For the moment let’s leave aside the horse-race aspect of this year’s general election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I have a simple question, what happens if either candidate gets elected? To answer this question requires that we stop thinking of the presidency as the people’s way of electing a temporary tyrant, ala ancient Athens or Rome. No matter who gets elected they will have to deal with the natural limitations placed on them by the Constitution and by other branches of the government.
Let’s start with the silliest of the propositions: building a wall between the United States and Mexico. First, this will never be done even if Trump gets elected and has a majority in the House and Senate. Be reminded that Congress already voted for a wall but never ponied up the money to build it. There is also very little reason to believe that Trump will be able to force Mexico to pay for such a wall. On top of all this, recent numbers show a dramatic drop in the number of people traveling south to north across the border. In a recent report done by MSNBC the border patrol says that things have settled down tremendously and that building a wall would do nothing to help them maintain border security. In short, this is a silly promise that will never be fulfilled.
Are we going to deport 11 million undocumented workers from the United States? The short answer is “No.” There are several reasons why this is not going to be done. First, it strikes millions of people as a heartless policy. So, the backlash would be strong. However, sentiment will not be the reason why this will never be done. It will not get done for two reasons: 1) it would collapse regions of the United States economy–as Joseph Lieberman said during the 2000 campaign, and 2) it will never be paid for by Congress. Again, Trump is promising something that simply cannot be done, not because there isn’t some political will to do it but because the array of interests against it will make sure it never happens.
Can we renegotiate NAFTA? Well, it would be nice to be able to unilaterally demand concessions from Mexico on NAFTA; however, if Trump attempted to do this on his own he would soon find out that the courts would quickly impede his path. NAFTA includes provisions for settling disputes but what Trump is proposing is beyond the scope of these trade courts. To renegotiate this agreement the way he is suggesting he would have to get an authorization from Congress but more importantly he would have to find a way to get Mexico and Canada to the negotiating table. How would he do that? By the way, we trade more with Canada every year, $575 billion a year versus Mexico’s $531 billion. Will Trump want to renegotiate with Canada as well? How will he renegotiate with only one party when the trade agreement is between all three parties? Let’s put this issue into the highly unlikely category.
Let’s switch to taxes. Now, in general, Trump is proposing a huge tax cut, mainly for the wealthy. Clinton is proposing raising taxes, primarily on the wealthy. The likelihood is that neither will happen for one simple reason: Congress. Unless Hillary gets a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a majority in the House she will never be able to raise taxes, at least not much. The same can be said for Trump’s proposal. While there might be some room for negotiating taxes up or down under either administration the likelihood of a huge change is minimal.
One area where there might be significant movement is on the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and other federal offices. If Hillary wins she could potentially set the court agenda for the next several decades. This would probably not change things dramatically but it could definitely impact voting rights, worker rights, racial justice, etc. It would probably mean the effective end of court action against Obamacare, and possibly the overturning or restriction of Citizens United. By the way, there will be no amendment to the Constitution that eliminates Citizens United and gets money out of politics. If Trump should win it’s possible that Obamacare might be more effectively challenged. It is also possible that LGBTQ case law could be overturned, along with an upholding of more restrictive voting rights in places where racial disparity makes all the difference in an election between Republicans and Democrats. Of all the issues in this election this one probably has the most likelihood of far-reaching effects–whether for good or ill depends on one’s perspective.
I mentioned Obamacare above. While the court challenges appear to have ended some still hold out the hope that this law can be “repealed and replaced”. How likely is this though, even if Donald Trump wins in November? A Trump victory, as I point out above, might re-ignite the judicial attacks against the law but the hurdles this strategy faces in Congress, even with the House and the Senate in Republican hands, is remote. The Senate filibuster makes it almost impossible for this to happen as long as Democrats can effectively stop any action. It is very, very, very unlikely that Republicans will get up to 60 Senate seats this year, so we can pretty much take this off the table as a promise that can be fulfilled. Obamacare is here to stay unless it collapses for other reasons.
By the way, for the same reason that Obamacare is probably here to stay Dodd-Frank is also likely to survive. The only question is how effectively it will be administered. Will Republicans be able to water down the effectiveness of this legislation as they’ve done when it come to SEC enforcement and EPA regulations? It’s possible, especially if Republicans continue to maintain the purse strings and rob these agencies of adequate funding to operate as intended.
