More than a decade ago, I sat in a room with hundreds of economists, politicians, corporate executives and business reporters listening to then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan discuss everything from world energy prices to the lively housing market.
It was a lunch meeting of the Economic Club of New York, a membership group made up of economists, academics and executives.
Every word Greenspan said mattered. It was more than three years before the 2008 economic collapse, but he spoke of unsustainable price gains and real estate price bubbles in certain regions that were “unsustainable.”
They were wise, predictive words, and club members expressed interest and concern after hearing him.
The club hosts similar luncheons regularly; there have been more than 400 in the last century. Guest speakers customarily include treasury secretaries, economists, foreign dignitaries and Federal Reserve chairs. They’re individuals whose words often move stock markets, and they speak to a crowd hungry for a thought-provoking conversation.
Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was the guest speaker. This wasn’t a typical meeting.
Running mate Mike Pence introduced Trump with laudatory words. But Trump’s speech was mostly more of the same that we’ve heard on the campaign stump and in previous speeches.
The Manhattan billionaire pitched his economic plan — fewer tax brackets, lower corporate tax rates, great trade deals, less regulation. He promised 4 percent annual economic growth and 25 million new jobs in the next decade. He mentioned building “the wall,” repealing Obamacare, rebuilding the military. It was familiar.
After the remarks, the guest speaker is questioned in what the club calls a “fireside chat.”
Yesterday, Trump was on friendly ground. His questioner was billionaire John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who is part of Trump’s economic advisory team. Paulson’s questions weren’t difficult or controversial, but they were important and detailed. He asked, for instance, for a breakdown of how much economic growth each individual proposal would achieve.
But Trump rarely answered Paulson’s questions.
He didn’t utter words that would move the stock market, or make economists reconsider long-standing notions. There were no new ideas.
Trump’s remarks lacked depth and detail, and his simplistic version of how to improve the economy lacked any real understanding or knowledge of critical issues. The candidate didn’t reflect on the complexities of negotiating trade agreements, or what it would take to address the needs of Americans in poverty.
The bare threads were particularly apparent on this stage where there had been intelligence, depth and thought. Those who came before set a standard — and Trump failed to come close.
Trump could not have convinced this audience that he could create jobs or grow the economy or pay for all he suggests. Unlike audiences of supporters, this group won’t just automatically believe him.
It’s possible, of course, that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have done much better.
To deserve a place on that stage, in the shadow of great economic minds and policymakers, Trump had to give far more than the lingo, the one-liners and the slogans he delivers at his rallies.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.