This election has changed the way I think about the decision-making challenge on the part of each voter. In the past, my formula was that issue positions and policy proposals came first in the order of consideration, with experience and gravitas coming second, and other issues like electability or intelligence coming third. The rationale is that the real meat of someone’s candidacy is what they intend to accomplish once they sit in the office for which they ran. I have been forced to confront that rationale with some inconvenient facts.
It’s easy to think of politics as a simple matter of asking someone what their policies will be, and then holding their feet to the fire once they are elected to ensure they meet all their promises. But now, perhaps more than ever, that is not the way things work. Promises cannot genuinely be made. A presidential candidate cannot say with any level of certainty that their intended goals can be met, because the meeting of those goals would have to be a cooperative effort with other branches of government, and the other branches cannot be forced to cooperate. In fact, the other branches, as we have learned under the Obama administration, might have every motivation to sabotage any plan the President might have about how they wish to create new policy or reform existing policy.
For this reason, politics cannot be seen merely as a matter of constructing good ideas and then implementing them. Voters have to pay more attention to how those ideas are likely to hold up while the sausage of policy is actually being hammered out in negotiation, persuasion, and legislative maneuvering. We need to be thinking not just about the initial policy proposals, but also about who is best positioned to shepherd those ideas through to the finish line with the most minimal shedding of virtue from the original concept.
Therein lies the problem: ideas are hard to create when you have no idea what it will take to bring them to fruition. What types of compromise? What types of persuasion? To a certain extent those all depend on the nature and ferocity of the inevitable rebuttal from the opposing sides. And that, in turn, depends on who else wins election during all the races being run simultaneously. What will the composition of each stakeholder committee be, and who will be the chairman? How will the office-holder react to different types of lobbying pressure, or to new and challenging political realities that bubble up from an economic downturn or a terror attack?
With prediction of the political winds being darned near impossible, the ideas people construct as candidates are almost entirely immaterial and immediately outdated when compared to what their stint in office will look like. Bernie Sanders might want a single-payer healthcare plan for the nation, but even if he were to win the Presidency, he would have to have a solid majority of the legislative and judicial branch to ensure that policy proposal would make it into existence. Trump might want a really nice wall, but the decision on this will ultimately come from a bill in congress and not from the Resolute Desk. This leaves voters having to do some guesswork about where the lines would end up being drawn on compromises and what the eventual endgame of the policy creation process might look like.
Policy proposals and issue platforms have to be seen merely as an instructive lesson on what that candidate’s priorities are, as opposed to a campaign promise to be met. We have to admit that our system of government does not permit newly elected officials to wave the wand of their mandate to get everything they want. Instead, it’s merely where the sausage of policy-making begins and the initial platform shreds off chunks and pieces, until the final policy might look nothing like what was originally intended.
This requires a re-ordering of priorities in the minds of voters. We like to think in simplistic terms, and now we have to challenge ourselves to do some harder analysis of the candidates. It doesn’t just matter what they want to accomplish – what is more important is going to be their method of accomplishing something like it. This means that personality is definitely on the table. Demeanor and tactics as judged by their past political experience are on the table. Looking at past lines they have drawn on where compromises were appropriate and inappropriate is on the table.
Consideration of likely legislative majorities is a huge factor that voters are not trained to calculate into their equations. A candidate can afford to be more bold when running to round out majorities in all three branches. A candidate has to make some admissions that their wildest dreams are not going to come true if they are all but guaranteed to sit in the minority for the foreseeable future.
Voters have to decide if a candidate is in touch with political realities, or if they are going to tilt at windmills for their entire time in office. Voters have to decide if a candidate will beat a dead horse, or if they will agree to accept less than what they wanted in a hard-fought bargain. Will they welcome potential allies with a smile or with gritted teeth? Will they make some pre-negotiation concessions in order to demonstrate goodwill (and is that a decent strategy or is that selling the house before the offer comes in)?
I have found myself discounting the things I used to find most instructive. I used to browse candidate websites to see who had the most detail in their policy proposals. Who had the courage to outline exactly what the tax rates should be in each bracket? Who had the policy chops to try and game out foreign policy in the Middle East with any level of specificity? Who had the bravery to begin listing areas of the budget they’d cut or grow?
Now, all those questions have decreased in value for me. They are reduced to just some curiosity about priorities and general directions. The tax rates for each bracket should be determined in the room, over negotiation, not declared by a candidate before they even get into the room to make policy. Foreign policy needs to be flexible to accommodate new and pressing moments, not gamed out years in advance before we even know what we will be facing.
Campaign promises are for shallow thinkers. I want nimble thinkers, and principled contortionists. Don’t make me promises I know (and you know) you cannot come close to keeping. Instead give me your principles and values, give me a peek at your theory of negotiation strategy. Give me an idea of how your character will remain intact despite hardship and attempts to pull you away from your core. Demonstrate competence on the highest levels of human functioning. Show me your intelligence and wit and determination.
I used to discount these things as side-issues. But in the era of Trump and Clinton politics, they mean infinitely more to me. Politics is not just about winning, but also about how you win and what happens after you win. It’s not just about the first year of the term, but the long slog that follows. The art of governing is less about command and control, and more about persuasion and maneuvering and strategy. The act of declaring all your campaign promises before you are even in the chair might be the single worst thing you can do in this process. It creates false expectations and makes the electorate think that these things are accomplishable.
Clinton and Trump have both embraced the fact that political promises are nebulous. They are both putting emphasis on their personality and experience instead of their issue positions, and they are right to do so. Neither will walk into the Oval Office with an immediate blanket of love swirling around them. For Trump, politics is all about the art of the deal and strong negotiation tactics. For Hillary, her whole cachet for the past eight years has been that she is uniquely qualified to answer 3:00 A.M. phone calls and has developed relationships with world leaders. I propose we follow their lead. Let’s look at the bigger picture – beyond the promises – and actually try to elect people more interested in the dirt and grime of actual governing than they are making well polished and focus-grouped farcical guarantees about what they will accomplish while in office. Or at least, to the extent they do make such guarantees, lets see them for what they really are: just general directions we can expect them to travel toward.
[Image: LBJ on the campaign trail in 1964, Wikimedia Commons]