The current presidential campaign is so strange because it features two so disparate candidates appealing to the public in such different ways. Against a backdrop of rapid social and economic change, the candidates represent very different approaches.
On the social side, the speed with which gay marriage became legal and acceptable stunned everyone: its supporters, those “evolving,” and its detractors. Now we’re arguing about bathrooms (really?!) and, of course, abortion. On the economic side, think of the implications of the Uber experiment with driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Of course, it will take some time to perfect the technology. But its implications threaten the jobs of many taxicab drivers, truck drivers, etc. The pace of change has quickened.
The appeal of the two candidates is quite different. Donald Trump’s appeal is emotional. It’s all the fault of Mexicans, and/or Muslims, and/or women. His policy pronouncements make no rational sense. He wants a wall across our southern border, which the Mexicans will pay for. The Mexicans have shown no interest in this proposition. He proposes to deport 11 million undocumented residents, a truly breathtaking idea that would cripple American agriculture and hotels (to begin with). He proposes to ban all Muslims from entering the country (clearly unconstitutional) and to impose ideological requirements on immigrants (so the terrorists are going to tell you what they plan to do?). These ideas make no rational sense, but they do have emotional appeal to Americans who want to slow the pace of change. Trump’s supporters are fervent, and are not bothered by the gap between what he says and any grounding in truth, law or feasibility.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, represents an incremental, rational, problem-solving approach to government. She would negotiate and look for partners to compromise with. Compromises usually are not emotionally satisfying because you don’t get everything you want. But they do represent a policy-focused style of government. In this sense, she does offer a continuation of President Obama’s style, who is very much into policy, but sometimes neglects the emotional side of his constituents. A number of Clinton’s supporters are not inspired by her, but they think she’d be the better president.
Viewed in this light, the last 60 days of the campaign should be fascinating. Can Trump start to propose policies that have some grounding? A few weeks ago he flirted with walking back the more extreme versions of his immigration ideas, and then abandoned the attempt. He has yet to show what a Trump budget would look like, but so far there’s been proposals for tax reductions and spending increases, leading to further budget deficits.
Can Clinton find an emotional voice that speaks to the American people? Is she capable of the connection President Obama showed in his Charlestown eulogy, even if he missed the Charlie Hebdo memorial in Paris?
The American public has both a head and a heart. We’ll see which candidate can appeal to both.