Dismal Campaign Presages a Crisis of Government
One word describes this U.S. presidential election: dismal. That has ominous implications for the important tasks of governing over the next several years.
Elections in which big issues are joined have value because they provide a governance agenda to be debated and decided.
Both sides bear responsibility for the sorry state of politics this year, but the overwhelming blame belongs to Donald Trump. He has largely waged a campaign of venom and cruel insults that was substantively shallow. If you waded through his deepest policy thoughts your ankles wouldn't get wet.
Let's suppose he wins on Nov. 8. What would be his mandate? To build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it? Even a number of his supporters know that's a foolish fantasy. To round up and deport millions of undocumented workers? That would cost a fortune and would be socially catastrophic. To start a trade war with China, the world's second-largest economy? That would be a replay of the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
All of these agenda items are at cross purposes with the priorities of House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican congressional leaders. The party establishment concurs with Trump's call for huge tax cuts, tilted to the wealthy, investment income and business. But conservative lawmakers want to balance those reductions with cutbacks in entitlement spending, a non-starter for the Republican nominee, who has extolled the virtues of debt.
Trump has given little indication of a health-care policy, other than to say he'd call a post-election session to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He's equally vague on national security, besides expressing his admiration for the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and a vow to somehow "knock the crap" out of the Islamic State. There is no Trump governing agenda.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has laid out a comprehensive agenda on many issues. But in a political variation of Gresham's Law, her message often seems to have sunk to Trump's level. Can you imagine Republicans even grudgingly admitting she has a mandate to do anything?
If she wins and the Democrats don't capture the Senate, there won't be even a short honeymoon and a long nightmare will commence. Even with a bare Senate majority, with Democrats still a minority in the House, gridlock and rancor may be the norm, given what Republicans are saying now.
Senator Ted Cruz and even Senator John McCain have suggested they may not confirm any Supreme Court nominees during her term. As things stand, the court has four justices appointed by Republicans, and four put in place by Democrats, who, with Hillary Clinton, will have won five of the past seven presidential elections (in six of these they carried the popular vote). There's a vacancy on the court, though a superbly qualified nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, has been stiffed by the Senate for almost eight months.
In the House, Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, already is salivating over investigative opportunities with a President Hillary Clinton. It might be tempting to dismiss him as a headline-hunting hypocrite -- when a video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging, in lewd terms, about sexually assaulting women, Chaffetz rushed to TV cameras to say that in "good conscience" he couldn't support the nominee and look his 15-year-old daughter in the face. Less than three weeks later, under political pressure, he forgot his parental conscience and declared he was voting for Trump. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which gives him free rein to undertake inquiries.
Michael McCaul, the more respectable chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, topped Chaffetz last week when he raised the specter of impeaching Clinton if she's elected. John Cornyn, the Senate Republican whip, said that might be premature -- before the election and two and half months before the next president is sworn in.
Campaigns can advance agendas. In 1980, Ronald Reagan promised to slash taxes, curb regulations and aggressively escalate defense spending. As president, he adapted to some realities -- he was more flexible than his conservative loyalists recall -- but was able to achieve what he campaigned and won on.
Similarly, in 2008, Barack Obama made clear that two of his priorities were overhauling the health care system and ending the war in Iraq. He, too, faced some different realities, such as an economy in free fall, but was able to make good on major commitments that resonated with voters.
An ugly environment and an ugly campaign make such success unlikely over the next few years. Campaigns matter.
On a personal note, I'm envious of the late David Broder, the esteemed Washington Post political writer: The first presidential race he covered was Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960, the last was Obama in 2008. If this is my finale, the bookends are Nixon's re-election in 1972 and Donald Trump. Thank God for the four great ones in between.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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