Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future
Simon & Schuster, 2016, 288 pp., $15.99
Blueprint for America
Hoover Institution Press, 2016, 224 pp., $19.95
Sometimes U.S. presidential elections confront Americans with a choice between starkly different political visions, not just leaders and parties. The elections of 1800, 1860, 1912, and 1932, for example, were truly pivotal contests that altered the nation’s democratic trajectory.
The 2016 election doesn’t fall into that category. It’s more a clash of personalities than ideas. That mainly reflects Donald Trump’s grab-bag demagoguery and inability to offer voters anything like a coherent governing agenda. But it also stems from Hillary Clinton’s lack of policy ambition and dogged incrementalism. The result is a not-so-great debate that turns on the candidates’ personal foibles rather than the urgent issues before the country.
That’s not to say the race lacks big ideas. Indeed, there are plenty of them—but they tend to be epically bad ideas. Here again Trump is the prime offender, with his calls for a “beautiful” border wall, mass deportations, the use of torture, bans on Muslim refugees, and a trade war with China. Trump is exploiting white working-class grievances and prejudices with all the subtlety of a hammerhead shark, in the process resurrecting such long-discredited concepts as nativism, protectionism, and “America First” isolationism.
Retro he may be, but Trump is not playing small ball. He is throwing a harpoon into the soft underbelly of open, diverse, inclusive, postmodern America. It’s this reactionary radicalism that explains Trump’s appeal to people with whom he otherwise has little in common, especially Evangelicals and blue-collar whites who feel economically dispossessed, demographically threatened, and estranged from the country’s drift toward cultural pluralism.
Of course, Trump isn’t the only candidate to channel the populist distemper that is gripping both the United States and Europe. He got some competition from Senator Bernie Sanders, who rode a wave of left-wing populism closer to the Democratic nomination than even he expected.
Unlike Trump, Sanders is principled, decent, and metronomically consistent in his political views. Nonetheless, he also maligned the U.S. free enterprise system as a hellscape of predatory capitalism and echoed Trump in railing against trade deals as a conspiracy by billionaires and Wall Street to destroy working-class jobs. For remedies, Sanders peddled a social-democratic version of Trump’s Spanish Castle Magic: free college for all, expanded entitlements, punitive taxes on “the rich,” a single-payer health system to replace Obamacare, and a total ban on shale oil and gas production.
Although he failed to wrest the nomination from Clinton, Sanders succeeded in torqueing the primary debate and the Democratic platform to the Left. His unsparing attacks on Clinton as a tool of the plutocrats who really run America may also have driven a non-trivial chunk of his millennial base to libertarian Gary Johnson, or possibly to stay home on election day. We’ll see.
While the Democratic center held, Trump took over the Republican Party with shocking ease. One reason was the steady erosion since 2008 of the party’s firewall against extremism by Tea Party insurgents. In any event, Trump is an historical rarity—a populist outsider with no previous political experience who has actually captured a major party nomination. Even stranger, he won the GOP nomination with an ideological mashup of messages from across the spectrum, including many that are anathema to conservatives. Like the proverbial dog that catches the bus, what Trump would actually do as President is anyone’s guess.
Trump is evidently not much of a reader, and he’s apparently not ashamed to say so. (No one has yet figured out if he is ashamed of anything.) So there’s no campaign book that lays out his political philosophy and positions, as per usual for a presidential candidate and campaign at this stage. His message is conveyed through vainglorious and disjointed harangues before rapt audiences, and a steady stream of Tweets that are tiny masterpieces of invective. Lately, in what looks like a half-hearted concession to campaign conventions, sketchy “fact sheets” have begun sprouting on Trump’s website that purport to explain his stands of various issues. But it’s obvious that substance bores Trump.
Not so his opponents. In Stronger Together, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine unfurl their governing agenda in all its wonkish glory. The book methodically marches through the main issue areas and details scores of highly specific prescriptions. In fine Democratic fashion, there’s something here for almost every organized interest: the disabled and mentally ill, veterans, hunters and fishers, people of all sexual identities, immigrant families, debt-laden students, civil rights activists. One could (because they do) go on and on.
The volume doesn’t attempt to define any overarching political principles or philosophy. Instead, it opens on an old-fashioned note as the candidates describe the ethic of Christian humility and service that has inspired their political careers. Clinton cites the Methodist credo: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” For Kaine it’s the motto of the Jesuit boys’ school he attended: “Men for others.”
Such piety and do-goodism might be off-putting if they were running against anyone other than Trump, whose moral scales weigh all things according to whether or not they are good for The Donald. In any case, these personal testaments set the tone for the 250 pages of liberal meliorism that follow.
