Character vs. policy in the 2016 presidential campaign

Americans are learning far more about Donald Trump’s sex life and Hillary Clinton’s emails than about their respective policy agendas.

John Locher/AP/File
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016.

Of the many remarkable things about this campaign, there is this: Americans are learning far more about Donald Trump’s sex life and Hillary Clinton’s emails than about their respective policy agendas. This may seem strange since our actual lives would be affected far more by their economic policies than by the personal issues that seem to dominate every news cycle.

The counter-argument is that these stories teach us about the character of each candidate: not only what they may have done in the past but how they handle the allegations as they surface. And that, in turn, tells us about how they’d govern. Who they are, this theory goes, is more important than what they say they’d do as president.

Even if that is true, have we learned anything new about the temperament of either candidate since last summer’s conventions? Sure, we have been exposed to lots more gory detail. But has the basic story about either Trump or Clinton changed at all?

What we might have had, but did not, was a robust airing of the details of their policy priorities. It isn’t that the candidates haven’t told us what they’d do. In very different ways, they have. It is that the news media, the candidates, and the voters have simply not engaged on these issues.  

Identity Politics

In poll after poll, people say the economy is the most important issue in this campaign. And, publicly, at least, politicians say policy matters. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ)  put it this way in an interview with The Washington Post the other day: “We’re not choosing a personality for president — we are choosing a president based on policies and the direction of the party.”

Public opinion surveys do suggest that among an increasingly polarized electorate, policy and party are more important than personality. This identity politics has driven election results in recent years. Here’ a nice description of the phenomenon from The Washington Post’s Martin Wattenberg.

Yet, it is not easy to find policy stories among all the dross.

There seem to be several reasons:

First, campaign coverage is largely driven by the candidates themselves. And in an historically nasty race, both Clinton and Trump attack each other daily for being unfit to serve. Not for being wrong on the issues, but for being unworthy of the oval office. Clinton ads call Trump “unstable” while Trump says “crooked Hillary” should be “disqualified” from even running for president.

Then, there is the matter of how the candidates address policy. Clinton has proposed detailed prescriptions on taxes and spending, and she and her surrogates talk about a wide range of her proposals on the stump.

Trump has proposed at least three versions of his tax agenda. But he and his surrogates have had little to say about them. Rather, they focus almost entirely on two other policy issues—trade and immigration. Indeed, at a recent Tax Policy Center event where representatives of both candidates were invited to discuss their candidate’s tax agendas, Trump’s surrogates spent much of their time talking about trade. “Tax policy is trade,” one insisted. 

But neither candidate spends much time engaging the other on economic issues. In the last presidential debate, for example, Trump and Clinton spent perhaps one minute of a 90-minute event on tax policy. No policy debate. No policy news.


Finally, there is the matter of clickbait. Reporters for major news organizations regularly tell me that their editors discourage detailed policy stories because nobody reads them. Online media track every page view: If a story comparing the Trump and Clinton tax plans doesn’t generate online buzz, it is hard to write a second one. And when was the last time your Twitter account lit up with an argument over the Earned income Tax Credit? Even mine hardly ever does.

Yet….The tax policy gap between the two candidates is perhaps greater than at any time since Ronald Reagan squared off with Walter Mondale in 1984. And whoever you are, it matters.

Trump would cut taxes massively, especially for the rich. Clinton would raise taxes on the wealthy and cut taxes for families with high medical expenses or those caring for young children or aging parents.  Trump would cut taxes for many businesses. Clinton would raise them. Trump’s tax plan would add trillions of dollars to the national debt, potentially raising interest rates for everything from home loans to credit cards. Clinton would leave the debt pretty much where it would be under current law. Those proposals can change your economic life.

It is an historic contrast and seemingly worthy of a robust discussion. But with the election just a week away, we’ve hardly had one at all.    

This story originally appeared on TaxVox.

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