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This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
It is misleading, some observers have rightly pointed out, to treat the 2016 election as a contest between two candidates who are equally serious about policy. Donald Trump has been on both sides of many issues, contradicting himself from one day to the next. On occasion, he has given a speech written by advisers on a subject like energy where he seemed as surprised by the text as the audience was. He has a core of symbolically important positions on such issues as immigration, but otherwise his views are murky. Much of what he says about foreign or domestic problems is all impulse and no thought, so when his impulse momentarily changes, his positions change too.
For Hillary Clinton, however, substance actually does matter. Her seriousness defines her. We have not reached the stage of gender equality when a woman candidate for president could get away with being as subject to changing moods and personal pique as Trump is. While no one would know what to expect from a Trump presidency in major areas of policy, Clinton has laid out plans in virtually every domain. That plenitude of nuanced and multilayered policies is both an asset and a limitation. It is valuable in signaling to different groups where her commitments lie, and it will be an asset in governing if she is elected. But it is a limitation in a political campaign for reasons that have been especially clear this year.
Whether voters love or hate Trump, they can name a few big things he says he would do as president: build a wall on the Mexican border, round up and deport illegal immigrants, ban Muslims from coming to America, and redo trade deals. Similarly, Democratic primary voters this year were able to identify Bernie Sanders with a few major promises: break up the banks, make public college free, and pass what he calls “Medicare for all.”
Despite Clinton’s ample detail—her website covers more than 30 different issue areas, each with bullet points about specifics—voters would probably be hard-pressed to come up with three or four big ideas they identify with her. Although it is hardly a weakness of a presidential candidate to be prepared for the scope of the job, her campaign has not had a clarifying focus on a few big themes or proposals that instantly communicate what she wants to do.
Clinton talks with a youngster at an early childhood education center in New York in 2015.
The strategy that Clinton has adopted thus far this year may be partly to blame. Seeking to rally diverse constituencies, she has framed her candidacy in broad, progressive terms, often saying she wants to break down “all the barriers” facing people—not just economic barriers, but also those based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other sources of disadvantage. She also says she wants to build on Barack Obama’s presidency, and since Obama has previously supported much of what she favors, those ideas do not have her own stamp—at least not yet. In contrast to Sanders, she has repeatedly said she doesn’t want to make unrealistic promises, and against both Sanders and Trump, she has cast herself as the candidate of responsibility and refused to call for huge programs or huge tax cuts that would balloon the federal deficit. In another presidential year, she might get credit for good judgment; this year, she gets criticized for lacking imagination.
Perhaps concerned about the media seizing on whatever issue she leaves out, Clinton has resisted indicating which of her proposals would have priority. In a profile this spring in New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister reports Clinton saying she doesn’t accept the premise that as president she would have to choose which issues to advance first, assuming a two-year window of opportunity to move legislation through Congress. “I want to take everything I’ve said I’m going to work on and be as teed up as possible from the very beginning. I want to give [Congress] every opportunity to move forward on several fronts.”
Of course, advances along those fronts depend on the outcome of the congressional election. If Democrats win control of the Senate as well as the presidency, it would help Clinton with both judicial and executive nominations, but not necessarily with epochal legislation if Republicans still hold their House majority. In the less likely scenario in which Democrats also win back the House, the legislative logjam since 2011 could break open—especially if Senate Democrats eliminate the filibuster (as they did for appellate court nominations in 2013). Even if the odds of full control of Congress are low, Clinton ought to be “teed up” to take advantage of that possibility. Both Bill Clinton and Obama had a two-year window at the beginning of their presidencies, and most of the progressive legislation of recent decades was enacted during those intervals—the only four years of unified Democratic government in the past 36.
Before getting ahead of herself, however, Clinton has to win the election, and it is first of all for that purpose that she needs to define her priorities more sharply. Unlike Trump, she’s not going to go to extremes to make her case. But voters should know what to expect from her, and she needs to find ways to convey ideas that will stand out in their minds.
Focusing Clinton’s Economic Agenda
The economy and jobs usually top the list of voter concerns, so let’s begin there. Although Clinton’s approach to economic issues isn’t embodied in one or two signature policies, her agenda does have a thematic unity, summed up in a phrase she often uses, “giving working families a raise.”
