Not since Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter from the White House have political assumptions been so uncertain — and so irrelevant.
A general election pitting alleged Republican Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton obliterates traditional conservative vs. liberal stereotypes. Neither candidate hews exactly to the caricatures they are supposed to represent, particularly the former reality TV star who defies expectations and confounds professional predictions regularly.
The ideological androgyny of both of them, rooted in equal parts opportunism, pragmatism and vanity, could have profound effects on each candidate’s ability to assemble a winning coalition. Add deep wells of antipathy for both of them, Trump’s unconventional political style, and there’s no telling who will decide 2016 and how.
On the economy: The presumptive Republican nominee, a New York billionaire-turned-populist, sounds decidedly liberal in his intention to rewrite “stupid” trade deals, increase income taxes on Wall Street sharpies because they can afford it, threaten CEOs into repatriating jobs and plant capacity.
All of it, and more, apparently would be in the service of rebuilding the U.S. economy to benefit working men and women, aligning Trump more with socialist Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s stubborn Democratic rival, than any of the 16 Republican candidates he vanquished on his way to the nomination in Cleveland come July.
The presumptive Democratic nominee is a New York millionaire who, echoing many conservatives, backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as secretary of state and supported the North American Free Trade Agreement passed during her husband’s administration. She professes a readiness to get tough with Wall Street even as she has a well-documented trail of accepting the street’s big-dollar speaking fees and contributions to the family foundation.
“I’m going to take some of the things that Bernie said and re-use them,” Trump said in a clip broadcast this week on MSNBC. Exactly, and for two reasons: first, they proved effective against Clinton and, second, they dovetail with his nominally Republican populism aimed squarely at working-class voters occupying both ends of the political spectrum.
Think Clinton has the union vote tied up in places like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, the most manufacturing-intensive state in the nation? Think again, not in places where working folks are convinced they’re getting shafted, regularly, by high-minded policies that always seem to benefit someone else.
Trump’s trade tirades, implying power presidents do not legally possess, are likely to trump any carefully nuanced argument Clinton advances on the NAFTA and the TPP. Same for her denunciations of “inversions,” or moving corporate headquarters to avoid steep U.S. corporate taxes.
Her appeal to working folks, a traditional Democratic constituency, will be challenged by Trump’s harder-edged, America First stances on trade and immigration, positions diametrically opposed to her party’s stronger orientation to Beltway, coastal and academic elites that form today’s Left Establishment.
On the military: Trump claims to be the most pro-military candidate in decades. He talks tough about how his administration would destroy ISIS, quickly. He talks (too) casually about the use of nuclear weapons, even as his tightly circumscribed orbit for potential military engagement sounds more like Barack Obama than George Bush or a more muscular-sounding Clinton.
The first woman who would be president often sounds more hawkish than the most overtly macho man to run for president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 — ironic for Trump, a serial misogynist whose negatives with women run higher than any candidate since the advent of modern political polling.
On foreign policy: Despite her flawed turn as secretary of state (see the rise of Islamic jihadism, the adventurism of Vladimir Putin, the fraying of the traditional transatlantic relationships), Clinton’s worldview embraces the bipartisan American consensus that respects the validity of NATO; accepts its role as a counterweight to Putin’s Russia; understands China’s emergence as a global power.
Trump’s not buying any of it. He would commercialize the United States’ relationships with key allies. He would charge Japan and South Korea, Germany and other European powers for continuing U.S. military presence on their soil. He would “force” Mexico to build a wall to stop illegal immigration.
It’s dizzying. With the notable exceptions of Obamacare (he would repeal it, she would build on it), illegal immigration (he vows to stop it, she not so much), these two are headed into a campaign that defies political convention, experience and rules.
Not since whenever did the presumptive Republican nominee run to the left of the Democratic nominee on trade, Wall Street and most foreign policy, even as the Democrat runs right of the Republican on the military and upholding traditional governmental institutions.
It won’t be pretty, but it’s what we’ve got.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.