Everyone expected Hillary Clinton to come out swinging. Days earlier, Donald Trump had called her an “enabler” of her husband’s philandering–just the latest taunt from a man whose inflammatory comments about women are increasingly aimed at one woman in particular.
But when Clinton met with voters on May 9 at a bakery in Aldie, Va., a spread of untouched muffins and croissants became a symbol of the bait she wouldn’t take–not yet, anyway. Instead she went for policy over personality, hammering home how she would encourage early-childhood education and work to make college more affordable. And when harangued by reporters about Trump’s venom, Clinton sounded more Secretary of State than candidate. “I have nothing to say about him and how he’s running his campaign,” Clinton said before whisking off to meet parents picking up their children from a nearby preschool. “Pickup time! Pickup time!” she sang to herself.
Message delivered: if Trump wants a mud fight–and judging by how he’s trolling his own party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, it seems as if he does–she has other plans. The strategy is to bet that voters grow weary of the Trump drama and antics and to establish the battlefield on which the 2016 general election will be fought: a contest of policy, not a name-calling tweet battle. Clinton’s team believes even the soccer moms who dislike her or disagree with her politics might think she’s a safer option than “loose cannon” Trump.
Before you praise Clinton as the grownup, it’s worth remembering this reality: she’s a lousy politician, by her own admission. Clinton has never commanded huge crowds, and she continues to lose primaries, most recently in West Virginia. But her wonk shop at her Brooklyn headquarters rivals the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.
That doesn’t mean Clinton’s team is confident of victory. 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 a thicker skin than any of the 16 whom Trump vanquished.
Before the bakery visit, 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, taxes or managing the U.S. debt. “We still think facts and numbers matter and should in this campaign,” said Gene Sperling, an economic adviser in the administrations of both Clinton’s husband and Barack Obama.
This playbook has worked before. Most people don’t like Clinton when she’s in campaign mode. Her approval rating was at 38% during her husband’s 1992 campaign, only to rise past 66% when she was First Lady. The number fell back to 48% when she ran for President in 2008, but rebounded to 66% when she was Secretary of State, according to Gallup.
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. Just be a wonk.
And that’s what she gave the kaffeeklatsch. It was so boring that you could practically hear the muffins getting crusty. A baby cried. A school-age child swung his feet. Clinton looked attentive, listening carefully to voters who asked thoughtful questions about education, child-care costs and paid family leave. She squinted to show she was listening, wrapped in the cozy comfort of child care and educational policy, her version of a security blanket.
Just a grandma sipping coffee and talking about the importance of arts education with a couple dozen moms (and a few dads). If Donald Trump is the great boor of the 2016 election, then Hillary Clinton is the great bore. This is Clinton’s new groove of snooze.
This appears in the May 23, 2016 issue of TIME.
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