persuade the mainstream but would alienate the Sanders voters.
Why this will be a policy-free election cycle
The creative thing to do would be to find policies to unite these groups, but that’s high-risk, and Clinton has no need to take that risk.
In fact, there is only one message that Clinton needs to project:
I am a rational human being with the experience to govern. My opponent is an unhinged lunatic who you cannot trust.
If she promotes this policy-free message, many Sanders backers and mainstream Republicans will hold their noses and vote for her. Some won’t vote. But they won’t vote for Trump, and she’ll win.
What does this mean for the general election?
Clinton surrogates like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren will go hip deep into Trump-bashing. Clinton will only dabble, because getting sucked into a food fight isn’t presidential.
Clinton will meet with foreign leaders, Obama administration officials, business leaders, and Republicans like Colin Powell, Paul Ryan, and Lindsey Graham. She’ll emerge and make vacuous pronouncements after “thoughtful” conversations.
Clinton will limit debates, and in them will focus mostly on Trump, not on her own policies. She will focus on quick counterpunches. She will refer to her past policy statements without elaborating on them.
Trump’s RNC advisors will beg him to counter this by looking “presidential.” He’ll fail that test repeatedly, and you’ll see him failing at every speech in every tweet, because that’s not his nature.
Sorry, America, you lose
We, the voters, are the losers here. Any substantive policy debate ended the day it became clear that Bernie Sanders would not be the nominee (and that’s part of the reason he’s not willing to admit that day has passed).
We will long wistfully for the wonkfest that Mitt Romney vs. Hillary Clinton would have been, a debate that would have illuminated the future rather than clouding it.
We’re about to live through the most vacuous general election in history. Whoever gets elected will have made few promises. No matter who wins, we really will have no idea what we’re getting. And that’s a very sad statement for democracy in America.