THE ISSUES: What’s at Stake

TIME staff portrait: Nancy Gibbs
Peter Hapak for TIME

Gibbs, a former writer and editor in chief at TIME, is the director of the Shorenstein Center and the visiting Edward R. Murrow professor at Harvard Kennedy School. She is the co-author, along with Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.  

'Watch what we do, not what we say'

Issues in a presidential-election year are often like the fat books that we’re glad to own but don’t plan to read. Voters say they crave substance, a campaign focused less on the cartoon-­character smackdown and more on the small-print spreadsheets of serious policy positions. Candidates offer “platforms,” a metaphor reinforcing the myth that their proposals are the structural foundation on which their presidency will be built. And most voters say that policy matters more than personality when they cast their ballots.

But watch what we do, not what we say. The least substantive campaign in modern history has drawn the most massive audience. A Pew survey in July found that more than three-quarters of voters found the race interesting, the highest level in two decades, even as 65% said it has not focused on policy debates. It’s not that issues no longer matter, just that the drama of this campaign has been so much more memorable than the ideas.
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A new TIME/SurveyMonkey poll finds that by a 2-to-1 ratio, voters think Hillary Clinton has done a better job explaining her policy positions. As she likes to say, “I have this old-­fashioned idea. When you run for President, you ought to tell people what you want to do as their President.” Her website offers a policy encyclopedia that runs to 112,735 words and counting: debt-free college, tax clawbacks for companies that outsource jobs, half a billion solar panels installed in her first term, roadway sensors that warn drivers when there’s an icy patch ahead.

“She’s got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day,” Donald Trump told TIME in June. “Nothing’s ever going to happen. It’s just a waste of paper.” He is arguing the much larger issue: that the system is so broken that the first priority of the next President should be to burn the whole enterprise down. And then what? Trump’s platform is an inkblot, inviting voters to see whatever they want in the smudgy contours of his fiscal plans and foreign policy. The seminal focus of the Trump ­campaign—his promise to build a beautiful wall, a glorious wall, on the southern ­border—brings roars from his crowds, even if he has failed to make clear how long it will stretch or what it will cost. The Issue isn’t the issue; the attitude is. He will stick it to Mexico. He will make America great. He sells his candidacy the way he advised his sales force for Trump University: “You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions,” the training manual read. “You sell feelings.”

Trump’s success during the pri­mary season exposed just how profoundly Republican leaders misunderstood the mood of rank-and-file voters. A formerly pro-abortion-rights, thrice-married, Big Government, neo­isolationist candi­date could depart from Republican orthodoxy because base voters agreed with him that immigrants pose a threat and crime is out of control and global markets are rigged against the working man. His voters’ unwavering faith, despite each new outrage, is the very opposite of traditional small-­government conservatism. He is selling a historic vision of central, singular government: “I alone can fix it.” Or as he put it during the primaries, “Folks, I’m a conservative. But at this point, who cares?”

Perhaps Trump voters don’t mind the apostasy because so little of the Republican agenda has come to pass: Obama­care was not repealed, taxes were not slashed, Roe v. Wade was not overturned. Which is partly how Trump can make the case that he is the only issue that matters. His strength, his gut, his wealth, his political incorrectness, which extends far beyond his rhetoric. As a politician, he is incorrect in every way, with his tax returns secret, his Twitter stream radioactive, his treatment of facts appalling.

Which is why, for all the protein in her policy menu, Clinton too is not really running on her expertise, except to the extent that having any contrasts sharply with Trump. At heart her pitch is about personality as well, or more precisely temperament and fitness for office: that he’s a scary, sexist, racist rookie with no desire to even learn what he doesn’t know, while she is skilled, schooled and pragmatic enough to both take positions and change them, as she has on the Trans-­Pacific Partnership and the minimum wage and other issues that united Bernie Sanders voters behind yet another barn burner.

Character has always mattered, as it should, since no one can predict what new challenge, what unforeseen crisis, a President will have to confront. But when have we ever seen a race like this one, with one candidate so deeply devoted to policy detail and the other so allergic to it? Whoever wins in November will eventually have to govern. The issues this country faces, from decrepit bridges and failing schools to cyber­threats and spiraling debt, will require muscular action, not magical thinking.

In the pages that follow, we explore those challenges, including contributions from President Obama, Clinton and top thinkers in both parties. Trump’s campaign said he would write as well, but the piece never arrived. Perhaps that’s fitting. A vote for him is a vote for Trump. He makes it up as he goes.

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