The Little Details and the Big Picture

by Yuval Levin

Halfway through August in the year before a presidential election, it’s easy to both overstate and understate how much we know. The details of the race at this point—the day by day turns and twists—probably won’t turn out to be all that important in the long run. But some general patterns gradually becoming evident could well offer some hints of where the election is headed. 

It seems to me that three broad points, each of which tries to generalize a bit from what we’re seeing rather than obsess on the fine details, might be worth stressing at this point. 

First, the related populisms powerfully evident in both parties’  nominating contests so far will have lasting consequences for what remains of America’s elite consensus regarding the relationship between politics and economics (and its cultural implications). That relationship is often the focus of that populism, even when it is not the explicit subject the populists take up. 

About a fifth to a quarter of Republican voters at this early stage identify as their preference for the party’s presidential nomination someone who has made a career out of consciously playing the part of the brash, blustering, cartoon capitalist, while about a quarter to a third of Democrats opt for the only self-proclaimed socialist in our national politics. This might suggest deep differences between the party bases on economic issues, and those certainly exist. Donald Trump seems to have been engineered to turn off liberals (and indeed to turn off most people), while Bernie Sanders was organically grown to repulse conservatives (and most other Americans). But in their different ways, they are actually pointing to some shared frustrations: Both Trump and Sanders are calling attention to those political debates in which the inherent cosmopolitanism of modern capitalism is most deeply in tension with the inherent populism of modern democracy—especially, but by no means exclusively, immigration and trade. 

There is obviously much more to it, in both parties: Populist-leaning Republicans are frustrated with the party’s leadership on a range of issues, and want to see more assertiveness and combativeness in general on the Right. Assertiveness and combativeness in general—very general—is roughly what Trump seems to offer. But these Republicans are casting aside the most conservative presidential field in living memory in favor of the least conservative Republican presidential aspirant in living memory above all because he has been particularly forthright in advancing a kind of economic nationalism. 

Populist-leaning Democrats, meanwhile, are frustrated with their shortage of options, and are not eager to be stuck backing a bungling, power-mad, Wall Street cipher with negative charisma. But they seem drawn to Sanders in particular as an alternative to that front-runner because he will say what others won’t about the implications of trade (and up to a point even immigration). 

There are of course vital lessons in this for both parties. Most Republican politicians are already well along in learning this lesson on immigration, and I think we are not likely to see the return of the “comprehensive” approach to immigration policy that presents itself as a compromise yet waves away all populist concerns. A real compromise would have to take such concerns seriously. Democrats will probably walk away with a similar lesson on trade, for good and bad. Whether or not Trump and Sanders end up having staying power, these lessons surely will. 

The second general impression I’m left with this summer is that the Democrats are courting disaster. It’s just amazing that while 16 (or so) Republicans are running for president, there is basically no serious competitor to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination at this point, and it grows more astounding the more we see of Clinton’s campaign. The e-mail scandal has made this especially clear, and not because of where it might be headed but because of where it began: with Clinton’s bizarre, paranoid instincts. 

Again, the issue is not the details but the general pattern. In all their many scandals, the Clintons have survived by driving everyone to focus on the little details: Was this technically illegal? Did that meet the precise definition of perjury? These are vital questions in a legal setting, but in politics the broader prior questions matter more. So the issue in the e-mail scandal is not whether the classified material that has so far turned up in e-mails really should have been classified or whether anyone will go to jail. All that could turn out to be a serious problem for Clinton, of course, but the question outsiders should be asking is how in the world could all of this have happened to begin with? How could it be that this person, upon becoming Secretary of State, made the decision to procure a private server to use for all her email while in office, persuaded those around her that this was a good idea and they should help her do it, and then persisted in using that server for her entire term in office? How was that where her mind went? What kind of instincts and judgment does this suggest? What sort of people has she surrounded herself with? What’s the matter with Clintonworld? 

So the question isn’t so much whether the e-mail scandal in particular will derail Clinton’s campaign but what sorts of decisions Clinton is going to make in the coming year (let alone what sorts of decisions she would make as president). Democrats should be very concerned that this is their standard bearer, and increasingly they are. It doesn’t seem like these questions of judgment and instinct will become easier to hide the more intense the campaign gets, and it doesn’t seem likely that that they will be made up for by political talent or personal charm. That doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton can’t win the 2016 election; she certainly could. But it means the potential for a serious breakdown along the way is very real. 

There’s not much the Democrats can do about this. While the Obama years have in some ways been very good for the Left, they have been a disaster for the Democratic Party as an institution. The party has been decimated as a national political body, and its bench of talent is thinner than it has been in many decades. Hillary may be the only plausible option, but the risk the party is taking is pretty astounding. 

Third, the Republican race is in a self-imposed holding pattern. The Trump phenomenon has played an important part in that, both as cause and effect, but it has more to do with a conscious strategic choice by some of the most prominent candidates to keep their powder dry until they’re much closer to the first primaries. Part of this seems to be an over-learning of the lessons of 2012, when one candidate after another had a brief turn as front-runner but none showed staying power except the well-funded establishment figure. Everyone in all the campaigns this year is always saying “what’s happening now doesn’t matter,” and both in terms of policy proposals and of communications there’s a lot of “stay tuned” talk. That has meant that although several prominent national figures are in the race, are reasonably well funded, and in some cases have been staffing up, no one has really said much to the public at this point. 

Here once more, the difference between the particular and the general is important. It’s true that what happens now isn’t what will determine the outcome and that few voters will pay much attention to detailed policy proposals at this point (or ever). But there are also real costs to spending a long time saying and doing little while languishing in the single digits in polls. The idea that these candidates will just be able to flip a switch at some point and zoom up to the lead looks less plausible the more time passes.

Scott Walker mentioned in a recent NRO piece that he would be releasing his specific proposal for repealing and replacing Obamacare this week, so maybe that will change this dynamic some, at least on the policy front, and also drive others to enter the fray. But for now there has been a lot of preparation in the background and not much of an actual case to voters from any of the candidates.  

Maybe that’s the right lesson to draw from the fact that the details don’t matter much this early, but maybe it’s the wrong lesson to draw from the fact that general impressions get set early and are hard to change.

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