David Plouffe, the political wizard who helped President Barack Obama win two elections, summed up this year’s presidential contest concisely last week.
“Each day of this campaign seems big and interesting and crazy,” he wrote on Twitter. “But ultimately (it’s the) least suspenseful race since 1984,” when Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide — a “forest and trees situation.”
Plouffe may or may not be right about the outcome — he thinks Hillary Clinton will win easily — but he’s definitely right about the forest and the trees.
The past month of the campaign has been noisy, relentless and bizarre. It has swirled with charges and counter-charges, high-decibel arguments about racism and bigotry, wild-eyed tweets from Donald Trump, renewed controversy over Clinton’s emails, an epic flip-flop by Trump on immigration, unfounded charges that Clinton is mortally ill, and — last and least — the unwelcome reappearance of Anthony Weiner.
Yet through all those hurricane-force events, nothing much has changed. Since the conventions, Clinton has held a lead of roughly six percentage points in national polls, and Trump hasn’t found a way to erode it. That’s the forest, politically speaking.
When it comes to the substance of the campaign, there’s a forest-and-trees problem as well.
This is an election about momentous issues: the character of American society, the future of the struggling middle class, the basic direction of U.S. foreign policy. But it’s been hard to find discussion of those big questions amid the hailstorm.
It’s not that the candidates haven’t offered substance. Clinton has been substantive almost to a fault; her 250-page policy book, a compilation of position papers, just landed in reporters’ mailboxes. (If you watched her convention speech, you already know the high points.)
Trump has been imprecise and changeable on the details of his policies, but he’s made an underappreciated effort to fill in the blanks. In the past month, he’s given major speeches on economic policy, foreign policy, and immigration — made necessary by his sudden announcement that he had decided to “soften” his views on deportation.
Instead of focusing on policy differences, however, each camp has set out to disqualify the other’s candidate on personal grounds.
Trump and his surrogates issue daily denunciations of Clinton as “crooked,” supplemented by occasional warnings that she’s too weak for the job. Clinton and her supporters have asserted relentlessly that Trump doesn’t have the temperament voters want in a president — an argument Trump often seems intent on helping. (For the record, I think Clinton has the better case, but about 42 percent of the voters appear to disagree.)
Those aren’t trivial issues, but they lend themselves to trivial arguments. Did Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin share classified documents with her no-good husband, Anthony Weiner? (Trump charged — without evidence — that she might have.) Is Trump’s doctor, the one who wrote his farcical health report, incompetent or just sloppy?
That dynamic has turned out to be a bigger problem for Trump than for Clinton. He needs to convince voters that he’s steady enough for the job, but he spent much of August tweeting on the issue of the day, from Abedin’s collapsing marriage to the fatal shooting of basketball player Dwyane Wade’s cousin. Anybody out there remember the economic speech he gave in Detroit, the one about lower tax rates and less regulation? Trump is drowning out his own message.
That’s made it easier for Clinton to run a stealth campaign with few public appearances and no news conferences — just periodic statements about her opponent’s unfitness for office.
The best measure of her success: At this point, the campaign is mainly a referendum on Trump (which is what Democrats wanted), not a referendum on Clinton. That’s the forest, not the trees.
There’s still time for this campaign to turn to the big issues, of course. It would be nice to think that the debates, which begin Sept. 26, will force the candidates to higher ground under pressure from iron-willed moderators.
Until then, though, I’ll offer a word of advice that, as a lifelong political junkie, I never thought I’d espouse: Turn off your cable news channels, limit the time you spend on Facebook and cut back on reading about the campaign.
You won’t miss anything important, and you’ll feel much calmer.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may email him at [email protected].