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The policy stakes in this election are enormous

Imagine for a moment that Tuesday evening Americans gather ’round their Twitter feeds and television sets and begin to see that the polls were wrong. Not wrong by much, necessarily, but off by about 5 points in each state, meaning that Donald Trump will be elected president and that Republicans will maintain — or even slightly expand — their majorities in Congress. Now imagine that none of the darkest fears of Trump’s critics come to pass.

He doesn’t staff his administration with inept sycophants or sell America out to the Russians or unleash an unprecedented wave of race riots and pogroms or abuse power to persecute his enemies or steal taxpayer money or undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Imagine, in other words, that Trump does what he says he wants to do on taxes, the environment, immigration, and health care. It’s true that he is not a passionate policy wonk; nor does he seem like someone who is deeply invested, on a personal level, in the non-immigration aspects of his policy agenda. But the agenda is there, and on all these non-immigration issues his views are basically in line with the vision put forth by Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will do the boring work of drafting the bills for Trump to sign.

The result would be a sweeping transformation of American life. Millions would be forcibly removed from their homes and communities as new resources and a new mission invigorate the pace of deportations. Taxes would drop sharply for the richest Americans while rising for many middle-class families. Millions of low-income Americans would lose their health insurance, while America’s banks would enjoy the repeal of regulations enacted in the wake of the financial crisis. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gas emissions would end, likely collapsing global efforts to restrain emissions, greatly increasing the pace of warming.

Millions of Americans would love some or all of these changes, and millions of others would hate them. But most of all, the vast majority of Americans would simply be confused. Someone who’d been following the election moderately closely — scanning headlines, watching cable news, and tuning in to debates — would simply have no idea that this sweeping shift in American public policy is in the offing if Trump wins. Nor would they have any real sense of what the more modest shift in public policy that would emerge from a Clinton win would look like. Beneath the din of email coverage and the mountains of clichés about populism, the mass-market media has simply failed to convey what’s actually at stake in the election.

All elections are about policy

The standard explanation for why the media has paid such scant attention to the policy issues at stake in the election is that the 2016 race “isn’t about policy.” There’s certainly a sense in which that’s true — Trump has not spent a lot of time sweating the details of his policy pronouncements, and his lengthy rally addresses don’t talk about them much. But there’s also a sense in which it’s too self-referential. On the rare occasions when debate moderators asked the candidates about policy issues, they debated them. Had they asked more, the debate would have been more about policy.

CNN hired a stable of pro-Trump commentators and could have asked them to explain why Trump wants to create a new ultra-low 15 percent tax rate for hedge fund managers, and then the campaign, at least as experienced by CNN viewers, would be about that. Clinton surrogates, too, could almost certainly have been induced to describe some of the Clinton campaign’s many, many, many policy proposals if they’d been asked about anything other than email.

But most fundamentally, all elections are about policy because making policy is what politics is for. The question of who will be the next president of the United States would be boring and meaningless if not for the fact that the president is an extremely influential policymaker. And while campaign pledges are certainly an imperfect guide to policy, research shows that politicians mostly do make good-faith efforts to enact their promises, which makes campaign policy statements an invaluable trove of insight into the likely future.

Donald Trump does have a policy agenda

Donald Trump does not personally seem very engaged with policy issues, but if he wins, he’ll have a nearly unprecedented ability to enact a sweeping policy agenda.

The main reason for that is if he wins it’s all but guaranteed he’ll have a Republican congressional majority to work with. And as the parties have become more polarized, the odds that a newly elected president backed by newly confirmed congressional majorities will have a fairly free hand to enact his agenda have soared.

What’s more, under the leadership of Speaker Ryan, House Republicans have already cooked up a massive agenda on domestic policy that commands majority support and that Trump has largely endorsed. The centerpiece is a major cut in taxes for high-income people financed by deep cuts to anti-poverty programs, paired with broad deregulation of the finance and health insurance sectors along with a substantial rollback of federal air pollution regulation.

Trump’s agenda is largely identical to this, except that his proposed tax cut is much larger, and he also wants to add his signature deportation surge and, of course, the wall along the Mexican border.

Clinton, by contrast, will almost certainly be dealing with a Republican House that makes it difficult for her to enact much in the way of dramatic new legislation. But she will probably have a chance to create the first progressive Supreme Court majority in a generation and back it up with a sweeping transformation of America’s lower courts. She is promising to do meaningful things on climate change through executive action and has made some very aggressive commitments on immigration.

A normal person would have no idea

These stakes are critically important to the future of the country. But they’ve been nearly invisible from coverage of the campaign.

A recent study showed that network television news has dedicated more minutes to Hillary Clinton’s email server than to all policy issues combined. The day after the FBI revealed that it had found some emails that might be copies of emails it had already read but that if they weren’t simply duplicates might be relevant to an investigation of Clinton’s email server, all three above-the-fold New York Times stories were about the new emails, even though there was no information about them.

This dynamic is, currently, hurting Clinton in the polls, though earlier in the year she helped establish it by centering Trump’s temperamental unfitness rather than any policy agenda at the core of her argument.

But regardless of which candidate the policy-light tone of coverage helps at any given moment, it represents a fundamental abdication of responsibility to explain to people what is going on. The two candidates are running on very different policy agendas, agendas that in some ways contradict the media narratives about downscale “populists” versus cosmopolitan elites. And because House Republicans are both unified on policy and entrenched in safely drawn districts, there is a sharp asymmetry in terms of the direction of change.

Trump is nobody’s idea of a policy wonk, but he has signed on to a real agenda, and if he wins he’ll probably implement it. The public should hear about its contents before they decide whether to make him president.