With their respective primary victories in New Hampshire last night, ex President Donald J Trump and current President Joe Biden set the stage for a rematch of their desultory 2020 election contest. Consequently the 2024 campaign will pit two of the most determined ignoramuses ever nominated by a major party against each other in an epic battle of dismaying cluelessness.
Let me be clear that when I refer to the ignorance of the major players, I do not mean to imply that either of them are stupid. By contrast I do mean that they are remarkably ignorant about the formation and implementation of public policy. They each appear to be naive enough to believe (or profess to believe) that simply passing a law or promulgating a regulation will actually achieve the desired outcome. The whole idea of unintended consequences is just ignored.
As a result, the differences between Trump and Biden are remarkably small. The supporters of each will rebel against this idea. But let’s consider the fact that each campaign has “plans” to “fix” the “problems” that they claim to have discovered. Take trade for instance. In his first term Donald Trump slapped tariffs on a whole host of products to “fix” the trade deficit “problem”. And president Biden continued the practice and added to the tariffs.
And what did the trade deficit do? Well, from 2018 through 2021 (using the latest available numbers) the trade deficit increased 45% from $593 billion to $862 billion. By Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 it had increased again to $945 billion. So the policy (1) imposed a large tax on US citizens in the form of higher prices and (2) failed on its own terms. Do you see any of the major candidates arguing to rescind the policy? No. Why not? Ignorance on the part of both the candidates and the public.
How about foreign policy, which according to exit polls is a priority issue for only about 10% of the voters. And while we are at it, let’s not forget that we are a major supplier of war materiel to Ukraine in its war with Russia; likewise to Israel in its war with Hamas and other Iranian proxies. Or that China is increasingly aggressive with respect to Taiwan and the South China Sea; that North Korea has lately taken to referring to South Korea as its enemy, or that Venezuela has its eye on Guyana. Not to mention that American hostages are still being held by Hamas or that we are now in a shooting war with the Houthis, another Middle Eastern Iranian proxy.
So what are the proposed policy prescriptions of the respective campaigns of Trump and Biden. Well, Trump will end the Ukraine war in 24 hours. How do we know? Because he said he will. Just like he said he won in 2020. And, he says, he knows Putin very well and has a good relationship with him. There you have it. Case closed, no problem.
The Biden foreign policy aims are—well what are they? That seems to be a big secret. He has gone wobbly on the Israeli-Hamas war, probably because his party has been backing away from it, not least because it is ideologically hostile to a neoliberal foreign policy (as is the Republican Party). And, not to put too fine a point on it, there is a fair amount of antisemitism in the Democratic Party’s base. It also bears repeating that while social spending has soared (under both Trump and Biden) military spending under Biden has just about kept up with inflation, straining military readiness.
How about Fiscal sobriety? Neither administration has anything to write home about. The budget deficit (not necessarily the best measure) increased $7.8 trillion during the Trump years. During the first 3 years of the Biden administration the deficit increased a little over $7 trillion. It will probably be more like $8 trillion before his first 4 years are up. By the way, Democrats love to blame recent deficits on the 2017 tax cuts. However, federal tax receipts increased 41% rising to $4.8 trillion from $3.4 trillion from 2020 to 2022. The growth in spending far outpaced revenue growth.
Spending is the problem. And not just “emergency spending” to deal with Covid-19. Specifically, tax-and-vote spending and the something-for-nothing mindset of the electorate is the source of the public finance disaster we are in. Let’s remember that total accumulated federal debt is now about $33 trillion.
Speaking of what we laughingly refer to as the federal budget, each candidate continues to display a remarkable inability to deal with arithmetic. Both major candidates have pledged to avoid reforming Social Security and Medicare, the main drivers of deficit spending. The mere fact that the programs are insolvent is a pesky little detail they are each determined to avoid mentioning. Interest on the debt by the way, now exceeds $1 trillion per year, which is greater than the military budget.
So how have the candidates differentiated themselves from each other? They will each claim that the other guy either was then or is now, a terrible president. And neither of them will be wrong. But both Trump and Biden will just engage in name-calling rather than address substantive policy differences because substantive policy differences, except for things like abortion rights, are largely non-existent.
