U.S. Presidential Elections – Known and Unknown

The U.S. Presidential elections represent a stark choice between a competent if unexciting continuation of the status quo and an emotional – perhaps even terrifying – break with the past. Moreover, the results of the contest will be felt far beyond the borders of the United States. On 17 and 18 March, I was invited by the United States consulate in Milan to participate in a series of events to explain the ongoing elections. The audiences were mostly Italian but there were some others mixed into the groups as well. My goal was give some sense of how the U.S. elections are going to have an impact on the outside world. That impact will be both direct and indirect. The direct effects will come through the change in U.S. foreign policy. The indirect effects will come through the change in economic policy. I outlined the two issues in turn. Then I offered some thoughts on the future of U.S. global leadership. The bottom line in all three cases is very similar: Americans must choose between the familiar and the unknown – and the world must accept the consequences.

Usually when you talk about foreign policy, U.S. elections are pretty straightforward. Most serious candidates for president agree on most issues. The Republicans tend to be less active in discussions of climate change and more active in talking about the fight against terrorism. They also tend to support free trade and NATO while show greater skepticism toward organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the United Nations. The Democrats generally show the opposite tendencies on these issues. They are more worried about climate change and less worried about terrorism; less supportive of free trade and NATO while more supportive of the wider UN system. That said, these are only tendencies and it would be a mistake to put too much weight on the differences between the two parties.

It would be an even bigger mistake to believe that anyone voting for the president really notices the differences in foreign policy positions or casts their vote for a particular candidate because of the foreign policies they advocate. I can think of recent presidential contests where foreign policy might have made a difference at the margins – and  both 2004 and 2008 are examples – but the real differences in those contests were not about policy positions but rather what political scientists call ‘valence issues’, which is a polite way of saying that they pivoted on who inspired more confidence to ‘do the right thing’ in the event something bad happened.

This election is different for two reasons. First, trade policy has garnered outsized attention. You can see the issue bubbling away among supporters of both Donald Trump (who says he believes in free trade and yet who wants to renegotiate many of our relationships) and Bernie Sanders (who is much less enthusiastic about free trade in general). I think that such concern about free trade is important because it is sure to alarm America’s friends and allies who have invested so much effort in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is true no matter who wins the nomination for the two parties. It is particularly true if anyone but Hillary Clinton wins the White House. Moreover, I suspect even she will be under great pressure to push for additional concessions in order to win Senate ratification of TPP and to secure any TTIP agreement. Although she was initially involved in the TPP negotiations, she has since made strong statements highlighting the shortcomings of the deal.

The second difference between this election and any of the previous that I can remember is on the valence (or competence) side of the ledger. Three of the four leading candidates have essentially zero experience in foreign policy. They also have essentially no relationship with the U.S. foreign policy establishment. I cannot think of another contest like this. I certainly cannot remember a contest where the whole of the Republican foreign policy establishment signed an open letter repudiating the front-runner for the Republican nomination. That is unprecedented.

Whatever we might think of Presidents George W. Bush or Barrack Obama, they came to the White House with very experienced foreign policy teams. And while they tried to innovate during their first terms in office, they also exhibited huge amounts of continuity with previous administrations. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, we should expect her to do much the same – bring along an experienced team, try for some innovation, but mostly maintain continuity. What any of the other three leading candidates might do is much harder to anticipate. That level of uncertainty is also unprecedented – at least in recent memory. Even Jimmy Carter had Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The bottom line on foreign policy is that if Hillary Clinton is not elected, I expect the next U.S. president to be less enamoured of free trade and more unpredictable in terms of other foreign policies. This is an observation and not a criticism of the non-Clinton candidates (although there is obviously much to criticize). It is also an explanation for why I do not have more detail about what kind of foreign policy we should expect. I can tell you what Clinton would do in most situations but do not have that kind of insight for the other candidates. That is consistent with the fact that – apart from trade policy and a more general fear of Islamic terrorism – foreign policy does not really feature in this election. And that uncertainty about what kind of foreign policy the other candidates would offer is the most obvious direct effect of this election.

The indirect effects focus primarily on economic performance, which in turn will depend a lot on domestic policies. The overriding question for people in other parts of the world is whether the candidate is likely to deliver sustainable growth. That question is not so easy to answer – primarily because many of the economic platforms are so implausible. Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump want to launch a major overhaul of the tax system. Cruz wants a new system to be based on a flat income tax together with a value-added tax. Trump is going to stick with something more similar to the current arrangement but with a vastly simplified filing system and deep cuts on both corporate taxes and wealth taxes. Such arrangements are bound to stimulate economic activity insofar as they leave a lot more money in the hands of the private sector. The problem is that they will not generate enough growth to compensate for the fall in revenue and so in effect they will defund the federal government. By some estimates, federal outlays would have to shrink by somewhere between 18 and 25 percent. That would be staggering; it is also hard to imagine. A more likely scenario if either of these candidates were to put their policies into place would be soaring federal deficits.

