Nobody Is Discussing the Biggest Issue of the Presidential Campaign

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Photo: Splash News/Corbis

In her official presidential campaign announcement speech, Hillary Clinton endorsed a bevy of liberal policy initiatives: She would reform the tax code, increase public investment in research, help communities transitioning to cleaner energy sources, establish an infrastructure bank, make preschool and child care universally available, increase college affordability, expand leave time for illness and family needs, raise the minimum wage, ban discrimination against gay people, reform campaign finance, and create automatic voter registration.

Clinton’s campaign rollout has taken shape amidst a fervent struggle to define the ideological character of her platform. Is it timid and cautious, as some liberals charge? Radically progressive, as some of her critics claim? For the purposes of evaluating a prospective Clinton presidency, this is all beside the point, because the number of these proposals she will sign into law hovers around zero.

All these measures require passage through both chambers of Congress. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate that will be difficult to dislodge, and an unassailable grip on the majority of the House. The Democrats could overcome the massive Republican geographic advantage in the House if they muster a huge wave, but such waves historically occur only in opposition to the majority party. This obviously could not happen during a Clinton presidency.

Clinton suggested she would break through the gridlock, which has prevented any significant legislative progress since Republicans won the House in 2010, by using some difficult-to-imagine combination of fighting harder and cooperating more. (“I’ll always seek common ground with friend and opponent alike.  But I’ll also stand my ground when I must.”) Neither Clinton’s fighting nor Clinton’s seeking common ground will make Republicans in Congress vote for policies that (1) they believe are bad for America, (2) will subject them to a primary challenge, or (3) would increase Clinton’s popularity by showing she can work with the opposing party.

The massive amounts of energy exerted by activists to push Clinton further left, and by journalists to measure just how far to the left she has moved, are misplaced. A pragmatic Clinton who runs on modest, incremental progress, or a bold, left-wing Clinton who runs on sweeping change are two archetypes that would both stand to the left of an actual Clinton administration.

None of this, however, is to say that the stakes of the presidential election are insignificant. Just the opposite is true. The presidential election carries hugely important stakes, not just in policy realms where the president wields significant influence on her own, like foreign policy and judicial appointments, but also on domestic policy. It’s just that the stakes have nothing to do with Clinton’s proposals. What’s at stake is the Paul Ryan budget.

The influential Republican activist Grover Norquist explained this in 2012:

We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.

Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

Jeb Bush has already endorsed the Ryan budget. Marco Rubio has voted for it and said, “by and large, it’s exactly the direction we should be headed.” The other candidates have positioned themselves to their right. Now, it is true that some prospective Republican presidents might insist on some change or another in the details of the Ryan plan. The Ryan plan itself has a lot of wiggle room due to the simple fact that it lacks detail. But the overall thrust is perfectly clear: deep cuts in marginal tax rates along with large reductions in means-tested spending, and a deregulation of the energy and financial industries. Its enactment would amount to the most dramatic rollback of government since the New Deal. Its enormous implications have simply been forgotten because the political world’s attention has moved on.

As Ryan himself recently put it, “You’ve got to have someone sign something into law, and we don’t have that right now.” Electing a Republican means putting in place a president who will no longer use the veto to block the Republican domestic policy agenda, but will instead enact it into law.

News coverage has oddly failed to frame this question as the center of the election. Journalists like personal drama, and they prefer to place the candidates and their individual ideas in the center of the portrait. The candidates themselves have every incentive to cooperate in this fiction. A president must cast himself as the author of his own destiny. Republicans have no reason to reduce themselves to the Norquistian hand that signs Paul Ryan’s bills. And Clinton needs badly to inspire base voters with promises of attaining ever greater heights. She can’t very well promise gridlock, even though the case that she is running mainly to veto Republican legislation is a powerful and consequential rationale. Whether the candidates will sign or veto the Ryan budget is the most important issue of the campaign.