A higher minimum wage is an unambiguous expression of that theme. In the Democratic primaries, the clash between Clinton and Sanders over the size of a minimum-wage increase obscured their agreement on a big jump. Raising the federal minimum from $7.25 to $12—the level Clinton has endorsed—would be the single largest increase in the history of the minimum wage in either percentage or absolute terms. (She also supports efforts in states and municipalities to raise their minimum wages to $15.) Clinton should be able to draw a sharp contrast on the issue with Trump, who has said that wages in America are “too high,” though in his customary style, he has also casually suggested he could support a minimum-wage increase, as if a Republican Congress would send him one.
Several other elements fit into Clinton’s overall theme, each of which articulates to other elements in her campaign. Like Obama, who increased infrastructure spending as part of the economic-recovery program soon after taking office, Clinton says that during her first 100 days she will call upon Congress to boost investment in roads, bridges, and other public works more than at any time since the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Closely related are policies to increase investment in clean energy, including measures aimed at installing half a billion solar panels and generating enough power from alternative sources to run all of America’s homes in four years. In line with the effort to give working families a raise, she’s pledged not to increase taxes for those making less than $250,000 a year, proposing instead to finance investments in infrastructure and other measures by closing “corporate tax loopholes” and making “the most fortunate pay their fair share.”
If Democrats win big in November, the outcome may be seen, above all, as a mandate on immigration reform. Here, supporters of fair immigration reform gather in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, April 18, 2016.
Here it is worth taking a moment to consider Clinton’s revenue and tax-fairness proposals in light of what Obama has done. Although you might never know it from discussion among progressives, the Obama years have seen a major shift in tax burdens from lower- and middle-income people to the rich. In 2009, Congress enacted three tax-credit increases that were later made permanent (the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit). Together, these have cut taxes for 24 million working- and middle-class families by an average of about $1,000. The subsidies for health-insurance premiums in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) represent another substantial benefit for those with low to middle incomes. At the median income, the federal income tax rate is now 5.3 percent, which is lower than the average in any presidential administration since the 1950s, indeed, less than half the rate during Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977–1980).
The flip side of the Obama record on taxes has been higher taxation of upper-income households. In 2010, congressional Democrats and the president prevented the extension of the tax cuts for the rich enacted under George W. Bush, increasing the top marginal income tax rate back to its level during the Clinton administration (39.6 percent) and reducing tax cuts on investment income and estates. When these changes went into effect in 2013, the top 0.1 percent paid $50 billion in taxes more than they would have paid under the previous rules. Partly as a result of a provision in the ACA, the tax rate on capital gains has gone from 15 percent to 23.8 percent.
Clinton’s proposals move in the same progressive direction, raising taxes on top incomes and providing relief to the less affluent. To pay for her new initiatives, she is calling for a 4 percent surtax on people with incomes over $5 million and a new minimum tax of 30 percent on those with pre-deduction incomes of more than $1 million. Several of her tax proposals are aimed at promoting long-term investment within the United States. These include increases in capital gains taxes for assets held for less than six years and other changes in tax policy to discourage high-frequency trading and shifts of corporations, jobs, and investment abroad. One little-discussed idea she has endorsed is a tax credit to encourage corporations to adopt employee profit-sharing plans. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Clinton’s tax proposals would generate about $1.1 trillion over a decade: “Nearly all of the tax increases would fall on the top 1 percent; the bottom 95 percent of taxpayers would see little or no change in their taxes.”
Besides paying for infrastructure investments, much of the tax revenue Clinton proposes to raise would go to purposes that bear out her theme of “giving working families a raise.” Clinton would use some of the revenue to finance her proposal for paid family leave. In the same vein, she is proposing to move toward universal pre-K by providing new funds to states that expand access to preschool for all four-year-olds. She has also discussed limiting families’ child-care costs to 10 percent of income, and although she hasn’t yet spelled out the details, that idea could involve refundable tax credits. The proposals add up to a clear message, if Clinton and the Democrats can communicate it: tax fairness on behalf of families who are struggling to make ends meet.