Bernie Sanders’ economic proposals are at the opposite end of the political spectrum. He wants to increase the minimum wage, provide universal health care, break up the big banks, and increase taxes on personal wealth and corporations. He also wants to offer a range of unfunded benefits, including free university education. These are all great aspirations and, living in Europe, I can see the attraction of a more responsive and responsible welfare state. The problem is how to pay for it. Raising revenues to meet Sanders’ aspirations is no more likely than lowering expenditures to accommodate the tax cuts proposed by Cruz and Trump. Here again we see the threat of soaring deficits alongside a temporary stimulus. The difference is that any increase in economic activity would come from cash expenditures and not from cutting taxes.

Hillary Clinton’s proposals are in the middle. She has a few commitments that are cherished on the left and the headlines look very similar to promises made by Bernie Sanders. The difference is in the details. Clinton offers a slate of specific legislative remedies in each of the various areas. It is not always easy to see how all of this can be funded and yet her program does meet the plausibility test.

Again, this is not meant to come down as an endorsement for Hillary Clinton as candidate. The point is that it is easier to imagine how her program leads to sustainable growth than it is to imagine the same thing with the other three candidates. What is more likely is that each of the other three would run into major conflict between the White House and Congress. In all three cases, that conflict would centre on government finances. We know from the summer of 2011, that such conflicts are potentially destabilizing for the global economy. We also know from 2013 that they can result in a government shutdown. Neither of these scenarios is good for the rest of the world.

A final concern for other countries is the relationship between the executive and the federal reserve system. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders both want to ‘audit the Fed’ in order to make it more accountable to Congress. Donald Trump supports this idea as well, and has gone on record repeatedly to argue that monetary policy as conducted by the Fed’s open market committee is ‘too political’. The solution according to the ‘audit the Fed’ candidates is to ensure that monetary policy is framed with strong rules. The experience of the euro area might suggest differently. Sometimes discretion is more appropriate – particularly when dealing with a crisis situation. In any event, the Fed is unlikely to submit meekly to more stringent oversight while accepting less decision-making authority. And a conflict between the Executive, the Congress, and the Federal Reserve System would provoke significant market volatility.

Hillary Clinton does not pose the same kind of threat insofar as she is broadly supportive of the Fed’s current policy. Nevertheless, Clinton does have a Fed-related liability. Recently it was revealed that Fed Governor Lael Brainard donated three times to Clinton’s campaign. There are many ways to explain those donations but they matter very little to the Fed’s critics in Congress. A White House seen as too close to the Fed could be as much a source of tension as a White House that is openly critical. To understand why that is so, I recommend a recent book called Fed Power: How Finance Wins by Lawrence Jacobs and Desmond King. I don’t agree with everything they have to say about the way U.S. monetary policy is conducted, but they make a strong argument and it strikes a nerve. That argument only gets stronger if we have reason to lose faith in the Fed’s independence.

The bottom line on economic policy is that this election could spark market volatility. Depending upon who are the main candidates and how they fare, that volatility could be considerable. America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere are sure to experience the indirect effects. This is not a salutary conclusion. When we add it together with the uncertainty on foreign policy, it is easy to see why these elections warrant close attention.

The remaining question is what this election means for the future of U.S. global leadership. There was a long period of time when it could be taken for granted that the United States would play a leading role in world affairs. The debate was over how different presidents understood that leadership. We have seen presidents who focused more attention on taking strong positions and engaging in unilateral action like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; we have also seen presidents who placed greater emphasis on coalition building, diplomacy and collective action like George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama; and, we have seen presidents who fell somewhere in between. Here I think the best illustration would be Bill Clinton. But the point to note is that these are all exaggerated tendencies and not ideal types. Every president in recent has taken strong stands, acted unilaterally, built coalitions, engaged in diplomacy, and fostered collective action. Moreover, every president in recent memory has accepted the need to do these things both in the interests of the United States and in order to stabilize affairs at the regional and global level.

The interesting thing about this election is that at least three of the candidates would depart from the underlying consensus on the need for American global leadership. That does not mean that they will be less insistent upon pursuing what they conceive as America’s national interest; what it means is that they no longer see much congruence between the interests of the United States and the interests of the globe. The most obvious illustration here is Donald Trump. He has a certain bull-in-a-China-shop quality to his foreign policy statements. But Ted Cruz is not so different once you dig beneath the rhetoric. We all hope we can discount the references to carpet bombing ISIS as the kind of fiery campaign rhetoric that you would expect a primary candidate to throw at red-meat Republicans, but I am not all that confident we can ignore the implications of such an approach either for the Middle East as a region or for America’s standing in the world.

Bernie Sanders is harder to read. His foreign policy positions seem to suggest more of a retreat from world leadership than we have seen in past candidates for the office. By contrast, Hillary Clinton is much more conventional – as you would expect from someone with her resume. So once again, the bottom line on American global leadership is that this election pits the uncertain against the more familiar. That is hardly a ringing endorsement for Clinton as President. Then again, this is not a ‘hope and change’ election like we saw in 2008. Instead it is a ‘hope we don’t change beyond all recognition’ election. A Clinton presidency is the safest bet.

NB: When I presented these remarks, I did not make an explicit endorsement of Hillary Clinton as a candidate. Somehow that did not feel appropriate given that I was a guest of the U.S. Consulate (even though, as a private citizen, I am not constrained by the 1939 Hatch Act). I think Italians are intelligent and educated enough to make up their own minds, even if they don’t get a vote.  I have edited the text here to make my personal views more explicit.


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