Last week could have been a bad one for Hillary Clinton: a disappointing economic growth report, a misleading answer to a question about her emails — she claimed the FBI director called her “truthful” — and a controversy over U.S. payments to Iran.
But Donald Trump rescued her by seizing the spotlight with his own, bigger fumbles: his scraps with Gold Star parents, fire marshals and a crying baby; his feud with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
All Clinton had to do was follow one of the oldest rules of politics: If your opponent is hurting himself, get out of the way. Or, even better, draw attention to his flaws.
As she talked about her jobs program on the campaign trail — a long, wonky list, from infrastructure spending to solar energy — Clinton made sure to mention Trump’s name as often as possible.
In Denver, she visited a necktie factory and, brandishing a Trump Collection tie labeled “Made in China,” repeated a line from her convention speech: “If he wants to make America great again, he should start by making things in America.”
In Las Vegas, she talked about new job training programs for blue-collar workers, and again pivoted to a contrast: “Look at Trump University,” she said.
The underlying message wasn’t hard to find: Voters, you may not love Hillary Clinton, but she’s not Donald Trump.
Now the Clinton campaign is feeling so confident that it has stopped spending money on television advertising in Colorado and Virginia, states that initially were thought to be close.
“Not Donald Trump,” it turns out, may be enough of a platform to win.
But it comes with a potential cost. By focusing on the other guy’s flaws, Clinton may fail to build a strong mandate for her agenda, including higher taxes for upper-income earners, a $275 billion infrastructure program and comprehensive immigration reform.
Republicans in Congress (depending on how many survive) will be able to claim that Clinton won the White House only because the GOP nominated the wrong candidate, and that the American people aren’t on board with her proposals — some of which they might not even know about.
Indeed, there are parts of Clinton’s economic platform that she barely mentions.
One of her most intriguing ideas is a package of tax incentives to nudge American businesses to make decisions aimed at long-term growth instead of short-term returns, a problem she has called “quarterly capitalism.” Early in the campaign, she suggested changing capital gains tax rates to penalize investors who hold assets for less than six years and imposing a tax on high-frequency financial transactions.
If Clinton wants the next Congress to act on those ideas, she needs to be talking about them now — but she isn’t. Over time, her economic program has become less precise, not more.
That’s partly because she’s trying to build the broadest coalition she can, from Bernie Sanders supporters on the left to Republicans-for-Hillary on the right.
At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, fresh from a bruising effort to win Sanders’s endorsement, Clinton sounded like a genuine progressive. “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should,” she said, echoing one of Sanders’s themes.
But in Omaha, Nebraska, last week, with billionaire investor Warren Buffett by her side, she sounded more like, well, a Clinton. “Small businesses are the backbone of this economy, and I want to be a small-business president,” she said.
In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, she promised to “say no to unfair trade deals,” but did not repeat her commitment to block the Trans Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s proposed trade deal with Asia. (Sanders, who opposes TPP, says he’ll keep pressure on Clinton to make sure the agreement stays dead.)
Clinton is running a characteristically prudent presidential campaign. Her aides say they can’t afford to assume that Trump will continue to commit self-inflicted injuries. They say it’s still likely to be a close election; they don’t expect her wide lead in most polls to last. They think keeping voters focused on Trump’s non-presidential temperament is the best way to ensure he loses.
As a matter of short-term politics, they’re probably right. But it would be a bitter irony if Clinton, a champion of long-term thinking in business, were to wake up after Election Day and discover that, by gearing her campaign to immediate gains, she had squandered an opportunity to enact lasting change.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at [email protected]