Good politicians are like mirrors. When voters look at them, they see their values or hopes or fears reflected back at them.
When I wrote Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics, this year’s presidential contest was not yet starting to take shape. A central theme in the book is that one party in the U.S. is scary and the other is scared, and that both are failing us at the moment. While I was writing I had no way of foreseeing that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would emerge as the most likely nominees of their respective parties. Even today, I have no crystal ball enabling me to make any firm predictions about how the rest of the presidential campaign will play out.
But if you accept my premise that one party’s grown frightening and the other frightened, you have to admit that it would be hard to find two better mirrors of today’s Democratic and Republican voters than Hillary and Trump.
It’s said that good politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Hillary campaigns in uninspiring prose and would most likely paint by numbers when it comes to governing. Trump campaigns in vulgarity and would govern who-knows-how.
The strongest impulse of the largest bloc of Democratic voters is to play it safe. They see Hillary as easily the least risky choice. Her resumé is impeccable. Former First Lady. One-time U.S. Senator. Cabinet secretary. Her name recognition is second to none. She has the money, she has the endorsements. She is incredibly disciplined politically, scripted to a fault. She epitomizes the political establishment. No surprise then that she has the establishment’s wholehearted backing. Because of those strengths, her supporters appear more than willing to overlook all the baggage she carries. On the issues, Hillary is socially progressive and status quo economically, which makes her an accurate reflection of today’s Democratic Party.
Republican voters, on the other hand, are angry and frustrated and that has them feeling downright reckless. Trump is a reckless candidate, the ultimate throw-caution-to-the-wind choice. He is the consummate anti-politician, cocksure of himself, full of bluster and boastful promises, an easy answer for every vexing question. Concerned about immigration? I’ll build a wall spanning our entire southern border and make the Mexicans pay for it. Worried about your job? Don’t fret, I wrote The Art of the Deal, I’ll make the economy hum. How? Hey, I’m Donald Trump.
Establishment Republicans are having night sweats over what Trump is doing to their party, with his unsubtle appeals to racism and xenophobia. Sorry RNC, Trump isn’t doing anything to your party. The strength of his candidacy is the natural byproduct of what you have made your party into. Trump is the reflection of the anti-establishment mood of voters you courted and invited into your party.
If elected, Hillary will make history as the first woman president. Her presidency will be historic in the same way Obama’s was as the nation’s first black president. But like Obama’s and her husband’s, a second Clinton presidency will almost certainly be disappointing to many if not most of those who vote for her. She’ll be cozy with Wall Street, there will be no significant rearrangement of the economy, she’ll be a hawk on foreign affairs. She’ll play it safe, just like the voters did in choosing her.
If elected, Trump will make history, but in ways impossible to predict. He’ll undoubtedly be just as unpredictable and unscripted and reckless as president as he has been as a candidate. Just what his voters seem to want.