America’s best hope

Why we would cast our hypothetical vote for Hillary Clinton

A quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago. If the two main parties had set about designing a contest to feed the doubts of young voters, they could not have done better than this year’s presidential campaign. The vote, on November 8th, is now in sight, yet many Americans would willingly undergo the exercise all over again — with two new candidates. Of course that is not on offer: the next president will be either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

X marks the spot

The choice is not hard. The campaign has provided daily evidence that Mr Trump would be a terrible president. He has exploited America’s simmering racial tensions (see article). His experience, temperament and character make him horribly unsuited to being the head of state of the nation that the rest of the democratic world looks to for leadership, the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful armed forces and the person who controls America’s nuclear deterrent.

That alone would stop us from casting a vote, if we had one, for Mr Trump. As it happens, he has a set of policies to go with his personality. A Trump government would cut taxes for the richest while imposing trade protection that would raise prices for the poorest. We disagree with him on the environment, immigration, America’s role in the world and other things besides. His ideas on revenue and spending are an affront to statistics. We would sooner have endorsed Richard Nixon — even had we known how he would later come to grief.

Our vote, then, goes to Hillary Clinton. Those who reject her simply because she is a Clinton, and because they detest the Clinton machine, are not paying attention to the turpitude of the alternative. Although, by itself, that is not much of an endorsement, we go further. Mrs Clinton is a better candidate than she seems and better suited to cope with the awful, broken state of Washington politics than her critics will admit. She also deserves to prevail on her own merits.

Like Mr Trump, Mrs Clinton has ideas we disagree with. Her tax plan is fiddly. Her opposition to the trade deal with Asia that she once championed is disheartening. The scale of these defects, though, is measured in tiny increments compared with what Mr Trump proposes. On plenty of other questions her policies are those of the pragmatic centre of the Democratic Party. She wants to lock up fewer non-violent offenders, expand the provision of early education and introduce paid parental leave. She wants to continue Barack Obama’s efforts to slow global warming. In Britain her ideological home would be the mainstream of the Conservative Party; in Germany she would be a Christian Democrat.

In one sense Mrs Clinton is revolutionary. She would be America’s first female president in the 240 years since independence. This is not a clinching reason to vote for her. But it would be a genuine achievement. In every other sense, however, Mrs Clinton is a self-confessed incrementalist. She believes in the power of small changes compounded over time to bring about larger ones. An inability to sound as if she is offering an overnight transformation is one of the things that makes her a bad campaigner. Presidential nominees are now expected to inspire. Mrs Clinton would have been better-suited to the first half-century of presidential campaigns, when the candidates did not even give public speeches.

However, a prosaic style combined with gradualism and hard work could make for a more successful presidency than her critics allow. In foreign policy, where the president’s power is greatest, Mrs Clinton would look out from the Resolute desk at a world that has inherited some of the risks of the cold war but not its stability. China’s rise and Russia’s decline call for both flexibility and toughness. International institutions, such as the UN, are weak; terrorism is transnational.

So judgment and experience are essential and, despite Republican attempts to tarnish her over an attack in Benghazi in 2012, Mrs Clinton possesses both. As a senator she did solid work on the armed-services committee; as secretary of state she pursued the president’s policies abroad ably. Her view of America has much in common with Mr Obama’s. She rightly argued for involvement early on in Syria. She has a more straightforward view of America’s capacity to do good; her former boss is more alert to the dangers of good intentions. The difference is of degree, though. Mrs Clinton helped lay the foundations for ending the embargo on Cuba, striking a nuclear deal with Iran and reaching agreement with China on global warming. A Clinton presidency would build on this.

Keep America great

The harder question is how Mrs Clinton would govern at home. It is surely no coincidence that voters whose political consciousness dawned in the years between the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton and the tawdriness of Mr Trump have such a low opinion of their political system. Over the past two decades political deadlock and mud-slinging have become normalised. Recent sessions of Congress have shut the government down, flirted with a sovereign default and enacted little substantive legislation. Even those conservatives inclined to mistake inaction for limited government are fed up.

The best that can be said of Mr Trump is that his candidacy is a symptom of the popular desire for a political revival. Every outrage and every broken taboo is taken as evidence that he would break the system in order that, overseen by a properly conservative Supreme Court, those who come after him might put something better in its place.

This presidential election matters more than most because of the sheer recklessness of that scheme. It draws upon the belief that the complexity of Washington is smoke and mirrors designed to bamboozle the ordinary citizen; and that the more you know, the less you can be trusted. To hope that any good can come from Mr Trump’s wrecking job reflects a narcissistic belief that compromise in politics is a dirty word and a foolhardy confidence that, after a spell of chaos and demolition, you can magically unite the nation and fix what is wrong.

If she wins, Mrs Clinton will take on the burden of refuting the would-be wreckers. In one way she is the wrong candidate for the job. The wife of a former president, who first moved into the White House almost 24 years ago, is an unlikely herald for renewal. In her long career she has at times occupied a no-man’s-land between worthy and unworthy, legal and illegal. That is why stories about the Clinton Foundation and her e-mails, which the FBI is looking at again, have been so damaging. They may barely register on the Trump-o-Meter of indiscretions but, in office, Mrs Clinton’s reputation for rule-breaking could destroy her.

In another way, she is well-suited to the task. Herding bills through Congress to the point of signing requires a tolerance for patient negotiating and a command of sleep-inducing detail. Though it has been hard to hear above the demand to “lock her up”, Mrs Clinton has campaigned for an open, optimistic country. She can take heart from the fact that, outside Washington, there is more bipartisanship and problem-solving than most Americans realise, and from the fact that popular pessimism has far overshot reality. Around 80% of Trump supporters say that, for people like them, America is worse than it was 50 years ago. That is false: half a century ago 6m households lacked a flushing lavatory. It is also a most un-American way to see the world. The time is ripe for a rebound.

In elections we have sometimes hoped for Congress and the presidency to be controlled by different parties. Some who cannot bring themselves to vote for Mr Trump but do not care for Mrs Clinton either will opt for that choice. Yet the loss of Congress would increase the chances of a Republican Party reformation that both the party and the United States need.

Hence our vote goes to both Mrs Clinton and her party. Partly because she is not Mr Trump, but also in the hope she can show that ordinary politics works for ordinary people — the sort of renewal that American democracy requires.

This article was first published on economist.com. Sign up to our newsletters here.