‘Coalitions of interest are often stronger than coalitions of values.” So observed Alex McCobin, the co-founder of Students for Liberty, whom I recently found myself chatting with on a ranch in the hill country of central Texas. Alex’s remark got me thinking about how partisan Democrats approach public policy, and why they’ve been so successful at expanding government over the past 80 years.
We tend to think of the Republican and Democratic parties as mirror images of each other, as ideologically antithetic entities trying to advance opposing agendas. But the Republican and Democratic parties — and the people who compose them — think about policy in very different ways.
In the years since Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan built the modern American conservative movement, the GOP has primarily been a coalition concerned with values: of economic freedom, of cultural traditionalism, and of robust opposition to America’s ideological enemies abroad (Communism and radical Islam). Intra-conservative tensions, such as those between libertarians and traditionalists on gay rights, have been mostly philosophical in nature, e.g., “What is the role of the state in upholding moral tradition?”
The Democratic party has operated differently. For decades if not centuries, the Democratic party has primarily been a coalition of ideologically friendly interest groups that collaborate to advance one another’s pet causes. Democrats strive to build on their success by bolting new interest groups onto their existing coalition. Intra-progressive tensions, like those between labor unions and environmentalists, are not ideological — both factions want more government — but rather are about a conflict of interests (coal miners vs. the greens who want to drive their employers out of business).
These distinctions aren’t 100 percent accurate, of course. Conservatives often embrace positions that serve the interests of members of their coalition. Gun owners are especially resistant to infringements of the Second Amendment, to take one example. But the commitment of conservatives to the cause of gun owners is driven first and foremost by conservatives’ fidelity to the Constitution.
As McCobin implied, if we keep the score by looking at the growth of government since the Great Depression, it seems clear that the Democratic approach has been more successful than the Republican approach — that a coalition of interests is more politically effective than a coalition of values. Those who benefit from a specific government program have more to fight for, when it comes to a given line item in the budget, than do those who want Congress in general to adhere to its constitutionally enumerated powers.
Hillary Clinton’s policy platform is a clear reflection of the Democratic concern with interests over values. Sure, it has a few throwaway lines to appeal to the Bernie crowd. But the 32 different entries on the policy page of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign website reflect her desire to please established Democratic factions while using government programs to attract a few new voting blocs. There’s a section on how government can “support the millions of Americans with autism and their families,” which, among other things, seeks to impose autism-related mandates on health insurers. Another entry, titled “Seeking a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease,” proposes spending an additional $2 billion per year on Alzheimer’s research. Autism and Alzheimer’s are important public-health problems, to be sure. But Hillary’s elevation of these issues to the first tier is almost certainly motivated by a desire to bring millions of voters who face these problems into the Democratic coalition.
Clinton’s agenda contains the expected sops to traditional Democratic constituencies: environmentalists, civil-rights activists, LGBTs, feminists, unions, et al. Social conservatives will find much to dislike. But Clinton also seeks to make inroads into GOP territory, with mixed results.
Clinton dedicates an issue page to veterans’ health care. She opposes meaningful reform, expressing her zeal for “blocking efforts to privatize the VA,” by which she means preventing veterans from seeking care and coverage from private sources. Her alternative is — you guessed it — spending more money on the existing system.
Another page is dedicated to rural communities, for whose benefit Hillary proposes federal spending on “local food markets” and a “national infrastructure bank” that will dole out federal tax dollars to politically favored locales. Hillary promises to be a “small business president” by expanding the Export-Import Bank’s small-business programs and the State Small Business Credit Initiative, among other things.
If Barack Obama strove to be a transformational president, Hillary Clinton simply wants to be president. Her agenda elevates personal ambition over policy ambition. On the pressing issues facing America — the stagnant economy, the national debt, radical Islam — Clinton is full of verbs and verbiage, signifying nothing.
She promises to “keep America safe and secure” and “defeat ISIS and global terrorism,” even though her tenure as secretary of state coincided with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of its terror network. She claims she believes in “never allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” even though the Iran deal she endorsed all but guarantees that outcome.
When it comes to our longstanding fiscal crisis — the national debt is at $19 trillion and rising — Hillary has little to say. On Social Security, her plan is to “defend Social Security against Republican attacks” — that is, allow the program to go broke. Her only concession to fiscal reality is to advocate raising taxes. Today, the Social Security payroll tax of 12.4 percent applies to a worker’s first $118,500 in wages; earnings above that amount are subject only to the additional 2.9 percent Medicare portion of the payroll tax. Clinton seeks to “tax some of [Americans’] income above the current Social Security cap, and tax some of their income not currently taken into account by the Social Security system.” All other reforms, such as cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age, and options for private investing, are off the table.
On Medicare, Hillary claims that she will “fight back against Republican plans to privatize or ‘phase out’ Medicare as we know it.” (Clinton is attempting to capitalize on Jeb Bush’s stated desire to “make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that . . . are receiving the benefits, but . . . figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something, because they’re not going to have anything” in an unreformed program.)
The Republican approach to reforming Medicare, for better or worse, has long involved preserving the program for those already enrolled and reforming it for future retirees. Obamacare, on the other hand, reduced Medicare spending on current retirees by over $850 billion over the next decade, in order to partially fund the law’s $2 trillion expansion of subsidies to the uninsured. Hillary is, of course, an ardent supporter of Obamacare, vowing to “fight Republican attempts to repeal” it.
On the campaign trail, Hillary has pooh-poohed the Obama economy, noting in particular that it has widened income inequality. “I think we’ve had a period where the gains have gone to the wealthy,” Clinton told Ezra Klein in a wide-ranging interview for Vox. “The Great Recession wiped out $13 trillion in family wealth. And a lot of people have come back roaring — they are doing better than ever, corporate profits are up, whereas so many Americans are stalled or have fallen backward.”
Strangely, Clinton doesn’t appear to have drawn the obvious lesson from this experience: that progressive prescriptions stifle economic opportunity for those who need it most. On every area of economic policy that moves the needle, Hillary wants to keep doing what Obama has done: raise taxes, increase spending, and write thousands of regulations.
The Clintons’ history of selling out an ideologically progressive agenda in exchange for favors and financial contributions is well documented. Hence, we don’t know how attached she is to her stated aims. If Hillary wins the White House, she’ll serve as a reliable audience for K Street and her donors. Furthermore, a President Hillary is likely to face a Republican House and possibly a Republican Senate. It will be up to Republicans to put a brake on Clinton’s most left-wing promises.
But even a Republican Senate is unlikely to prevent Hillary from nominating Antonin Scalia’s replacement to the Supreme Court. Other justices may retire or pass on. A Clinton-led executive branch could turn into the Obama IRS on a grand scale and unleash the full might of the federal government on any significant business that doesn’t toe the Clinton line. And a Clinton State Department will put Hillary’s domestic political interests above those of national security.
In 2016, the person who makes Hillary Clinton most dangerous is Donald Trump — and not merely because Trump is the Republican presidential candidate most likely to send Hillary to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He has also concurred with large parts of her campaign agenda.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on a whole host of issues, especially now that Hillary has come over to Trump’s side on free trade. Democrats have traditionally been the home of economic nationalism: the idea that Americans need to be protected from foreign competition. Trump agrees with them. On foreign policy, it’s Trump, not Hillary, who has most feverishly embraced the Left’s conspiracy theories regarding Iraq and George W. Bush.
Hillary had been fully prepared to feint to the center against a conventional GOP nominee. But if Trump loses to Hillary by a significant margin, she will have a mandate to govern from the left.
– Mr. Roy, the opinion editor of Forbes, is a former policy adviser to Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney.