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Why Clinton's pitch on the economy is so weak

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

If you’ve been half-following the presidential campaign, you know Donald Trump wants to get tough on China, stop US companies from moving overseas, round up illegal aliens, slash taxes and, of course, “make America great again.”

Trump’s plan doesn’t entirely add up, and even economists in his own Republican Party complain that debt would soar and he could cause a recession. But Trump’s plan is tangible, almost like something you can hold. Voters know what he stands for, what he plans to do and what his vision is (something about making America great again).

What is Hillary Clinton’s economic plan? I conducted an informal poll in the Yahoo Finance newsroom, staffed by people who read news stories all day long and know a lot about what’s going on. A sampling of answers:

“Aw, geez.”

“I shouldn’t talk with my mouth full.”

“Whatever Obama’s plan is.”

“Help us with student debt?”

“She hasn’t come out with one yet, has she?”

“Infrastructure. More infrastructure.”

“Cut taxes?”

“Make sure unions get a fair shake. Is that right?”

“I have no idea.”

Clinton actually has a far more detailed economic plan than Trump does, with plenty of good ideas. Her website features 18 specific policy proposals on the economy, including more infrastructure spending, debt-free college for underprivileged kids, higher taxes on the wealthy, new fees on banks and fresh ways to boost small businesses.

But her economic agenda is about as exciting as a binder filled with think-tank papers, and if she has an overarching economic vision, she hasn’t communicated it with any zeal whatsoever. Clinton considers herself a champion of the underdog, as she tried to convey during her nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer. But she’s also an elitist who gets paid millions in speaking fees and spends more time hobnobbing with millionaire donors than with ordinary people. If Clinton has a populist bent, it is largely lost in her small-ball economic agenda and her unwillingness to muster conviction.

It’s a huge missed opportunity for Clinton, because Trump has essentially ceded the ground of serious economic policy to her. His sound-bite economic plan has been shredded by mainstream economists. Planks such as slashing taxes on the wealthy and squandering billions trying to build a wall against Mexico or round up illegal immigrants are political nonstarters. Yet Americans still say a stagnant economy is their top concern, and one reason Trump remains competitive in the presidential race is because he seems to be the candidate most impassioned about those falling behind. His remedies could do those same people more harm than good, but he sure knows how to brand a plan.

What could Clinton do differently? Plenty. She could join a majority of economists in defending free trade, as she did not so long ago. Instead of flip-flopping on deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which she used to support but no longer does, she could explain with authority why such deals are in our interest and back it up with new ways to help those disenfranchised by trade and present a small number of big ideas for making America the world’s most desirable economy (again). She could steal Trump’s good idea about growth: Set a target of 4% annually and declare it a national priority akin to winning a war. And then demand that we change the rules so every talented émigré in the world wants to come to America, and can.

Given Washington’s inability to accomplish anything, it might not matter that much who gets elected in November. But many of Clinton’s economic ideas are generally accepted concepts that have been banging around inside the Beltway for years. If she wants a chance to put them into action, she first needs to brand her economic plan and sell it like, well, a Trumpian pitchman. Before anybody votes for her plan, they have to know she has one.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.