BY Nancy Gibbs
The managing editor of TIME. She is the co-author, along with TIME’s Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.
‘Watch what we do, not what we say’
Issues in a presidential-election year are often like the fat books that we’re glad to own but don’t plan to read. Voters say they crave substance, a campaign focused less on the cartoon-character smackdown and more on the small-print spreadsheets of serious policy positions. Candidates offer “platforms,” a metaphor reinforcing the myth that their proposals are the structural foundation on which their presidency will be built. And most voters say that policy matters more than personality when they cast their ballots.
But watch what we do, not what we say. The least substantive campaign in modern history has drawn the most massive audience. A Pew survey in July found that more than three-quarters of voters found the race interesting, the highest level in two decades, even as 65% said it has not focused on policy debates. It’s not that issues no longer matter, just that the drama of this campaign has been so much more memorable than the ideas.
A new TIME/SurveyMonkey poll finds that by a 2-to-1 ratio, voters think Hillary Clinton has done a better job explaining her policy positions. As she likes to say, “I have this old-fashioned idea. When you run for President, you ought to tell people what you want to do as their President.” Her website offers a policy encyclopedia that runs to 112,735 words and counting: debt-free college, tax clawbacks for companies that outsource jobs, half a billion solar panels installed in her first term, roadway sensors that warn drivers when there’s an icy patch ahead.
“She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” Donald Trump told TIME in June. “Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper.” He is arguing the much larger issue: that the system is so broken that the first priority of the next President should be to burn the whole enterprise down. And then what? Trump’s platform is an inkblot, inviting voters to see whatever they want in the smudgy contours of his fiscal plans and foreign policy. The seminal focus of the Trump campaign—his promise to build a beautiful wall, a glorious wall, on the southern border—brings roars from his crowds, even if he has failed to make clear how long it will stretch or what it will cost. The Issue isn’t the issue; the attitude is. He will stick it to Mexico. He will make America great. He sells his candidacy the way he advised his sales force for Trump University: “You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions,” the training manual read. “You sell feelings.”
Trump’s success during the primary season exposed just how profoundly Republican leaders misunderstood the mood of rank-and-file voters. A formerly pro-abortion-rights, thrice-married, Big Government, neoisolationist candidate could depart from Republican orthodoxy because base voters agreed with him that immigrants pose a threat and crime is out of control and global markets are rigged against the working man. His voters’ unwavering faith, despite each new outrage, is the very opposite of traditional small-government conservatism. He is selling a historic vision of central, singular government: “I alone can fix it.” Or as he put it during the primaries, “Folks, I’m a conservative. But at this point, who cares?”