On taxes, the contrast with Trump could hardly be more dramatic. Trump’s tax plan calls for sharp cuts in federal income tax rates, including a reduction in the top rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. According to the Tax Policy Center, the top 1 percent would see their taxes fall on average by more than $275,000, while the top 0.1 percent would enjoy a windfall averaging over $1.3 million. For the lowest-income households, the tax cut would amount to $128; for middle-income households, $2,700. In addition, Trump would also completely eliminate federal estate taxes—which currently apply only to estates worth more than $5.45 million—and reduce taxes on business. The total loss in federal revenue, conservatively estimated by the Tax Policy Center at $9.5 trillion over ten years, would lead to severe cuts in federal programs or massive increases in deficits, or both. (The estimate of lost revenue is conservative because it doesn’t take into account rising interest costs from rising deficits.) Trump has ruled out cuts in Social Security and Medicare. On that assumption, other federal spending—defense, transportation, health, education, and so on—would have to be cut by about 80 percent to balance the budget. Since cuts of that magnitude aren’t feasible, the deficit would likely grow explosively.
In the contest over economic policy, Trump benefits from the undeserved impression that he has been a business genius and, more generally, from gendered expectations about the two candidates. In contrast to Clinton’s family-centered economics, Trump offers a seemingly more muscular, nationalist alternative. He promises to get factories humming by slapping tariffs on foreign imports, undoing environmental and other regulations, and boosting production of fossil fuels, including coal. Deporting the 11 million unauthorized immigrants fits with the same approach. It’s a turn-back-the-clock agenda that may appeal especially to white, industrial workers who have lost ground in recent decades, even though the job losses in manufacturing over the past half-century primarily stem from long-term technological change that, especially with advances in robotics, will almost certainly continue regardless of Trump’s policies. Rather than helping workers, Trump’s threatened tariffs could set off a trade war that would cost jobs in export-oriented industries, and the mass deportations he calls for would be not only inhumane but also economically devastating to the regions in the United States where immigrants account for much of the workforce and consumer demand.
Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton speak at a "No Ceilings" event dealing with women's issues at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, November 15, 2014.
Clinton isn’t conceding ground to Trump on industrial jobs. She is proposing to devote $10 billion to regional alliances called “Make it in America Partnerships,” aimed at strengthening industrial competitiveness and building on the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation established under legislation that Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown sponsored in 2014. The clean-energy proposals also aim at fostering manufacturing jobs. Acknowledging that trade has had mixed effects on manufacturing, she says new trade agreements have to meet “a high bar” and has backed away from supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But whereas Trump wants to wall America off from outsiders and revert to an unrecoverable past, Clinton’s agenda is fundamentally modernizing. She calls for more investment in science and technology, urges increased assistance to students to make college debt-free, accepts the facts of climate change, and generally favors trade and openness to the world. As against Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, she is committed to upholding America’s international agreements and leadership role on a planet that has become more interconnected than ever. Her support for paid family leave, universal pre-K, and assistance with child-care costs reflects a commitment to bring national policy in line with the contemporary realities of family life.
Clinton properly frames those family-centered economic policies as a foundation of general prosperity. “The movement of women into the American workforce over the past 40 years was responsible for more than $3.5 trillion in economic growth,” she argued in a speech last July. But whereas “the United States used to rank seventh out of 24 advanced countries in women’s labor force participation,” America dropped to 19th by 2013, partly because other countries are “expanding family-friendly policies like paid leave and we are not.” High-quality, affordable child care, she said, “is not a luxury. It’s a growth strategy.”
Clinton’s challenge is to persuade voters that her vision of what she calls a “growth and fairness economy” is rooted in today’s America, and Trump’s is stuck in yesterday’s. “When he says, ‘Let’s make America great again,’” Clinton declared on June 7, “that is code for ‘Let’s take America backward.’” She needs to press the case that Trump has lied about who would benefit from his tax plan and that the tough-guy image is fake—he has no practical way of making American industry great again, either by muscling other countries in trade or by deporting millions of immigrants. But while framing Trump’s notions as backward-looking bombast, Clinton also has to fill in what are still blanks in many voters’ minds about her own program, spelling out how she would “give working families a raise.” A historic increase in the minimum wage, a big infrastructure program, tax fairness, and new policies centered on families and children can provide the substance behind that theme.