The book’s proposals are familiar to anyone who’s followed Clinton’s long and winding road to her party’s nomination. She’s for spending big on infrastructure; raising the minimum wage and closing the gender pay gap; mandatory paid leave, child care credits, and universal pre-K; ramping up clean energy (a half-billion solar panels by the end of her first term); reforming the criminal justice system; tax credits to defray excessive health care costs and encourage caregiving; and a boatload of new taxes on the rich to pay for it all. Such ideas find broad support in the progressive mainstream.
Then there are proposals that fall into the category of “Bernie lite,” since they seem intended to co-opt Sanders’s appeal among millennials and upscale white liberals. For example, Clinton and Kaine would means test Sanders’s demand for “free college” by eliminating tuition for families making less than $125,000, so long as students attend in-state public colleges. They would also cap student-loan debt payments at 10 percent of monthly income. While advocating for generous new Federal subsidies, the book says almost nothing about why college tuition costs are soaring or how to attack the problem at its roots.
Stronger Together also endorses one of the most retrograde ideas to gain currency among liberals—and Donald Trump—in this electoral cycle: Expanding Social Security benefits without reforming the system. That would put new financial burdens on young workers and move forward the date of Social Security’s impending rendezvous with insolvency. It would also tighten the fiscal vise that the big three entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) have clamped onto the Federal budget.
There are sound progressive arguments for boosting Social Security’s minimum benefit for low-income retirees and fixing egregious flaws in its treatment of widows. But unless policymakers also constrain the overall growth rate of automatic spending on health care and retirement, it will squeeze out public investments in education, infrastructure, environmental protection, poverty amelioration, and more. In short, barring improbably massive tax hikes that would have to reach well beyond “the rich,” this squeeze portends the death by starvation of progressive government.
In another concession to populism, Stronger Together bristles with tough mercantilist rhetoric. “We’re going to stop dead in its tracks any trade deal that hurts America,” Clinton and Kaine declare. The book advocates a new “Chief Trade Prosecutor” to monitor our trade partners for cheating and echoes Trump’s demand for a crackdown on currency manipulation.
And of course the book reaffirms the two candidates’ repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which both had previously supported. The shift probably didn’t help Clinton assuage voter doubts about her trustworthiness, and it’s definitely made it harder for her to draw a sharp, principled contrast with Trump’s belligerent economic nationalism. It’s also fostered a false impression that Democrats are closer to Sanders and Trump on trade than to President Obama. In fact, polls consistently show rank-and-file Democrats favor trade agreements, while Republican support is cratering.
Ironically, Clinton and Kaine endorse the logic that underpins TPP, but not the agreement itself. “As the fastest-growing region in the world with a rising middle class, Asia is arguably the most important twenty-first-century market for American goods, and American businesses must have access to Asia if they are to succeed,” they (or likely some ghosts) write.
Stronger Together’s strongest section, on national security, reflects Clinton’s deep experience as First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State with matters of war and peace and global diplomacy. It burnishes her reputation as a tough-minded advocate of U.S. interests and values, of our alliances, and irreplaceable role in upholding international institutions that promote collective prosperity and security. The book lays out concrete and detailed prescriptions for finishing the job against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and for an “intelligence surge” that enlists key partners to contain its efforts to spread into other countries and foment terror attacks in the United States.
All in all, Stronger Together is a workmanlike compendium of small-to-medium-sized proposals for helping working and middle-class Americans buffeted by economic change, anemic wage growth, and growing disparities of wealth and income. There is little to fire the political imagination here—few if any bold innovations, radical changes in existing policy, or ideas that might discomfit any Democratic constituency.
As an unreconstructed “New Democrat,” I can’t help being struck by how different this is from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. In the years running up to the race, Clinton worked hard to develop new and often counterintuitive ways to advance progressive goals. His novel approaches recast Democrats as a reforming and modernizing party.
The issues and political context are very different now, of course, but there are two lessons Hillary Clinton might usefully have drawn from her husband’s electoral and governing successes. One is the primacy of economic innovation and growth for the aspiring American middle class. Reflecting contemporary liberals’ fixation on inequality, Stronger Together offers little fresh thinking about how to revitalize the U.S. economy following a long spell of slow growth and meager wage gains. Instead, it prescribes more government redistribution as the answer to the markets’ failure to provide good jobs and mass upward mobility.
