Hillary Clinton may be the first candidate in American history to win a contest of personalities without having one.
She has been content to make the election all about Donald Trump’s character, and Trump has obliged because, really, what else would he consider as fascinating and important as himself?
In a more normal year, Obamacare would be a byword for the failures of liberal technocrat rule. Insurers have been exiting the exchanges, and many of those that are staying are hiking premiums by 20 percent or more. Even a Democratic governor, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, has said that Obamacare is “no longer affordable to increasing numbers of people.”
In a more conventional election, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy would be under relentless assault. The Russian reset is in flames. Syria is Obama’s Rwanda. Iran, with its nuclear program intact, is making a bid for regional hegemony. ISIS established its caliphate in the space created by Obama’s passivity.
In any other campaign, the economy would be front and center, and the slowest recovery in the post-World War II period a constant flashpoint.
Instead, none of these issues have had the resonance of Donald Trump’s early-hours Twitter war with a former Miss Universe, or even his aside in the third debate that Hillary Clinton is a “nasty woman.” And these have been third-tier controversies, compared with the ones that have truly rocked the campaign, like Trump’s post-convention fight with the Khan family and the airing of the “Access Hollywood” tape.
It’s not as though Trump doesn’t talk about the issues. But nothing besides his core of immigration and trade has the force to escape the extreme gravitational pull of his persona, which is outsized, compelling and — in a presidential campaign — ripe for deconstruction.
If Trump is defeated in November, he will lose, more than anything else, on the basis of his character flaws. His lack of discipline. His thin skin. His boastfulness. His refusal to admit error, even when it’s in his interest. His inability to project seriousness or to hit a grace note. The Clinton campaign has exploited them all, and Trump, ever himself, has lacked the self-awareness or wherewithal to keep from playing to type every single time.
The so-called beer test is the usual personality metric in presidential politics. Which candidate would you prefer to share a cold one with? Hillary’s campaign has worked instead to make the personality benchmark the “nuclear code” test. Which candidate would you prefer to have his or her finger on the button? It is meant to portray Trump’s outrageousness as affirmatively dangerous, and cast her own persona — which belongs in the same leaden category as Al Gore or Michael Dukakis — in the best possible light.
No candidate who has had such a seemingly commanding lead in a presidential race has ever been so little in evidence as Hillary Clinton. She is winning a presidential election when politics isn’t her strength because she can rely on surrogates to do much of the campaigning (especially Barack and Michelle Obama) while she raises the money to feed the massive Democratic political apparatus. Otherwise, she tries to stay out of her own way — with some mixed success — and counts on Trump to soak up all the attention.
And so he does. His “closing argument” speech over the weekend started with a threat to sue his accusers that inevitably drove all the press coverage. Any other candidate would want to change the subject from the accusations, but not Trump, who can never let a damaging controversy go, even two weeks before the election.
In the primaries, Trump displayed an uncanny ability to understand and target the vulnerabilities of his opponents. But he either never understood, or didn’t care to minimize, his own. This is why he chose to make the election about the single hardest thing for him to defend effectively, namely Donald J. Trump.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.