A few weeks ago I met a guy in Idaho who was absolutely certain that Donald Trump would win this election. He was wearing tattered, soiled overalls, missing a bunch of teeth and was unnaturally skinny. He was probably about 50, but his haggard face looked 70. He was getting by aimlessly as a handyman.
I pointed to the polls and tried to persuade him that Hillary Clinton might win, but it was like telling him a sea gull could play billiards. Everybody he knows is voting Trump so his entire lived experience points to a Trump landslide. He was a funny, kind guy, but you got the impression his opportunities had been narrowed by forces outside his control.
One of the mandates for the next president is to help improve the life stories of people like that.
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Trump speaks to this man’s situation and makes him feel heard. But when you think practically about which candidate could improve his life, it’s clear that Clinton is the bigger change agent.
Let’s start with what “change” actually means. In our system, change means legislation. It starts with the ability to gather a team of policy experts who can craft complex bills. These days, bills often run to thousands of pages, and every bad rookie decision can lead things astray.
Then it requires political deftness. Deft politicians are not always lovely, as Lyndon Johnson demonstrated, but they are subtle, cunning and experienced. They have the ability to work noncontentiously with people they don’t like, to read other people’s minds, to lure opponents over with friendship, cajolery and a respectful nudge.
Craftsmanship in government is not like craftsmanship in business. You can’t win people with money and you can’t order people around. Governance requires enormous patience, a capacity to tolerate boredom and the skill of quiet herding. Frustrations abound. When it is done well, as a friend of mine in government puts it, each individual day sucks but the overall experience is tremendously rewarding.
Change in government is a team sport. Public opinion is mobilized through institutions – through interest groups, activist organizations, think tanks and political parties. As historian Sean Wilentz once put it, “political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.” To create political change, you have to work within groups and organize groups of groups.
Now, if you wanted to design a personality type perfectly ill suited to be a change agent in government, you would come up with Donald Trump: solipsistic, impatient, combative, unsubtle and ignorant.
If you wanted to design a personality type better suited to getting things done, you might come up with James Baker, Robert Gates or Ted Kennedy, but you might also come up with Hillary Clinton.
None of us should be under any illusions. Wherever Clinton walks, the whiff of scandal is always by her side. The Clintons seem to have decided that they are righteous and good, and therefore anything that enriches, empowers or makes them feel good must always be righteous and good. They surround themselves with some amazing people but also some human hand grenades who inevitably blow up in their faces.
But Clinton does possess the steady, pedantic skills that are necessary for governmental change: the ability to work doggedly hard, to master details and to rally the powerful. If the Clinton campaign emails have taught us anything, it is that she and her team, while not hugely creative, are prudent, calculating and able to create a web of interlocking networks that they can mobilize for a cause.
Clinton was at her best in the Senate. She worked very well with Republicans (and not just the amenable ones like John McCain and Lindsey Graham). She was an operations person, not a publicity person. Whereas Barack Obama sometimes seemed to see his fellow politicians as objects to be studied, Clinton got on with them as an equal. Her accomplishments – post-9/11 funding for New York, saving Army bases in upstate New York – were concrete.
Passing legislation next year is going to be hard, but if Clinton can be dull and pragmatic, and operate at a level below the cable TV ideology wars, it’s possible to imagine her gathering majorities behind laws that would help people like that guy in Idaho: an infrastructure push, criminal justice reform, a college tuition program, an apprenticeship and skills program, an expanded earned-income tax credit and a bill to secure the border and shift from low-skill to high-skill immigration.
Many of us disagree strongly with many Clinton policies. But any sensible person can distinguish between an effective operating officer and a whirling disaster who is only about himself.
The thing about reality TV is that it isn’t actually real. In the real world, the process of driving change is usually boring, remorseless and detail oriented, but the effect on people out there, like the guy in Idaho, can be profound and beautiful.