For those of you who think the next election will transform the United States, for either good or bad, I have some sobering news: it only matters if your concern is the survival of the modern American welfare state.
At this point we can be pretty sure that the race will be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While I do not relish the idea of being politically represented by someone I consider a reality-TV buffoon, I cannot say that I greatly fear what Donald Trump can do internationally. Surely he can’t be any worse than George W. Bush when it comes to foreign policy, especially if he adheres to his present semi-isolationist approach to foreign policy. If you want to fear further foreign involvement in quagmires around the globe you probably have more to fear from Hillary than from Donald. That said, let’s move to domestic issues, where I think the differences are more important.
While I do not believe Hillary will maintain the Roosevelt/Johnson welfare state completely intact, I do think she is less likely to eviscerate it than Donald Trump. It’s not that I think Donald is ideologically opposed to the welfare state; I just think he could be easily convinced that drastic cuts to, or the privatization of, Social Security and Medicare would be the “business-like” thing to do. Of course, Hillary will likely also be convinced of a similar course of action, but I doubt she would seriously entertain privatization. When it comes to Medicaid I think both could be convinced to block grant it and turn it completely over to the states–an act that would further degrade the economic security of the poor and widen the income/wealth gap in this country.
We can go down the list and talk about what Donald and Hillary might do on a host of issues but I think it’s clear that there is not a lot of daylight between Donald and Hillary when it comes to trade, energy policy, taxes, etc.–not because they don’t have wildly different opinions on these issues but because they will be limited in what they can accomplish by our system of government. Both essentially hold to a belief in the meritocratic society made possible by loosely restrained capitalist activity. However, there are a few issues where they will differ: women, “political correctness”, immigration, LGBT issues, etc. Will these issues, though, matter in the long run–especially four to eight years from now?
The chief poltical problem with all of these issues is that none of them are things Donald and Hillary can act on alone. They would need collective agreement among the punditocracy, the Congress, and the judicial branch. Neither Donald nor Hillary, no matter how resounding their victory, will be able to implement policy by decree.
So, again, we are back to more subtle differences. Yes, Donald can stand up and bloviate all he wants about illegal immigrants and building walls but he will never get the money from Congress to do either. It is also doubtful he will get money for a wall from Mexico. Additionally, any unilateral trade action that violated NAFTA would likely be stopped by the courts and take years to resolve.
We should not assume that Donald Trump would be stupid enough to fight battles he knows he will lose, or that would prove Pyrrhic victories. He is more likely than the ideologue Ted Cruz to acknowledge the reality on the ground. He might push hard on immigration issues but he will be naturally limited by Congressional budgets and the courts, and will play the cards he’s dealt.
In short, the main difference between Hillary and Donald will be the degree to which they can be pulled left and right. While Hillary will be easily pulled to the right of the Progressive agenda, Donald will be easily pulled to right of center. This could make all the difference when it comes to the survival of the modern American welfare state that even now inadequately cares for the old and the poor of this country. For this reason alone, if you are concerned about the old, the poor, and the disabled of this country, you should vote Democrat–not just for Hillary but a straight Democrat ticket. It is the only way we can ensure that our social safety net stays largely intact, although horribly battered. It is that simple.