Everyone expected a clash over croissants. Fresh off Donald Trump’s weekend victory lap as the presumptive Republican nominee, likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton settled into a chair at a Virginia bakery to talk about challenges facing working women mid-afternoon Monday.
Surely, Clinton was ready to respond to Trump’s attacks—many dating from the 1990s—and begin her own fight against a man who has, over his career in real business and show business, repeatedly given women reasons to do double-takes. After all, Republican women for months had warned that Clinton would eviscerate Trump on questions of sexism and disrespect. If Trump can’t hold down his losses with women, another Clinton would be in the White House, and the already lopsided voting trends among women favoring Democrats would be exacerbated, perhaps beyond repair.
But by the end of the talk, the untouched muffins and pastries spread in front of Clinton looked almost like a symbol for the bait she wouldn’t take. At least not yet.
Clinton stuck to policy over personality. She hammered home that she would encourage early childhood education and work to make college more affordable. And, when harangued by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell into giving a brief audience with her limited pack of reporters, Clinton was ever as diplomatic as she was as Secretary of State.
“I’m going to let him run his campaign however he chooses,” Clinton said before whisking off to meet parents picking their children up from a nearby preschool. "Pick up time! Pick up time!" she sang to herself.
If Trump wants a mud fight—and, judging by how he’s trolling his own party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, it seems like that’s what he wants—he’s not getting one from Clinton. “I have nothing to say about him and how he’s running his campaign,” Clinton told reporters who pressed her again on Trump.
Clinton’s strategy here is to bet that voters grow weary of the Trump drama and antics. What was fun now turns sour, six months to the date from Election Day.
This is a strategy that may be especially well-tailored to suburban white women, even if they’re conservatives. Trump’s rhetoric already has him losing with all women by 26 percentage points, according to a CNN-ORC poll released last week. Clinton’s bet is that even the soccer moms who dislike her or disagree with her politics might think she’s a safer option than “loose cannon” Donald Trump.
Before praising Clinton as the grown-up here, it’s worth remembering this reality: She’s a lousy politician, by her own admission. Clinton has never been one to command huge crowds of adoring fans. Her advisers know that, but also are betting an election decided on policy alone it’s Clinton’s to lose. Her policy operation at Brooklyn headquarters rivals the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, if not surpasses it in numbers when one counts her outside advisers who sent her staff thoughts here and there.
That doesn’t mean Clinton’s team is confident. Far from it. But its leaders have settled into a governing-over-glamour plan in a way that Trump’s Republican rivals never did, and the candidate has far more discipline and thicker skin than any of the 16 whom Trump vanquished.
Even as Clinton’s motorcade rolled toward a bakery in Loudon, Virginia, her economic advisers were on a conference call explaining to reporters why Trump’s economic plan wouldn’t work. It wasn’t that Trump was a bad guy. It’s that he didn’t know anything about the economy, especially when he was talking about letting the U.S. default on its debt obligations or taxes.
"We still think facts and numbers matter, and should in this campaign ,” said Gene Sperling, an economic adviser in the administrations of both her husband and Barack Obama.
This playbook has worked before. No one likes Hillary Clinton when she’s in campaign mode. When she was helping her husband during his 1992 campaign, she had just a 38% approval rating, according to a Gallup survey. As First Lady, that rate climbed to 66%. During her first Senate run, in 2000, polls showed that number drop to 49%. Once she won that the office, those numbers climbed to 60%. Then, she ran for President in 2008, and saw her favorability fall back to 48%. Those numbers rebounded during her time as Secretary of State, when 66% of adults surveyed by Gallup liked her. Then, as her aides warned her, those numbers again sank as she re-entered political life.
In short, Americans like Hillary Clinton, the nerdy technocrat. They do not like Hillary Clinton, the candidate. So, Clinton’s advisers told her, stop acting like a candidate. Don’t wait for the seesaw to hit her. Just be a wonk.
And that’s what she gave her crowd on Monday. It was so boring that you could practically hear the muffins get crusty. A baby cried. A school-aged student swung his feet. Clinton looked attentive, listening carefully to voters who asked thoughtful questions about education, childcare costs and immigration. She squinted to show she was listening, her hand resting under her chin, taking in their concerns.
Despite Trump’s insults over the weekend accusing Clinton of enabling her husband’s antics with women, Clinton barely addressed the presumptive GOP nominee in her talk. When asked about equal pay, an issue she’s been discussing for years, she said, “I’m accused of playing the gender card and all that, and the fact is, it’s a real problem.” That was the hardest punch she threw.
Instead, Clinton wrapped herself in the cozy comfort of childcare and educational policy, which is her version of a security blanket. She repeatedly fell back on her own experiences raising Chelsea, as she’s been doing throughout the campaign. When asked about over-testing at schools, she said “I used to say I have ‘the Chelsea test,’ now I have 'the Charlotte test': Would I send my child to this school?” When the topic of paid maternity leave came up, she described her own confused first weeks as a young mother: “There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I had Chelsea all those years ago,” she said. “You can read all the books in the world, but until you’re responsible it’s hard to know.”
A grandma sipping coffee and talking about the importance of arts education with a dozen moms (and a few dads) looked more like a tame PTA meeting than a political showdown, but that’s exactly what it was. And it was not accident. If Donald Trump is the great boor of the 2016 election, then Hillary Clinton is the great bore. The act continues on Tuesday with two more similar stops in Kentucky. This is Clinton’s new groove of snooze.