WASHINGTON — This is a presidential campaign about trust, temperament, honesty, judgment, character, personality and, some are convinced, a personality disorder or two.
It’s pocked with Donald Trump’s ballistic-missile tweets in the middle of the night. It’s enlivened by the spectacle of Hillary Clinton’s campaign innards spilling day after day into public view, quite a WikiMess.
Got a minute for the issues?
Beyond all of the bluster in this campaign, a clash of ideas is also at work, with consequences for nearly all Americans and plenty of people around the world.
Who’s really going to bust the budget — Trump with his big tax cuts or Clinton with her big spending?
Which is safer for Americans — Trump’s iron-border, restrictive refugee policy or Clinton’s more open stance, centered on enlisting more Muslim-Americans in the defense against extremism in their communities?
Who will spur energy independence and how — Clinton with her faith in renewable sources and measured support for fracking or Trump with his roaring conviction that coal country can rise again?
Trump’s supporters are loosely grouped into two camps. One likes him for who he is. The other is hanging with him despite who he is.
Among that latter group, one mega-issue stands out: the ideological balance of the Supreme Court.
Trump’s conservative credentials are suspect to many supporters and his behavior in the campaign troubling. But the near certainty that he would put forward more conservative nominees than Clinton is enough to keep them on board, because the high court could well have more impact on abortion rights, gun rights and immigration than any president could. Trump foresees the end of the constitutional right to abortion if he wins and gets to seat several justices; Clinton likewise makes clear she would try to shape the court to reflect her support for abortion rights and more.
If this non-traditional campaign has any resemblance to campaigns past, it is in the tendency of the candidates to promise more than they can deliver. They fling promises as if no Congress stands in their way. This is presidential politics as usual, in this most unusual campaign year.
Clinton actually proposes steps to pay for at least some of her spending, but that depends on a Congress willing to slam the rich with higher taxes, an iffy proposition. Trump talks as if the constitutional division of powers doesn’t exist, ignoring not only Congress but at times the courts — not to mention international norms — in vowing to restore the illegal interrogation practice of waterboarding, rip up trade agreements and more.
Neither candidate is easy to pigeonhole on policy, apart from the fact that Clinton is clearly more liberal.
Trump departs from Republican tenets in his vow to protect entitlement programs such as Social Security, shrink from foreign entanglements and open spending spigots in other areas, like child care and college costs, where conservatives think austerity should be exercised.
He’s not a tidy conservative by any means, nor even consistent with himself, having reshaped central planks of his platform during the campaign. The multiple variations of his proposed restrictions on Muslim entry into the U.S have left obscured what he truly intends to do.
Clinton? She’s a known quantity, with a Senate voting record and a deep stack of policy papers.
But the hacked campaign emails made public by WikiLeaks reinforce what has long been thought about her — that how she leads might be driven more by political calculation than conviction. She had a friendly message to Wall Street in handsomely paid, private speeches that she refused to release on her own, and a harsher one tailored for campaign consumption.
Few in Washington would be shocked if, as president, she found a way to support the Pacific trade agreement — or a version of it — that she denounced as a primary candidate after having praised it as secretary of state.
That’s not to say candidates’ words don’t matter and big promises are doomed.
Barack Obama told voters their health care costs would drop if they voted him into office and let him implement his health care plan. He delivered the law against a hotly divided Congress and legal fights that went to the Supreme Court — a promise kept. Costs rose, too — a promise broken.
Clinton or Trump, too, will be judged on whether they deliver on the big things they say they will do.
Trump’s supporters may agree with him that this is not the time to sweat the details, but as president he would owe the country truly secure borders. That’s the bottom line, even if the wall he promises to build at Mexico’s expense goes the way of Obama’s pledge of cheaper health insurance.
He owes the country an influx of jobs to replace those that left the country. He, like Clinton, would be judged on whether he makes good on starting up super-expensive promises to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Among Clinton’s IOUs: Government-paid in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for students from families earning less than $125,000 a year. A commitment for the U.S. to generate enough renewable energy to power every home within 10 years. A national minimum wage of $12 or more, up from $7.25. Twelve weeks of government-paid family and medical leave, guaranteeing workers two-thirds of their wages up to a certain amount.
Agendas, of course, only go so far. George W. Bush came to the presidency with lots on his plate, only to have his era suddenly defined by 9/11 terrorism, then war. Obama inherited a severe recession that put some of his pre-existing ideas on hold. The next president is certain to face unforeseen crises that are not planned for in any platform.
That’s when trust, temperament, honesty, judgment, character and personality really come in.