Will your kid be able to go to college without racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt? This is actually a promise that could be realized! It might even get past a Republican-controlled house because of its impact on a large segment of the voting population, both Democrat and Republican. I believe this would most likely be achieved through an increase in the amount of the Pell Grant and raising the family income requirements. To get this grant now requires that your family be unable to help in any way with the cost of a college education. This program though would not help the millions already in debt, and I’m not sure that refinancing existing debt will effectively solve the problem of cash-strapped graduates, especially those stuck in jobs unrelated to their majors, and that pay inadequate wages for someone with a college degree. Raising the minimum wage may help more than refinancing debt, or a combination of both. But, what’s the likelihood of a rise in the minimum wage?
I would put the possibility of a rise in the minimum wage as less than fifty percent if Hillary wins the election. If Trump wins it will be virtually zero. That said, even if Hillary wins and the minimum wage is raised it will probably not be the $15.00 an hour in the Democrat platform. It is likely to not exceed $11.00 an hour and will probably take several years to be achieved. The reality is that most entry-level jobs, like that of a cashier or clerk, already pay nine or ten dollars an hour, so a staggered rise to $11.00 over several years would not dramatically effect prices. It would also not put much more money into the pockets of consumers, which is what we need right now.
We could go on and on, explaining how each issue will never be addressed by the promises of politicians. For example, it is hard to envision even a Trump presidency becoming less engaged on the world stage, especially since Trump is promising to build a military even bigger and more lethal than it is now. Why would you create such a thing and not use it? Military Keynesianism? Also, how do you provide Israel with unconditional support without engaging robustly in the Middle East? And, what about the oil? We are not yet energy independent, so we still have a stake in keeping world oil supplies flowing. Also, how cost effective would building things in China be if they were unable to get a reliable supply of oil from the Middle East? The hundreds of billions of dollars that American corporations make doing business with China would be put in jeopardy by too much isolationism on the part of the United States. This is why Trump might talk about pulling back, and starting a trade war with China, but even he would likely be restrained by clearer heads from actually doing anything. Of course, he might continue his infelicitous language even as he does not act.
To summarize: this is not a change election, as the press and pundits argue, unless you want to see the court full of strict constructionists ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, reverse their stance on gay marriage, and somehow legally gut Obamacare. All of this could happen if Trump gets elected but there is no guarantee that even this would happen under a Trump administration.
That neither candidate will likely live up to their promises is no argument for or against anyone. Politicians frequently don’t live up to their promises. How many promises did Obama live up to? How many promises did he fulfill kicking and screaming?
This election is really about staying the course set by Barack Obama. It is a boring course that will probably see only glacial improvements in economics and social justice but this may be the best we can hope for under our system of government. Voting for Trump only has a marginal chance of a dramatic change of course, so if that is your reason for voting for him you will be sadly disappointed in four years. Voting for Trump is more likely to just increase the chaos and ineffectiveness of the federal government, which is now loathed by a majority of Americans. It might even lead in 2020 to an increased call for a far more Progressive agenda. For example, the complete failure of Obamacare, without addressing the cost problems of the American healthcare system, might lead to a full-throated cry for a national health system, especially when tens of millions are again overburdening our emergency rooms and bankrupting hospitals.
In a nutshell this election is between a low-grade prevaricator (Hillary Clinton) and a shameless prima uomo (Donald Trump), neither of which will effect great change, except possibly on the Supreme Court. Vote for whomever you want but don’t think great change is coming. The change you are looking for is more likely in your own hands in the form of breaking away from unhealthy situations, or leaving a community that has been all but abandoned by everyone else. Total political and economic salvation is not coming in the form of a Democrat or Republican agenda, but it’s possible that little things like a better minimum wage, free college, guaranteed healthcare, and other little things might be just enough to help you better your own interests and the interests of those most important to you. Time will tell.
Postscript(August 8, 2016): If the present polling becomes a trend it’s possible Hillary will not only get a Democrat Senate but also gain a majority in the House. However, this will not give her cart blanche when it comes to legislation. Again, she will still be restrained by the Constitution, Republican opposition in the House and Senate, and even the opposition of more conservative Democrats.