By Brian Brinker:
The long, tough, and tumultuous 2016 election season is drawing to a close. Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, Donald Trump’s bombastic words, party infighting, FBI investigations, and numerous other developments have resulted in a hotly contested election, and it’s unlikely to simmer down even as it wraps up. Now, in the coming days Americans will have to choose who their next President will be.
Given that the office of the Presidency is arguably the most important single job post in the world, it’s important for Americans to weigh their choice carefully. As far as careers, personalities, and outlooks, the two candidates could scarcely be more different. While Donald Trump is a brash DC outsider, Hillary Clinton is a career party-line Democrat and policy wonk. In order to understand the candidates better, let’s dig into the ideological foundations of their campaigns.
Hillary: A Third Way With A Softer Touch
Hillary announced herself to the world all the way back in 1969 in a stirring commencement speech to Wellesley College. Back then, Hillary was a bit more idealistic, stating “for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” After a long career in politics, however, Clinton has emerged as a master of “the possible.” She’s a pragmatist, generally glad to work with businesses and willing to compromise in order to push through policies, yet also socially liberal.
During the primaries, Clinton found herself locked in a tougher-than-expected battle with Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, who not only held out until the convention, but also attracted droves of voters. Perhaps most tellingly, many of the voters who turned out for Sanders were young and/or far left political activists. This voting bloc of millennials and the far-left were also key factors in Obama’s defeat of Hillary back in 2008.
On the campaign trail Hillary called Sanders “naive”, and positioned herself as a pragmatist, to contrast with Sanders’ alleged idealism. Hillary Clinton represents not “change”, or a return of a more liberal brand of politics in the Beltway. Just the opposite, Clinton is a self-professed moderate, and along with her husband Bill, has championed the so-called “Third Way.” Roughly speaking, Third-Way politics embraces left-wing social policies, while also accepting many right-wing economic policies, such as deregulation, welfare reform, and embracing trade deals.
Clinton has cozied up to Wall Street, accepting hefty speaking fees and making speeches that were reportedly quite banker-friendly. As Secretary of State, she was also key in drafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership that she has since backed away from while campaigning. Regardless, many expect her to re-embrace the TPP, should she secure the highest office.
Further, in-depth analyses of her voting record (Clinton Vs. Sanders, Roll Call) have generally found Hillary to be a center of left senator with a slightly hawkish stance. To call her a Republican in Democrat’s clothing is a lie, especially with the GOP having shifted hard to the right in recent years. Yet she’s certainly not a democratic socialist, and arguably not a true “progressive.”
Sanders did push Hillary to the left, but most likely, Hillary will slide closer to the center if she wins the election. In the Senate, she voted to bail out Wall Street, supported the war in Iraq as well as the “Patriot” Act, and voted to extend the Bush tax cuts (after opposing them earlier). As president, Hillary would probably prove herself as a champion of the possible, rather than an artist of the impossible.
Most likely, President Clinton would push the TPP through, perhaps first requiring a few superficial changes to appease progressives. The military probably won’t receive any major cuts, but won’t be massively expanded either. If Hillary can muster up support in Congress, taxes might rise by a bit, but not by any amounts that will rock the boat. As with Bill and his “Third Way”, Hillary will likely prove to be socially liberal, but relatively pro-business, and pro free-trade. Further, any expansions of government regulation or oversight will likely come with industry insight and feedback.
Donald Trump: From Billionaire to Billionaire Populist
Donald Trump’s campaign started with fireworks. In his now infamous announcement speech, Trump called Mexicans “rapists”, and argued that “we have no protection” and “no competence”. As he rambled, he quickly pivoted to ISIS and then moved on to China, Japan, and Mexico, noting that America doesn’t “have victories anymore.” A master of the sale, Trump was suddenly a virtuoso of fear.
His announcement was laughed off by many pundits, who called it “outrageous”, a “circus”, and simply “hilarious.” What might have seemed like an incoherent rant, however, was actually a brilliant act of showmanship, and an appeal to the many disillusioned working and middle class Americans who have struggled since the Great Recession. In the world spotlight, Trump has transformed himself into a powerful and convincing populist, claiming that he would “make America great again.”
Trump is a populist in that his rhetoric is aimed directly at (white) middle and working class people, who make up the majority of the population. Trump has also labored to paint Hillary as an elitist Washington insider, and has repeatedly railed against D.C.’s establishment. Promising prosperity to the masses while painting the current powers-that-be as corrupt elitists is a trademark of populists, and a tool that Trump has wielded with tremendous skill.
Americans are jaded. With only 33% of Americans having confidence in the Presidency, and 8% having confidence in Congress, Trump’s anti-political sentiment has enjoyed wide appeal. Throughout the campaign, in a two-way race Trump has enjoyed strong support among males, and particularly uneducated white males.
Trump has appealed to frustrated Americans. He has called NAFTA the “worst deal ever”, and has claimed that he will renegotiate it. He has also promised to be the “greatest jobs president God ever created”. Trump also says he will crackdown on crime, defeat the Islamic State, create a better health care system than Obamacare, and perform numerous other political miracles.
All of these issues appeal directly to Trump’s base. Most of his supporters fear Muslims and even non-whites. Most hate Obamacare, lack faith in the government as an institution, and see trade deals as bad for America. Perhaps Trump believes everything he says, but it’s just as likely that he knows people will react to his words. Remember, Trump is a salesman if nothing else and he’s selling the “great America” that his supporters dream of.
Given the range of Trump’s campaign promises, and lack of detailed policies, it’s hard to discern what he would actually do once in office. Most of the policies he’s put forward so far are half-baked at best. He has yet to explain how he would pay for his massive tax cuts, which would be unlikely to pass through Congress anyways. What exactly he means and how he’d pursue renegotiating trade deals also remains vague. How he’ll reform the deeply troubled American health care system, or defeat ISIS, or crack down on crime also remains largely unknown. Instead, Trump asks the American people to simply believe him.
Fact is, Trump probably has no idea himself, but he knows if he makes the promises, many will listen. Certain promises are almost assuredly impossible, like forcing Mexico to pay for a massive (and expensive) wall. Yet ironically, Trump seems to have perfected the art of making the impossible at least sound possible.
Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.