This is an opinion piece discussing how presidential candidates position themselves depending on other candidate's stances on the nation’s economic outlook.
Its not easy to both completely and concisely reflect on the state of the US economy. For example, on the one hand, job growth has been consistently strong in this country. But on the other hand, the labor-force participation rate is at its lowest in 38 years. Inflation has been weaker than hoped and payroll gains have been very spotty. With such a breadth and depth of data points available, those in the business of offering their opinions on the matter are forced to nitpick. For politicians, however, ‘forced’ would not be the right word. This is their opportunity - and their duty, if they want a chance to win - to stand out on virtually every presidential election’s most important issue. As Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist from UCLA, points out, if “you don’t have the economy at your back, its really hard to steal the election away”.
Mr. Vavreck’s words set the stage for the consensus viewpoint leading up to the election: the economy has been recovering nicely under Democratic leadership. With this in mind, we can better understand the reasoning behind the relative differences between the economic agendas each candidate is setting forth. This race is particularly divisive regarding economic policy because what we have are essentially four different factions, not yet two.
By February in an election year, we tend to see either the presence or at least an expectation of both parties converging on a relative centrist. But this year features two economic extremists, namely the populist poster-boys Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders and Trump are the most economically radical, but on opposite ends of the spectrum; Bernie’s tax hikes and government expenditure plans are farthest left, while Trump’s tax cuts and free trade intervention are farthest to the right.
These candidates are challenging the tendency for centrist viewpoints to eventually rise and their persistence has us all wondering whether this assumption needs to be reexamined.
Other Republican candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and John Kasich all argue for some combination of reducing government spending and lowering taxes, the traditional Republican dogma (Cruz at the South Carolina debate: "Everyone pays the same simple flat 10% income rate. It’s flat and fair.”) This group has been more likely to avoid speaking too much about the economy and rather latch on to other issues. They find a tough time arguing with the progress and relative stability we’ve seen in this country, and they observe that the economic issue that has caught the most fire – income inequality – has been co-opted by the left.
The leader of the left, Hillary Clinton is particularly hard to pin down. The political theory that candidates appease their parties more during primary season and then the center afterwards applies to her perfectly. She has a long history championing reforms, but she has also been under fire for accepting large Wall Street speaking fees (maybe the most bi-partisan foul is looking pro-Wall Street). And she has no interest in letting economic issues pin her down, just like her Republican counterparts. If your name isn’t Bernie or Donald, you better throw another issue out there because the biggest one belongs to the populists. In Nevada, Clinton rhetorically asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will. Will that end racism? Will that end sexism? Will that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Will that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”. Read: If Bernie can stir up fear, so can I.
The wildcard in this race is of course Bernie Sanders. Bernie is one of the main reasons the right veers away from economic talk. Two simple facts about Bernie and his campaign: 1. it is by rooted in far-left (for this country’s standards) and sometimes Socialist economic policy - increased taxes on the nation’s top-earning individuals (to 48% and 52% on the top two income brackets) and corporations, stricter Wall Street regulation, single-payer healthcare and free higher-level education. And 2. he’s quite popular. Bernie’s popularity leaves the right better off focusing on other issues for now, and fighting that battle only if Bernie proves to finish as the Democratic nominee. Until recently, as Hillary re-establishes clear-cut front-runner status, the relative centrists didn’t know what to do because it made no sense for campaigns built on radical economic change to win in the polls.
So Is it fear that’s selling? Or is it radical change? Maybe fear does sell, but to many, the idea of voting for another insider politician seems to be striking a chord as the scariest thing of all.
I've been operating on the assumption that the US economy is generally in good shape (however crudely that conclusion was reached). However, if global threats persist and even exacerbate, such as sinking commodity prices and middle eastern tensions, slowed growth in China and emerging market recessions, the Republican candidates will start to pull some punches. At the end of the day, such a scenario would really hurt Clinton the most and be a boon for Sanders and Trump. When turmoil hits the markets, voters may feel that their likeness for the populist candidates is further validated. If their campaigns hope to capitalize on this potential opportunity, Trump and Sanders better hope for more market turmoil and ultimately shed the vagueness and sell their plans.