At New York magazine’s National Interest, Jonathan Chait cuts through the fog and challenges his readers to get real and face the central issue of the 2016 campaign, which is being largely ignored by our easily-distracted media. As Chait explains:
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.
Barring a blue wave election, Dems are going to have a tough struggle winning back the senate, Chait observes, and have no real chance of taking back the house. What the Democratic nominee must do is defeat an extremely serious threat that is getting overlooked by the candidate-focused reportage:
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.
Norquist, Rove and other top GOP strategists don’t much care which of their candidates gets to the white house, as long as he/she has a pulse and “enough working digits to handle a pen.” No matter which Republican gets elected president, Ryan’s budget will define the quality of life for millions of people under Republican rule. That’s what 2016 is about.
Further, adds Chait:
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.
Don’t expect the media to bring much attention to this sobering reality. As Chait explains, “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.”
Chait concludes that “Clinton needs badly to inspire base voters” and “she can’t very well promise gridlock.” However “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.”
Candidates avoid talking much about budget issues with a not entirely unjustified concern about glazing over the eyes of voters. Yet Norquist’s nightmare scenario of minimalist government “drowning the baby in the bathtub,” with the Ryan budget as their opening salvo, is a very real threat — no matter which Republican gets elected. The Democratic nominee, whether Clinton, Sanders, Chafee, Biden or otherwise, who prevents this disaster from happening will have accomplished something extremely important for America’s future.