Donald Trump has now won the delegates needed to give him the Republican presidential nomination. The Bernie Sanders surge continues — he may even win California — but Hillary Clinton apparently has the superdelegate support needed to give her the nomination. We’re headed to a presidential race with two candidates burdened with record levels of disfavor.
This leads to the widespread expectation of a spitball brawl for a campaign. Trump has already begun branding Clinton. The Clinton campaign has begun attacking Trump as reckless and unqualified. A negative campaign of branded insults will drive down turnout. It would be a disservice to this country and its people.
The United States faces major challenges. We have an economy that does not work for working people, who struggle with stagnant or declining wages, increasing insecurity, and soaring costs of basic needs from health care to college education to retirement security. Record numbers are in poverty. Shameless tax scams allow billionaires to pay lower tax rates than the police who protect their homes. Global corporations stash trillions abroad and pay lower tax rates than mom-and-pop small businesses.
Climate change is a real and present danger that the Pentagon rightly says poses a rising national security threat. The president’s efforts to extract us from the endless wars in the Middle East have been frustrated. Tensions are rising with both Russia and China. We’re running trade deficits of $500 billion a year, undermining good jobs here. In our cities, the impoverished are more concentrated, more isolated, with less hope and more dope and violence.
We need a real debate about the choices we face. Donald Trump has used insult more than policy to win his nomination. But he’s begun to make policy addresses. Last week, he gave a speech on energy policy. He vowed to unravel the Paris climate agreement, rescind the Obama climate change rules, revive the coal industry and redouble our efforts to achieve pure energy independence. He vowed to “deal with real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we’ve been hearing about,” presumably climate change.
Clinton has a detailed agenda on energy policy. She believes climate change is a real threat. She wants to build on the Paris agreements and capture the lead in the emerging clean energy economy. The differences between the two positions are stark and worthy of a great debate.
Similarly, Trump earlier gave a speech on foreign policy in which he challenged many of the shibboleths of our foreign policy. He wants a stronger military that is used less. He wants our allies to pay a greater share of the burden. He seems more willing to negotiate and more skeptical about intervention. Again, there are major substantive differences in direction and policy from Clinton.
The American people would benefit greatly if the election debate were focused on these and other fundamental policy choices. Both candidates should continue to detail their policies and debate their differences. The media should focus less on gotcha questions, stop recycling insults and feeding the spitball fight, and start probing about policy and direction.
The problem, of course, is that insult draws attention. Attention means viewers. Viewers mean advertisers. The media are constantly driven to highlight the latest insult, the outrage and the fake scandal — rather than to focus on the needs of the people and how each candidate proposes to address them.
Similarly, as Trump showed in his primary, insults gain free media. Free media means attention from voters — and saves money. So the candidates are tempted to descend into a brawl of jabs and counterpunches. Instead of a debate about the direction of the country, we get a campaign based on branding the other. This is a recipe for dividing and misleading the country.
We’re going to be electing a president in a country that faces big challenges. It is time to take this out of the back alley. The only way that happens is if everyone is more responsible: the candidates in choosing issues over insults, the media in the questions they ask, and the voters in what kind of behavior they will reward.