She’s untrustworthy. He’s unfit. She isn’t healthy. He’s misinformed.
At times, the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump can seem more like a comedy roast than a debate over issues.
Tax policy? Reforming Social Security? The environment? They’re mostly talking points for the candidates, largely found at the bottom of the page, in tiny print, too obscure for most voters to see.
Presidential campaigns have long been personality contests, of course. But to an unprecedented degree, experts and analysts say, the 2016 general election has now largely become a referendum on the candidates’ temperament and judgment instead of their policies and positions.
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“It’s almost as if it’s a perfect storm,” said Matt Dallek, a political science professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “You have two candidates who are each trying to make the other so awful. And so unelectable.”
Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas and a presidential campaign veteran, called this year’s race “a pretty sad state of affairs. … Both major campaigns seem to be focused on making the election a referendum on the opponent.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“I think there has been a ton of policy,” said Jeff Roe, a Republican political consultant who ran Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. “There’s only so much room for policy in a presidential (race).”
But other analysts agreed with Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka.
“In this election, personality and controversy have overshadowed policy discussion,” he said.
As you might expect, advocates for both candidates and their parties insist issues are getting a full airing this year.
“When Hillary’s speaking, what I’m hearing is discussion of substantive political issues and her positions,” said Lee Kinch, chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party.
In a statement, Trump Missouri campaign spokesman Todd Abrajano said the GOP nominee “is the only candidate in the race who is actually laying out detailed policy positions on the issues that matter to American voters.”
Indeed, Trump recently delivered two speeches on issues designed to address concerns of undecided, moderate voters. He provided additional details about his plan to cut federal taxes and proposed a new entitlement program that would guarantee taxpayer-supported maternity leave for pregnant women.
Clinton has already proposed a more generous paid leave program for mothers and fathers, paid for by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.
Yet the disagreement over pregnancy benefits quickly took a backseat to more personal arguments from the candidates.
Trump went on syndicated television to talk about his health, and became embroiled yet again in an argument over President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Clinton attempted to rebound from illness.
Dallek, the professor at The George Washington University, said Trump’s unique approach to politics may have made a personality debate inevitable. The Republican usually paints in broad strokes, he said, leaving details to be sorted out later.
“As soon as Trump won the nomination, it was almost destined that it would be in part a reality-TV election,” he said.
At the same time, Dallek and others said, this year’s focus on the candidates’ personalities isn’t entirely new. Modern presidential campaigns almost always include a large dose of such rhetoric.
Yet some presidential elections have also had what Lacy called a “clash of ideas” — think Reagan vs. Carter in 1980, when tax cuts and the Iran hostages were major issues, or Obama vs. McCain in 2008, when health care reform and the economic collapse dominated the discussion.
Further back, the Vietnam War, civil rights, even law and order, were considered major concerns for candidates.
By contrast, no such over-arching policy themes appear to have arisen following the two parties’ conventions in July.
Interestingly, there were serious policy debates in the primaries. Trump’s candidacy strengthened after he proposed a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, paid for by the Mexican government. Additionally, the GOP candidate has drawn support for his protectionist argument against foreign trade agreements.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed Clinton to the left in the spring, analysts said, on trade — and on health care, wages and other issues.
As a result, there are major and important policy differences between the candidates:
▪ Clinton has proposed background checks for purchases at gun shows, and prohibiting persons on the no-fly terror watch list from buying weapons. In a campaign video, Trump says politicians are “chipping away” at the Second Amendment, “day by day, night by night.”
▪ Trump promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Clinton wants to make changes to the program but would not abandon it.
▪ Clinton supports a national achievement standard for students; Trump wants to repeal the co-called “Common Core” program.
There are other differences. Trump and Clinton would almost certainly nominate different Supreme Court judges, for example. Clinton has criticized Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border.
Yet a public discussion of those differences and others has largely taken a backseat to other concerns, with less than eight weeks to go until Election Day.
Clinton’s campaign recently upped its criticism of Trump University, claiming students were defrauded by the school. Trump attacked Clinton for her reference to a “basket of deplorables” allegedly supporting Trump.
Several analysts blamed news reporters for focusing on these and similar exchanges, to the exclusion of policy debates.
“We’re being fed this (news) diet of here’s all the problems, the disqualifications about these people,” said one campaign consultant. “And oh, by the way, if you care about their policies, go visit their policies page.”
Both candidates have issues webpages, but they are very different. Clinton’s includes lengthy policy discussions, while Trump’s consists of short videos featuring the candidate making general statements about policies and programs.
Norm Ornstein, a well-known political analyst, criticized journalists for not aggressively following up on a story about Trump’s overseas investments.
“Reporters, editors, producers should be all over this,” he tweeted. “They are not. But they are all over Dr Oz! Major failure of press.”
Thursday, Trump said “the media has openly been dishonest.”
Beatty said the problem isn’t what the media cover, but how.
“I’m not so sure it’s issue-less,” he said. “It’s depth-less. Where’s the deep discussion? That’s the odd thing about this election. There seems to be so many issues, but so little depth.”
But others said voters may be less interested in policies and issues than in temperament and judgment. That may be particularly true among undecided voters, who may be paying less attention to the specifics of the race.
In a presidential campaign, persuasion messages “are really geared to maybe five or six percent of the population” in a handful of swing states, said John Hancock, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. Negative campaigns can be targeted at those undecideds, he said.
While non-issue campaigns may frustrate some voters, they may also make it more difficult for the eventual winner to govern, some analysts believe. Without a firm policy basis during the election, they said, convincing Congress to pursue any policy agenda in 2017 will be difficult.
Yet the presidential choice still matters.
“I don’t think people’s votes are going to be driven first and foremost by particular issues,” Dallek said. “At the same time … there’s great power in the Oval Office. Just because it is issue-free doesn’t mean there won’t be issues that the next president is going to have to deal with.”