The second lesson is that progressives should reform government, not just expand it. An especially pernicious effect of today’s paranoia-drenched populism is to deepen the public’s already profound mistrust of Washington. Bill Clinton’s push to “reinvent” government acknowledged that mistrust, and sought to make government more responsive to citizens and more results-oriented. He reinforced this theme by making radical changes in underperforming public systems—ending the welfare entitlement, shutting down crime-ridden public housing, supporting public charter schools to break the traditional districts’ monopoly, turning the Federal deficit into a surplus. By the end of his second term, public confidence in government was actually rising.
Maybe none of this matters in a race against Trump, whose fitness for office has become the overriding issue. But suppose for a moment that Republicans were capable of producing a serious governing alternative—a positive plan, grounded in conservative principles, for grappling with the nation’s urgent problems, instead of simply obstructing Democratic presidents? It would probably read like another election-year book, Blueprint for America, edited by George Shultz, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and later of State.
Blueprint is a collection of thoughtful, rigorously argued policy essays by Shultz’s colleagues at the Hoover Institution. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of the road not taken by Republicans in 2016, and likely foreshadows the debate over first principles they will likely have if Trump loses big enough to force party leaders at last to confront the pathologies and extremism that hobble Republicans in presidential elections. John Cochrane offers a spirited rebuke to Trumpism in a chapter that makes the classic free-market case for free trade and open borders. On the latter, he says, all that’s needed is “small and sensible immigration reform” that relaxes restrictions on high-skill immigrants. This position points to the possibility of a constructive debate that marginalizes hardcore restrictionists, but also challenges Democrats to rethink their outdated insistence that immigration policy ought to be organized around “family unification” rather than skill sets the economy needs.
Where Trump parrots conservative know-nothings on climate science, Blueprint acknowledges that it is a real problem that demands action. Outlining a strategy for U.S. energy security, James O. Ellis, Jr. observes, “The elephant in the room today is carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to global warming.” He cautiously describes a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a “potentially attractive” way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And no wonder, since a carbon tax is a double sin in many conservatives’ eyes, because it accepts that climate change is a reality and breaks the GOP’s absurd Norquist pledge against raising taxes. It’s too bad there’s no mention of a carbon tax in Stronger Together, because a carbon tax is a more efficient and comprehensive way to combat climate change than today’s welter of sectoral regulations, as well as the Clean Power Act.
Blueprint also features a trenchant essay by Eric Hanushek on America’s lagging K-12 school performance. Hanushek adduces evidence demonstrating a strong correlation between better student performance and faster economic growth. To get the former, he calls for more determined efforts to winnow out ineffective teachers. That’s essential, but unfortunately Hanushek also shares the conservative obsession with vouchers, which are anathema to progressives.
Vouchers divorce public spending from public accountability. They help a small number of disadvantaged students escape into private schools, but don’t hold those schools accountable for providing quality education or exert much pressure on public schools to improve. Why conservatives feel compelled to genuflect at the alter of vouchers is mystifying at a time when about three million U.S. students are enrolled in public charter schools, which face the threat of closure if they don’t perform. If it’s parental choice conservatives want, fine, charters offer it, along with public accountability.
Charter schools also get short shrift in Stronger Together. This is puzzling, because the uneven quality of America’s public schools is a prime perpetuator of economic inequality. It’s hard not to conclude that Democrats are staying mum for fear of antagonizing teachers’ unions, which continue to fight rear-guard actions against charters, despite mounting evidence that they are finally giving at least some needy students access to rigorous and innovative schools.
Blueprint’s national security chapter offers a ringing endorsement of U.S. global leadership that runs counter not only to Trump’s narrow nationalism, but also to the “realist” thinking that has been in vogue in recent years in both parties. “The international system as we know it—and as we created it—is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged,” say authors James Ellis, James Mattis, and Kori Schake. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t disagree.
Shultz and his Hoover brainiacs offer many other ideas to fill the vacuum of conservative policy left by the Trump phenomenon. There are calls here for pro-growth tax reform; for restoring fiscal discipline and tackling the unsustainable growth of entitlement spending, monetary reform, and more. Progressives will find much to disagree with here, but also some areas—including lowering regulatory barriers to innovation—where they might find common ground with these conservatives of a more pragmatic bent.
The question, of course, is whether Blueprint’s ideas will find many takers within a Republican Party now held captive by Trump. If he loses, the book could be a blueprint for the party’s intellectual recovery. In the meantime, it will doubtless bring many tears to the eyes of honorable conservatives who have refused to be complicit in Trump’s travesty of a presidential campaign.
If Blueprint really does become a blueprint after November 8, Democrats will have to raise their game in the competition of ideas. That would be good for them, for the country, and arguably for the world. It’s a nice thought; but why does November 8 feel like it will never come?