Much of the presidential race has centered on temperament and character, and understandably so as Donald Trump's racially divisive rhetoric casts a shadow over the entire campaign.
But we are electing a president here, and what the candidates have to say about the full range of policy matters should be analyzed and understood.
Yet we cannot easily compare the policy visions of the two major party candidates. One reason is that the phrase "flip-flop" doesn't begin to describe Republican candidate Trump's willingness to reverse himself when convenient, contradict himself within minutes and serve up word salad to avoid taking clear stances.
Another reason is that only one candidate is bothering to offer a comprehensive set of policy proposals.
As the Associated Press reported, "Trump's campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words. There are 38 on [Democratic candidate Hillary] Clinton's "issues" page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer's disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words."
The policy fight is a mismatch. You can't beat something with nothing. And on many fronts, Trump is literally offering nothing.
To give you a sense of how wide the chasm is between the two candidates when it comes to policy depth, I have provided links to all of the policy pages from each candidate's website.
- The economy, including taxes, regulation, energy and trade (with a separate page for US-China trade
- Immigration reform (and a separate page for "Pay For The Wall")
- Gun rights
- Veterans Affairs Department reform
● The economy, which covers trade and equal pay, among other issues, with separate pages including:
- Jobs and wages
- Job training
- Technology and innovation support
- Paid leave
- Worker rights
- Retirement security
- Small business aid
- Rural aid
- Wall Street reform
● Health care with separate pages for:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Mental health
- HIV and AIDS
- Drug addiction
- Military readiness
- National security
- Veterans Affairs Department reform
- Pre-K education
- K-12 education
- College affordability
- Racial justice
- Criminal justice reform
- Gun violence prevention
- Women's rights
- Disability rights
- LGBT rights
- Voting rights
- Campaign finance reform
- Campus sexual assault
- Climate change
- Wildlife protection
What few white papers Trump has produced have been the result of public pressure. Trump has made his view clear that he does not believe in providing policy specifics to voters, saying 12 months ago, "I am a person who does not necessarily believe in plans that have 14 steps. Because when the second step gets out of whack, you're screwed. I don't think the voters care about specifics. I think the press cares, but I've never had a voter ask for my policy papers."
I'll leave it to the voters to decide whether or not they expect their presidential candidates to provide specifics before Election Day. But Trump's other rationalization, "when the second step gets out of whack, you're screwed" deserves more commentary.
You can't expect a candidate's position paper to become law exactly as proposed, but the need to make adjustments when obstacles arise doesn't mean "you're screwed."
Barack Obama reversed course on his health plan details, embracing Hillary Clinton's (and Mitt Romney's) individual mandate after disparaging it as a candidate, upon deciding it would help get the legislation passed. Does that mean Obama's candidate policy papers were a waste of his and our time? Absolutely not. He had begun the process of thinking through the details, which enabled him to hit the ground running once in office. And much of what he did envision became law.
A president often has little time to follow through on campaign pledges. Obama and Bill Clinton lost control of Congress after two years. George W. Bush became consumed with national security after 9/11, and failed to achieve some major domestic policy goals – such as Social Security privatization and making his tax cut package permanent law (which allowed Obama to repeal the heart of it). Knowing exactly what you want to do on Day One is critical to getting anything done.
Many of the specifics Clinton is proposing probably will not be seen by most voters before Election Day, but Clinton does not seem to care. She spends her time on it anyway. As Politico reported:
…Clinton seems deeply invested in the nitty-gritty of her plans to prevent animal cruelty and implement automatic voter registration and tax high-frequency trading, even though she must know most normal human beings will never read them. On a call late last year to discuss a draft of her five-year, $275 billion infrastructure plan, Clinton asked her team if it would be possible to embed "Build America Bonds" -- an Obama stimulus program that helped municipalities finance public works -- in her proposed "infrastructure bank." Michael Schmidt, one of those Clinton aides who sit in cubicles writing policy all day, knew that was indeed possible, because he had gotten an email from a prominent economist suggesting that very policy earlier that day.
"She genuinely believes this is what you're supposed to do when you run for president," Schmidt says.
It's not just what you're supposed to do. It's the only way to enact a broad agenda before your presidency gets chewed up by the clock.
There's no guarantee that what you see on Hillary Clinton's website would become law as written if she is elected president. While much of it incorporates ideas generated from the community of progressive wonks, her plans still would be subject to the congressional grinder. A strong push from the grassroots will likely be necessary to keep proposals from being watered down.
But at minimum, a President Hillary Clinton would enter the Oval Office with a robust plan of action, enabling her to drive the agenda.
In contrast, a President Donald Trump -- after learning the hard way that the few ideas he has have little chance of clearing Congress -- would be lost at sea. He'd be constantly reacting to events instead of shaping them, because he had so little to offer in the first place.
"Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," he claimed at his convention. But if he knew the system so well, he'd know that you can't fix anything without a plan. And he has no plan.