Now that the presidential campaign is basically off and running, the key difference between the candidates is becoming increasingly apparent. One is interested in the substantive aspects of being the president and the other is just interested in being the president. Before I go further with that thought, I want to make clear that I’m suggesting this comparison without regard for the candidates’ policy positions or their ideological beliefs (i.e., whether they are to the right or left, conservative or liberal, libertarian or progressive).
Hillary Clinton is a policy wonk. Few, if any, would dispute that characterization. Whether it is regarded as an asset or a liability may be open to debate, but in either event, it isn’t something that can be faked. Some people seek to know the gritty details of whatever interests them, while others keep experts close at hand when true expertise is needed. Ms. Clinton knows a lot about the policies she espouses and about the issues that surround them. She, and her husband, and the current president, all share this trait. They study hard, learn a lot, and seem not the least bit uncomfortable with being called wonkish.
Donald Trump is policy averse. His most ardent admirers would have to admit this characterization. He doesn’t have much interest in the details, or, to put it more graphically, he doesn’t appear to produce much brain sweat when it comes to understanding the nitty-gritty of the issues that he addresses in his public statements. A perfect example of this point was his interview about abortion last spring with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
Matthews began the interview by casually asking Trump for his position on abortion. Trump gave the standard Republican answer: that he opposed abortion rights and was “pro-life.” Many interviewers would have moved to another topic (such has been the lazy nature of journalism in this campaign), but Matthews wanted to go deeper.
Would it then be a crime to have an abortion, he asked. Trump quickly answered that it would be, seeming to feel he had given a logically correct answer. But then Matthews asked whether that would mean the woman would be a criminal? Now Trump was in trouble, not because he was trapped, but because it was obvious that he hadn’t thought that deeply about the issue. And so he stumbled to an answer that effectively said that the woman would have to suffer some kind of punishment because, yes, she would be a criminal for having gotten an illegal abortion.
It was, in sum, a remarkable display of superficial understanding, if not complete ignorance, on an issue that one would assume any serious presidential candidate would have thought through, probably to the point of having a detailed position paper on the subject prepared and studied. Abortion, after all, is not an issue out of left field. It is one that is always in play in any national election, especially one that takes place with a Supreme Court vacancy to be filled. But Mr. Trump really hadn’t thought all that much about it. In fact, the questions posed by Matthews appeared to have prompted the first serious thoughts he had devoted to the subject.
Of course, not being a policy wonk doesn’t mean you aren’t interested in the job of being president. Ronald Reagan was not at all interested in getting into the weeds on policy. He governed from a broadly held set of principles and left the details to his advisors, the experts he appointed. George W. Bush probably fit that pattern as well. Neither man, by avoiding policy expertise, reflected any less interest in the job of being the president. Both were, by all appearances at least, fully committed to the presidency and to guiding the country domestically and internationally for the years they held the office.
Some presidential candidates are engrossed by the details; some are driven more by the desire to bring a vision for the country to the office; and still others might see the office as the pinnacle of public service, a way, if you will, of maximizing their desire to serve the country. Hillary Clinton, whatever else might be said of her, is probably motivated to a greater of lesser extent by all three of those reasons. She is occupied with the details, and has a vision for the country, and sees herself as a public servant for whom the office represents the most she can do and offer. That doesn’t make her a saint or even mean she’d be a good president. But it does make her a person who is seeking the presidency to do the actual substantive work of being the president.
I don’t think the same case can be made for Mr. Trump. In fact, by all appearances, he is only motivated by the office itself, not by the work of holding the office. Think about it – think about him. If he was really motivated to do the work of being the president, wouldn’t he have (at least by this point in the campaign) shown something more of his knowledge, or his vision, or his commitment to public service than he has thus far?
He clearly doesn’t have any interest in studying the issues. In fact, he not infrequently speaks without seeming to have even a modicum of knowledge about the issues (as when he ignorantly said that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine last month). And he doesn’t offer anything that sounds like a vision beyond his pat phrase of making “America great again.” Leaving aside exactly when in American history he believes the country was “great” and when it ceased being so, he never offers any specific vision of what being “great again” would mean.
And with respect to a commitment to public service, Mr. Trump comes to the campaign with zero evidence of anything remotely close to that kind of a life. He has always been for himself, putting his name on everything he owns, trying to own everything he touches.
He wants to be the president. He’s sure he’d be great at it.