A Referendum on America
The priorities that emerge from an election and shape a presidency often depend on the conflicts that the election itself highlights, based on the identities and personalities of the candidates as well as the issues they campaign on. The 2016 election has become a referendum on the kind of society that the American people want. Eight years ago, Barack Obama’s candidacy put to the test how far Americans had come in accepting African Americans as full and equal citizens. This year’s election is also about diversity, but the conflict now focuses on immigrants because of Trump and on women because of Clinton—and Clinton has every reason, and shows every sign, of using the stark challenge that Trump poses as a call to arms to voters and, if she wins, a mandate for action.
By nominating Trump, Republicans have raised the stakes on immigration. Under George W. Bush and again in the wake of the 2012 election, Democrats thought they could reach agreement with Republicans on legislation to provide a path to citizenship for long-settled, law-abiding unauthorized immigrants. That era appears to be gone now that the GOP has a nominee threatening mass deportations. If Democrats win big in November, I expect the outcome will be seen, above all, as providing a mandate on immigration reform. A decisive rejection of Trump will be a vote for an open, diverse society, and both Clinton and congressional Democrats will be emboldened to confirm that choice. But if Democrats fall short and immigration reform fails again, Clinton has committed to maintaining and expanding the administrative actions that Obama has taken in protecting Dreamers and others among the undocumented (actions, however, that are pending before the Supreme Court).
Immigration reform—together with racial-justice issues—will likely receive priority for another reason: the political debt that Democrats, and Clinton in particular, owe to the black, Latino, and Asian American communities. Clinton would not be the presumptive Democratic nominee if she hadn’t won overwhelming majorities among minority voters in the primaries. One of the first speeches she gave in the campaign was about ending the era of mass incarceration; she was also early to focus on the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as an issue of environmental justice. She cannot afford to forget those commitments. Four years from now, minority voters could again be crucial to her re-election.
Gender-related concerns were bound to arise in the first presidential election with a woman at the head of a major-party ticket. But Trump’s sexist comments about women, open talk about the size of his penis, and peacock-like demeanor have put the politics of gender into the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Clinton couldn’t have picked a better foil for making her case for women’s rights and a vision of prosperity with families and children at the center. Just as with immigration, Clinton will have the basis for claiming a mandate on those issues if she wins in November.
IF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY hadn’t turned as far right as it has in recent years, there might well have been possibilities for bipartisan cooperation on other major issues besides immigration. Two of these, climate change and health care, have now become long-term reform projects identified with the Democratic Party, begun in earnest under Obama and necessarily of high priority to a Democratic successor.
Trump again makes the stakes exceptionally clear. While some Republicans at least acknowledge global warming, Trump once tweeted that the very idea is a Chinese conspiracy to dismantle American manufacturing. In May, as part of his energy speech, which could have been summed up as “fossil fuels forever,” he pledged to “cancel the Paris climate agreement” and rescind environmental regulations that cut carbon emissions.
Picking up where Obama leaves off, Clinton has primarily focused on using authority under existing law to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution. The failure of Senate Democrats in 2010 to pass a cap-and-trade program approved by the House showed how difficult it is for Democrats, even with a Senate majority, to get representatives from coal-dependent states to vote for any bill moving the country toward energy alternatives. Besides defending Obama’s executive actions—in particular, the Clean Power Plan, which effectively bars new coal-fired power plants—Clinton is calling for higher fuel-efficiency standards, changes in leasing practices on federal lands, and stricter regulation of methane emissions (and therefore of fracking). Democratic control of Congress would be necessary for some measures Clinton is supporting, such as new investments in clean-energy infrastructure and an end to tax subsidies to the oil and gas industries.
Clinton testifies on health-care reform in 1993. Improving the ACA would be a top priority now.
On health care, there was some confusion last fall about where Trump stood. While calling for the repeal of Obamacare, he suggested that he might deviate from Republican orthodoxy and propose a program for universal coverage. But by February he backtracked, issuing a plan that would not only end coverage for about 20 million people who have gained it through the ACA but also effectively nullify state regulation of health insurance. The plan would allow insurance to be sold across state lines, enabling insurers to locate in states with the weakest laws.
