God knows it’s clear that almost everyone on the center-left, myself included, was clueless about what actually works in persuading voters.A lot of people will read that and conclude that it's futile to try to portray a political opponent as a hatemonger in a country where so many people are bigots themselves, or at least are highly tolerant of bigotry. Others will read it and conclude that Hillary Clinton's campaign insulted voters ("deplorables") and drove many who might have been wavering into Donald Trump's arms.
But beyond those arguments, I have another question: Did the Clinton campaign spend too much time portraying Trump as a monster and not enough debating him on policy?
I know, I know: The press didn't want to hear about policy. The press was concerned with Clinton's emails and Trump's personal behavior.
But Clinton's campaign echoed the media's message that what was important about Trump was his character and personal behavior. Ad after Clinton ad showed Trump insulting women and mocking a disabled reporter. No Clinton ad, as far as I know, ever went after Trump's economic plan the way this Barack Obama ad, for instance, went after Mitt Romney's:
This morning on public radio I heard a discussion of Trumponomics with two economics writers, Rana Foroohar, the author of Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance & the Fall of American Business, and Rob Cox, the global editor for Reuters Breaking Views. Among other things, they talked about the likely results of a Trump trade war with China or Mexico. Foroohar noted that such a trade war would disrupt global supply chains, because so many parts for so many goods pass through those countries.
FOROOHAR: Every single time that widget comes in and out, that's a charge that a U.S. company has to pay that eventually gets passed on to a U.S. consumer....Meanwhile, there's this, from Neil Irwin of The New York Times:
In a global system, everybody's going to suffer. The consumer is going to stop spending....
COX: ... It would create a lot of inflation, first of all, but that inflation would hit those for whom consumption, normal consumption, is a larger percentage of their pocketbook. And that actually is going to hurt the less well off more than it will the well off. And the consumers who will be hit the worst will probably be the people who voted for Donald Trump, frankly.
The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation ... estimates that Mr. Trump’s tax plan would reduce federal revenue by about $12 trillion over the next decade, and faster growth would offset only about $2 trillion of that....Higher prices? Inflation? Exploding deficits? Much higher interest rates? Surely there's something here that can boiled down to a kitchen-table economic message suitable for a TV ad or a speech.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics ... assumed that if Mr. Trump’s policies were taken at face value, it would increase the deficit from 3.5 percent of G.D.P. this year to more than 10 percent by the end of Mr. Trump’s term. He said this would cause the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates above 6 percent in 2018 to prevent inflation.
Now, it's possible that if Clinton had tried this approach, Trump would have said with a sneer that he's an expert in business and Clinton doesn't know what the hell she's talking about. Fine -- so try to get Marc Cuban or Warren Buffett, or even some non-celebrity who runs a small or medium-size business, to deliver (or reinforce) the message.
Clinton's portrayal of Trump as an unprecedented figure of evil reaffirmed his supporters' sense of him as someone who's so powerful he can shake anything up. Attacking him on policy would have meant at least trying to get him to fight on Clinton's turf. Would it have made a huge difference? Maybe not. But it might have been worth trying.