There’s a Greek adage—since become an American cliché—concerning the difference between a fox and a hedgehog: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”
If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim the White House in 2020, it would do well to nominate a hedgehog.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president as a fox—someone who had walked the halls of power for decades and seemingly knew everything about everything. As a consequence—because she attempted to address every issue all at once, to be all things to all people—she came across as a woman who believed in nothing in particular other than becoming president.
By contrast, her opponent—one Donald J. Trump—ran as the know-nothing charlatan that he is—a man of appalling incuriosity and ignorance about the world around him—yet nonetheless captured a majority of the Electoral College on the strength of a single, clear and consistent message: “I will make brown people go away.” (In time, this would be shortened to “Make America Great Again.”)
If you want to know the story of the 2016 campaign, it’s that the candidate who knew many things was defeated by the candidate who knew (or at least said) one big thing. My advice to the Democrats’ eventual nominee next year: Find one big thing on which to campaign, and stick with it.
For all his bumbling and rambling in his official duties as chief executive, Donald Trump understands the power in establishing a singular, unified worldview and funneling all of his major declarations and acts toward the implementation thereof.
Trump may careen incoherently from one policy bungle to another—ever on the defensive against a media-industrial complex that he views as an existential threat to his presidency—but his One Big Idea has remained the same: That is, the notion that America has been taken advantage of for decades by its counterparts in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—economically and militarily—and it’s high time the United States stand up for itself by withdrawing most of its troops, tearing up most of its treaties and, of course, building a Big Beautiful Wall on the border with its neighbors to the south.
We can argue about the wisdom of the 21st century’s leading superpower effectively withdrawing from the world stage to tend to its own private concerns—and, indeed, about whether such a thing is even possible—but we can’t deny the elemental appeal of a commander-in-chief who knows exactly what he wants for his country—particularly regarding its foreign policy—and is unrelenting in his desire to effectuate it, up to and including when public support turns against him.
Obviously, Trump’s bluster on this front has far outpaced his capacity for generating results—as would be expected of a loud-mouthed businessman who once managed to bankrupt a casino.
Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Trump’s singlemindedness about isolating the United States from the global community scratched a primal itch in millions of voters who wanted to send an angry message to Washington, D.C., and who regard Trump as a faithful vessel for their (self-)righteous ire. His stick-to-itiveness vis-à-vis “America first!” carried him over the finish line on November 8, 2016, and is the one thing guaranteeing that 30-odd percent of the electorate will never, ever leave his side. In the broadest possible sense, they always know where he stands and, rightly or wrongly, they believe he stands with them.
In 2020—as in 2018—it will be the left’s turn to vent its outrage at the incumbent administration and chart its own course forward, and the worst the Democrats could possibly do is to nominate a candidate who is timid and circumspect about saying what he or she truly believes—or worse, who says too much about too many different things, resulting in a muddled message that does nothing to inspire those who yearn to be inspired—as perhaps they haven’t been since the “Yes We Can” days of 2008.
Among the more amusing side stories from 2016 was that, in preparing for the general election, Hillary Clinton and her aides entertained at least 84 possible slogans before ultimately settling on “Stronger Together”—a fact that illustrates both how seriously the campaign took the concept of self-branding and how woefully unfocused the whole operation was, thematically-speaking. For all her experience and expertise as a public official, Hillary could never quite explain why she, of all people, should be president of the United States—particularly not in an easy-to-remember phrase that could fit easily on a bumper sticker or a red hat.
It all comes down to the elemental question, “Why do you want to be president?” Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t summon a coherent answer in 1980, effectively strangling his own insurgent candidacy in its crib. In truth, very few candidates in the intervening decades have done much better, typically using the query as an opportunity for a vague laundry list of issues rather than a sweeping declaration of principle.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a person who presumes to become the most powerful human being on Earth at least pretend to believe in something beyond personal wish-fulfillment. As no less than Richard Nixon observed, those who run for high office can be divided into two groups: Those who want to do big things, and those who want to be big people. Of course, the former can (and generally does) lead to the latter. Wouldn’t it be nice if America’s next president understood that it doesn’t work the other way around?