Health-care reform has been the national issue most closely identified with Clinton, dating back to her role as the public advocate for her husband’s plan in 1993. She has a grasp of health policy few other public figures can match, and while continuing to carry out the ACA, she may now also have the opportunity to fix problems with the law, especially if Democrats secure a congressional majority.
In their early going, major reforms often need reforming themselves. After enacting Social Security in 1935, Democrats controlled both Congress and the presidency for more than a decade, which enabled them to amend and consolidate the program. Likewise, after passing Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, they were also able soon afterward to adjust those programs in amendments. But immediately after passing the ACA, Democrats lost control of Congress, and although Republicans have been unable to repeal the law, they have blocked constructive changes. The ACA, many Democrats initially said, would be a foundation they could build on, but they haven’t had the chance due to the gridlock in Washington.
Several problems now stand out as legitimate sources of dissatisfaction with health-care reform: high levels of patient cost-sharing in plans available in the insurance marketplaces; continued difficulties among low-income families in affording premiums; narrow networks (that is, lack of choice of physicians and other providers); and lack of competition among insurers in some states and regions. To help make coverage more affordable, Clinton is proposing a tax credit of up to $5,000 per family to offset a portion of the out-of-pocket and premium costs that exceed 5 percent of family income—another example of giving working families a raise. She would require insurers to limit out-of-pocket prescription drug costs to $250 per month for patients with chronic or serious conditions. She wants to increase incentives for states to expand Medicaid. And, as she did in her 2008 presidential campaign, she is supporting the establishment of a “public option” as a competitive alternative to private plans in the insurance marketplaces.
A public option could come in different forms. One possibility endorsed by Clinton is a Medicare buy-in for people when they reach age 50 or 55. This is not a new idea; Bill Clinton proposed it for 55- to 64-year-olds in the late 1990s and Al Gore supported it in his 2000 presidential campaign. The difficulty then was the likely cost resulting from “adverse selection”; the people most likely to enroll would have been those in poor health with high medical costs. Although this problem won’t have disappeared, it should be more manageable because of the subsidized plans already available in the insurance marketplaces. In fact, by taking 50- or 55- to 64-year-olds out of the general risk pool, a Medicare buy-in could result in lower premiums (and therefore lower federal tax subsidies) for everyone else in the insurance marketplaces. Letting Medicare compete for middle-aged enrollees in the insurance exchanges could be an incremental step toward a general public option. Short of congressional action on the Medicare buy-in or a general public option at the national level, Clinton has said she will use the flexibility already provided by the ACA to help states establish their own public options. Considering Clinton’s long personal involvement in health-care reform, the issue should be a top priority of hers.
TO THE SHORT LIST OF REFORM projects that will likely rank high on Clinton’s agenda, we can add one more—democracy itself. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court and policies adopted by Republicans at the state level have increased the political importance of voting and campaign-finance rules. Whereas Republican-controlled state governments have sought to make voting more difficult, Clinton wants to make it easier. She favors automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds and a new national standard for early voting (allowing voting to begin 20 days or more before an election). She’s endorsed a small-donor matching program as part of campaign-finance reform and wants to reverse the Supreme Court’s weakening of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the Court’s Citizens United decision.
Although Clinton would not be able to bring about many of these changes on her own authority without a Democratic Congress, she could have an enormous influence on the democracy agenda through Supreme Court and other judicial appointments. Assuming the Senate does not confirm Judge Merrick Garland during the lame-duck session after the election, Clinton—or for that matter Trump—could make as many as four Supreme Court appointments. Those choices could be the most important decisions the next president makes.
Ultimately, many people who cast their ballots for Clinton may vote more against Trump than for her, in part because they know enough about Trump to fear him, although they may be less clear about what Clinton would do. But Clinton has the basis for a stronger, positive case. She wouldn’t just make political history by becoming America’s first woman president; her family-centered economics provides the substance to make her presidency a milestone in American social life. After the long rise of inequality, it would not be a little thing to increase the minimum wage by 65 percent or to enact paid family leave and support for child care and universal pre-K. Affirming America’s commitment to an open and diverse society through immigration reform would also be a big deal. So would pushing ahead on the great energy transition and universal health care, as well as a revitalized democracy. The battle during the primaries left some Democrats feeling that Clinton wasn’t reaching high enough. But if she can accomplish half of her agenda, they may feel very different.