Maybe it’s not the Republicans’ fault. Or the Democrats’. Or even the do-nothing Congress’s. Maybe the nation’s biggest problem is a generation of leaders that have fallen hopelessly behind what’s happening in the real economy.
Bill Clinton became the first baby-boomer president when he took office in 1993, and whoever wins this year will be the fourth president from the baby-boom generation, loosely defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. Republican Donald Trump was born in 1946, the same year as Bill Clinton. Democrat Hillary Clinton was born in 1947. Both of this year’s candidates came of age during the glory years of the US economy—the 50 years following World War II, when American wealth exploded and living standards skyrocketed.
But as they age and retire, the boomers are leaving the US economy in far worse shape than they inherited it. They also tend to apply 20th-century thinking to new types of problems that require a different mindset to solve. This year’s presidential race highlights the whole nation’s disgust with those unsolved problems and leaders applying last year’s ideas to next year’s challenges.
Trump and Clinton are both unpopular, with favorability ratings well below 50%. That’s dismal for the two individuals each party has chosen as its best hope for the future. At the height of their influence over the country, baby boomers are offering cynical slogans instead of solutions, and the two candidates representing them both seem to be motivated by self-interest above all.
Trump rightfully earns criticism for coarsening the discourse in this year’s election, but each candidate bears blame for the nation’s sour mood and voters’ lost faith in public institutions. Clinton herself acknowledged that she’s afflicted with affluenza, saying in one speech to a Wall Street audience in 2014 that, “I’m kind of far removed [from the middle class] because the life I’ve lived and the economic fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy.” She then reassured the audience by saying, “But I haven’t forgotten it.”
That’s the whole problem. Clinton relates to the middle class of the past, not the middle class or middle-class aspirants of today. No wonder her entire economic plan comes straight from a stale 20th-century playbook: raise taxes, spend more building roads and bridges, provide more government subsidies for college students and a bunch of other worthies. Completely missing from her plan: any ideas about how to more broadly spread the massive wealth being created by digital innovation. Clinton is a candidate who probably doesn’t know how most of the apps on her smartphone work.
The deliberations her campaign goes through just to craft a social-media post should make everybody under 50 cringe. Leaked emails show that on one day in 2015, at least half a dozen campaign staffers spent more than five hours deliberating by email over how to phrase a single tweet responding to remarks made by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on Cuba. There was another long discussion about which phrase was better: “average Americans,” or “everyday Americans.” It’s a sure sign you don’t actually know any such people when you worry so much about what to call them.
Clinton supporter Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, warned the campaign about Clinton’s cardboard image, according to another leaked email from 2015. “The campaign … feels stale with very few signs of the kind of freshness and transparency that the American people (especially millennials) will need to trust and ultimately elect HRC as President,” Schultz wrote to Clinton aide Cheryl Mils. “The campaign feels ‘yesterday.’”
Trump’s campaign is more like the day before yesterday, or even 1930, when the protectionist and disastrous Smoot-Hawley law went into effect, causing an increase in import taxes by as much as 50%. Trump has cannily discerned the anger seething among voters who feel displaced in the digital economy. But his retrograde solutions would probably hurt the very same people, along with everybody else. Trump, of course, wants to tear up free-trade deals and impose tariffs on imports that are too cheap, which economists say would kill jobs and maybe cause a recession. He also wants to “bring back” manufacturing jobs he says have been stolen by China and Mexico.