The silly season is supposed to start getting serious when presidential debates begin. Yes, there are always the rehearsed soundbites and bitter sideswipes, but a healthy portion of debates is always about policy—you know, what presidents actually do with their power in office.
No one’s expecting the Lincoln-Douglas debates to suddenly break out this Thursday. But Donald Trump has so dumbed down the political conversation this year that he’s got other candidates wondering whether they should bother formulating policies. Because the shtick that’s elevated the rusty combover to the top of the polls is hilarious stuff if you dig insult comedy aimed at the American electorate.
Talking health care last week, the onetime supporter of single-payer told CNN’s Dana Bash that he would “Repeal [Obamacare] and replace it with something terrific.” When pressed about this “something terrific,” Trump patiently explained: “We are going to have to work out some kind of a very, very smart deal with hospitals around the country.”
On immigration, the demagogic heart of his campaign, The Donald assured Bash that “I have been giving it so much thought,” building on his promise to have Mexico pay for a wall across the Southern border by engaging in a mass deportation to “get the bad ones out.” When pressed on just how he’d accomplish this, Trump patiently explained: “Politicians are not going to find them, because they have no clue. We will find them. We will get them out.”
All this makes Richard Nixon’s “secret plan to win the war” during Vietnam look like a model of clarity and foresight. And so it’s no wonder that demagoguery is beating details on this campaign to date.
But there are notable, heartening exceptions, and those brave souls refusing simply to play to the lowest common denominator deserve a shout-out for making an effort.
Even before kicking off a campaign, Chris Christie issued a plan to reduce the growth of entitlement spending by $1 trillion over 10 years through means-testing Social Security and raising the retirement age. These are the kinds of bold fiscal conservative proposals that used to unite the GOP until polls showed the Tea Party didn’t want the government to touch Medicare.
Jeb Bush is still learning how to light up a crowd, but the former Florida governor is a true policy wonk who has courageously continued to back education reform and immigration reform despite overheated disapproval from the conservative populist base.
But the surprise award for GOP policy substance goes to the freshman libertarian Senator Rand Paul. Rather than simply ducking out of his elected duties to run for president, Paul has used his office to advance controversial policies. These include backing bipartisan proposals that push forward debates ranging from criminal justice reform to NSA reform, taking on mandatory drug minimum sentencing and restoring felony voting rights—not exactly policies that are high on the priority list of Republican primary voters.
But Paul also has proposed the most detailed tax reform plan of any conservative candidate to date, pushing a 14.5 percent flat tax while eliminating most deductions and the regressive payroll tax. The plan might be politically implausible and even unwise, but it ain’t painted with pastel colors. I only wish he’d extend the same bold thinking to backing the obvious libertarian position of supporting the freedom to marry rather than trying to tiptoe around the issue for fear of offending traditionalists who aren’t going to vote for him anyway.
But you’d have to jump over to the other side of the aisle to see the most substantive policy-based campaign to date.
Traditionally, front-runners play it safe for fear of losing their lead. That usually means putting forward as little specific policy as possible. But over the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton has trotted out detailed proposals on issues ranging from the economy to energy and the environment, calling for quadruple the amount of electricity generated by renewables by the end of the next decade. She didn’t flinch or think of Florida when backing an end to the Cuba embargo, and while championing decisions like the war in Libya will bring deserved increased scrutiny, she’s got a detailed record as secretary of state to add real ballast to the typical campaign bluster.
The economy is issue No. 1 in all the polls, and Clinton’s uncommonly thoughtful speech on the problems that come from “quarterly capitalism” deserves more discussion.
Speaking at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Clinton offered a wide-ranging series of prescriptions aimed at adjusting the perverse incentives that too often force our country and corporations to think about short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy, rampant speculation rather than long-term investment. This is proving to be the Achilles’ heel of liberal capitalist democracy, which she rightly called “the greatest engine of economic opportunity and potential that has ever been invented.”
The core of her proposals include a sliding scale that would reduce the capital gains tax rate for investments held over six years while eliminating cap gains for long-term investments in startups and small businesses, especially in distressed areas. She would make the Research and Experimentation tax credit permanent while ending tax-break subsidies to established industries like oil and gas, and close the carried interest loophole for hedge funds. She would encourage profit-sharing across corporations while reining in activist shareholders and executive pay-packages that incentivize short-term gains rather than long-term growth.
There’s plenty to quibble with in Clinton’s specifics. For one, she addresses the 3.8 percent Affordable Care Act tax only in a footnote, meaning that all her rates are higher than advertised. Second, she would have been well-advised to cut long-term capital gains rates—for example, those investments held over 10 years—in half to really make a clear, bold point about rewarding investment.
But her broad argument for the proper role of government still stands—smart regulation creates incentives toward societally beneficial behavior. This is at the heart of what Cass Sunstein has called “libertarian paternalism,” and there’s an urgency behind these sorts of reforms right now.
Especially in an era of high-frequency trading, there is a fundamental sense that the game is rigged against responsible long-term value investors in favor of short-term speculators—and that undercuts trust in our system of government and economics while the middle class gets squeezed for yet another decade. In the larger sense, America and its liberal capitalist democratic allies are facing a critical challenge from “Market Leninist” countries like China and Russia, which are trying to push an alternative international system based in large part around the idea that democracies are decadent, inefficient, and unpredictable when it comes to long-term planning.
Amid the polarization of our two parties, responsible policy specifics carry risks from the base as well as the opposition. Clinton is walking a difficult line at a time when Democrats are wrestling with the increased influence of a left-wing Tea Party. And while her proposals to rein in the excesses of “quarterly capitalism” drew cheers from centrist organizations like Third Way, their very support provoked a Pavlovian response on the part of progressive activists like Democracy for America. Executive Director Charles Chamberlain finger-wagged at Clinton for not “aggressively taking on the powerful, greed-driven institutions that have dominated the Democratic Party and held back the prosperity of the American people for too long.” In the face of such a response, the Clinton folks could be forgiven for thinking that no good deed goes unpunished. But the Berniacs already have their candidate, and he’s not in any danger of winning a general election any time soon.
One reflection of the rampant short-term thinking in our culture is the reluctance of most presidential candidates to wade into the deep waters of policy. Yes, there are political risks, but it’s a dangerous world. And the blustery idiot wind of bumper-sticker politics is insufficient for the office they want to occupy.