But there’s a larger point here. Clinton’s new populist demagoguery is entirely symbolic. The “substance” is stage dressing, no more real than the scenery in a play. She’s trying to tell blue-collar workers that she’s on their side. The language may be economic, but the message is about values. It’s I-feel-your-pain treacle gussied up as tax policy, devoid of anything approaching intellectual seriousness. Who cares if even liberal economists like Krugman concede the stupidity of her idea; she’s taking the side of the Bubbas against all the fancy pants.
The same goes for the Daedalian debate between Obama and Clinton over health care that consumed many of the early Democratic primaries. In a riot of intellectual vanity, vast amounts of time were wasted on parsing the fine print of their respective policy proposals, with earnest journalists wading hip-deep into the actuarial tables, as if either plan would actually survive its first encounter with Congress intact. Who cares? We’re talkin’ substance here!
Presidential elections are not referendums on policy papers. Rather, policy papers are themselves mere hints, sometimes very poor hints, of where a candidate’s priorities lie. This is not to say that candidates should not offer details, but let’s do away with the charade that the dots on the “i” and the crosses on the “t” are the stuff of Serious Politics, while discussions about a candidate’s “non-economic” values are somehow irrelevant. It’s all the same conversation.
Whatever the true import of Obama’s relationship with Wright may be, or whatever the proper weight voters should give to his view that poor whites “cling” to guns, religion and bigotry because they’ve suffered under bad economic policies, or, for that matter, whatever Clinton’s “sniper fire” story says about her, it strikes me as absurd to argue that these data are meaningless but their stance on a gas-tax holiday is of enduring importance.
We pick presidents for their judgment and values. Anything that gives us a clue as to what those might be is not only fair game, it is the game.