As a practical matter even those differences are much smaller than they appear. Let me explain.
Both Parties have staked out positions on abortion rights designed to please their respective bases. Those positions are wildly out of sync with national, (but maybe not with regional) opinion. The Republicans essentially demand an end to abortion rights. The Democrats essentially demand abortion on-demand, paid for with tax dollars.
The public, on the other hand, does not like either Democratic permissiveness or Republican calls for a ban. The public probably prefers something like a ban around 15 – 20 weeks into pregnancy with an exception if the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
The only politician willing to speak the truth on this has been Nikki Haley who correctly observed that a blanket national law would be impossible to pass since it would take 60 votes to pass the Senate and that is unlikely to happen. Try telling that to either base and see how far you get.
Regardless, Dobbs v Jackson, placed the issue where it belongs. That place is in the political arena in state capitals, not the federal government. That, in the spirit of federalism, is where local political differences can be negotiated. Further, a national law—one way or the other—would probably wind up on the constitutional chopping block.
Then there is the all purpose claim that Trump—and Republicans generally—represent a “threat to democracy”. For instance, Dem Governor of Illinois JB Pritzker has referred to Nikki Haley as MAGA in heels.
Let’s think about this for a minute, and for the sake of argument let’s stipulate that the term democracy refers to an established procedure for the transfer of political power; the rule of law; the defense of property rights, and all the other rights established in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, popularly known as the Bill of Rights.
Now let’s consider the claim that Trump is a threat to democracy. There should be no doubt that the man is abysmally ignorant; that he has no problem palling around with dictators; that he is a liar of epic proportions; that he has no toleration for dissent; that he is probably a felon (though yet to be convicted); that his use of language veers into the edge of violence and he has very strong authoritarian tendencies.
The main question here is this: are American institutions capable of restraining him—or anybody else in a similar position? My answer to both questions is: Probably yes, but only probably.
Some background to the question first. Democrats have a long history, going back at least to Harry Truman, of calling Republicans fascists. There is accordingly a boy-who-cried-wolf aspect to all this. That’s probably one reason why so many Republicans simply ignore it when Democrats go into a fever pitch and call their opponents fascists, racists etc, even if the description really fits. And Democratic hands are not clean here either. For instance, Joe Kennedy was a Nazi sympathizer. Strom Thurmond began life as a Democrat, ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat, and ultimately became a Republican in 1968.
Can American institutions restrain any President, including Trump? It depends on what restrain means. It is extremely doubtful that we will ever face a “7 Days in May” type situation. After all, in the end the January 6, 2021 affair was a clown show. Was it a disgrace? Yes, of course. Did it ever have a chance of succeeding? Not a chance. And plenty of the rioters are today spending time in jail, which is where they belong.
The more difficult question has to do with the separation of powers and the bureaucratic power of the Administrative state. There is, for instance, a very long laundry list of cases where the courts have slapped the Biden Administration down for its abuse of the executive power. Some of the more consequential ones are:
- The eviction moratorium
- The Vaccine Mandate
- Student Debt Cancellation
Additionally, although not necessarily in the courts:
- A concerted attack on the first amendment by having executive agencies direct social media companies not to publish what the Administration labels “misinformation”
- Routine efforts to do an end-run around the 2nd amendment
- Sending the FBI out to intimidate traditional Catholics, referring to them as terrorists
- Slow walking and then attempting to cover up Hunter Biden’s business dealings, tax evasion, and Joe Biden’s emails sent under pseudonyms while he was VP
- Maybe 1 million people have been released into the country under a misused immigration-parole authority
This is actually a small sample. The list is almost endless. And this type of selective protection of rights is not the sole province of Biden, or of Democratic Administrations. There was the Obama (D) Administration’s use of the IRS against the Tea Party and the Nixon (R) Administration’s use of the Intelligence agencies, FBI and IRS against “enemies”.
Ultimately, the protection of our rights depends on a culture of Liberalism and tolerance. Those virtues are under threat as they aways are. And neither party seems to be particularly interested in defending them. So that’s why the answer to the question(s) above is only: probably.