Sometime this week, summer-dazed voters will be reminded that moving trucks will soon be pulling up at the White House for the first time since 2009. The departure of Barack Obama will disappoint many since the president’s approval ratings are hovering on the good side of 50 percent.
What political reporters often forget is that not every voter is a partisan fanatic riveted by campaign memes and themes while breathlessly cherry-picking the latest polls for good news. In fact (warning: stunning revelation ahead), some voters actually tuned out the presidential race during their August vacations.
It was a sensible choice.
What is stunning is how little we learned since the conventions about how Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would govern from the Oval Office. Most of the coverage overhyped evanescent controversies and created ludicrous narratives (example: Trump’s purported presidential pivot) to wile away the August doldrums.
August wasn’t an entirely wasted month. It did underscore, for those paying attention, that this remains the most lopsided election in modern history — in terms of the credentials and governing styles of the two candidates.
Long before Trump, the allure of a businessman in politics has been that such a candidate (say, Mike Bloomberg) could impose order on the messy business of governing. But Trump has consistently played against type — not only in his inflammatory public statements but also in his inability to create a stable campaign structure.
When Trump ousted Paul Manafort in mid-August amid allegations of secret payments from a corrupt Ukrainian president, it was the second campaign shake-up in just two months. The latest campaign team (featuring incendiary Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon and disgraced former Fox News chief Roger Ailes) suggests that the only person ever vetted by Trump was running mate Mike Pence.
For a candidate campaigning as a truth teller unbound by political correctness, Trump has consistently devalued the worth of the spoken word. The bilious billionaire’s inability to express a consistent position on immigration on a day-to-day basis suggests that a campaign promise from the GOP nominee has the worth of a degree from Trump U.
What is fascinating is that voters — even Trump supporters — recognize this awkward truth. A recent ABC News/SSRS survey found that only 13 percent of voters believe that Mexico would pay for Trump’s fantasy border wall. It is impossible to recall another campaign in which most voters were convinced that a presidential nominee was shucking them.
Cynics might liken Trump voters to yokels whom P.T. Barnum fooled into buying two admissions with “This Way to the Egress” signs. But a more likely explanation is that backers of the former reality show host are embracing a fact-free political style and simmering anger rather than specific policy positions on anything.
For all the over-heated August claims of new Hillary Clinton email scandals, it is hard to locate evidence that would change the assessment of how she would behave in the Oval Office. We have long known about her ingrained passion for secrecy, her disdain for press conferences, and the conflict-of-interest problems that flow from her being married to a globetrotting former president.
Love her or loathe her, Hillary is a known commodity. If elected in November, she would become only the sixth president since the dawn of the 20th century to have spent four years in a prior administration. And that doesn’t even count her eight years in the East Wing as first lady.
That’s why the most interesting aspects of the Hillary campaign have nothing to do with investigative reporting or clever campaign tactics. Running against a Republican candidate whose idea of a detailed policy prescription is a tweet, Clinton is certainly not compelled by political necessity to articulate a foreign policy vision.
But she tried in an address to the American Legion last week. To my mind, it was one of the most revealing speeches of her campaign as she embraced with fervor the notion of “American exceptionalism,” which is often a GOP buzzword. In fact, she explicitly reached out to the Republican national security establishment with her call for “a bipartisan foreign policy.”
The speech — which received far less coverage that even the most repetitive Clinton email story — was the most hawkish address delivered by a Democratic presidential nominee in this century. Instead of talking about Pentagon budget cuts or revamping American forces to exclusively fight terrorism, Clinton warned about “evolving threats from states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.”
The motivation for the speech was presumably not a tilt to the center after dispatching Bernie Sanders in the primaries or a belief that more GOP foreign policy endorsements would deliver swing states like Ohio. Rather, Hillary endorsed a robust military build up because … well … she believes it.
Part of the problem with a frivolous presidential nominee like Trump is that no one — not the media, not the Democrats, not Clinton — is rewarded for being serious.
But what is too often obscured in this dispiriting campaign is that the responsibilities that come with the keys to the Oval Office are grave and historic. And that, rather than the rat-a-tat of daily campaign attacks, is what matters in November.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.