Putting The “Idea” In “Ideology”: What Would A GOP President Do In 2017?

President Reagan, Describing His Proposed Tax Cuts in July 1981.

Over the past week or so, the Mischiefs have offered a set of complementary viewpoints on the multifaceted nature of coalitions/parties in US politics (e.g., Azari on the Democrats, Masket on what Trump doesn’t mean, Noel on how ideology is forged through elections, and me on why the GOP has so many candidates). Thinking about these posts led me to wonder what a newly elected GOP president would choose to pursue or promote in 2017. I am interested in what one might call the new president’s “honeymoon policies,” the policies that he or she actively promotes right after his or her inauguration.[1] Given the apparent potency of the president right after his or her first election, the policy or policies that he or she promotes during this time is unusually important for predicting the direction of public policy.

Beyond President Obama’s efforts to enact the Affordable Care Act, other recent examples include George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, the education reforms referred to as “No Child Left Behind,” and his faith-based initiative, as well as Bill Clinton’s efforts to enact the Family and Medical Leave Act and his failed attempts at health care reform. In thinking about the coalition coalescence that occurs during presidential elections, the 2016 campaign and its ensuing administration seems to provide an excellent opportunity to think about how politics shapes policy at the federal level in the United States. I will limit myself to four (domestic) policy areas that seem primed for a “big” proposal from a new president: income inequality, health care, immigration, and infrastructure.

Income inequality. A refrain common to both parties is a worry about how “average” Americans are doing in today’s economy. Of course, this refrain is not new (e.g., Reagan’s famous question about whether Americans were better off in 1980 than they were in 1976), but the focus on income inequality in America is arguably unusually broad-based and sustained. The parties’ leading candidates predictably diverge in how they think this issue should be addressed—the Democrats exhibit varying degrees of support for raising the minimum wage and, as fellow Mischief Richard Skinner notes elsewhere, the Republicans are typically unified in support for tax cuts, but differ in how to cut them.

In thinking about how a Republican president would seek to tamp down income inequality and/or raise the standard of living of the “average” American, it is hard not to be a bit cynical. Raising the federal minimum wage is probably off the table, particularly after President Obama acted unilaterally and quite publicly in this direction in 2014. Cutting taxes would, in my mind, undoubtedly be a big talking point for the new administration, but I don’t see how a major tax cut would be financed in a politically and arithmetically feasible fashion. So, while I could see a Democratic president pursuing (probably unsuccessfully) a major income/tax initiative through Congress—and this is a policy area that essentially requires that the president pursue policy change through statutory means—I just don’t see a scenario in which a GOP president in 2017 decides that this is the first fight to fight.

Immigration. Both parties have a vested electoral interest in immigration policy. In line with the “cross-cutting” nature of this issue, each party is experiencing internal conflict regarding the proper approach. For example, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is rushing to the (liberalizing) front of it. Bernie Sanders, an economic populist, is more reserved on this issue.

Across the aisle, of course, immigration is arguably the most vexing major issue for the various GOP candidates. On the one hand, in terms of the likely place of immigration in a GOP president’s list of priorities, this dissension generally leads one to predict that immigration will be shelved because the discord among the GOP’s presidential candidates mirrors that within Congress. But, on the other hand, this issue has the virtue of being readymade for unilateral presidential action, as President Obama has demonstrated. And, indeed, it is possible—particularly in light of the pretender Donald Trump’s comments—that a GOP president would be (perhaps quietly) thanked by his or her co-partisans in Congress if he or she were to unilaterally pursue a measured liberalization of immigration policy.

That said, as with health care, a GOP president that made a unilateral push to liberalize immigration policy would be following in Obama’s footsteps, and pushing for the policy in Congress might very well mire the new president’s administration, given the variety of interests (employers, unions, state governments, local governments, etc) that would emerge from the woodwork during the actual drafting of any statutory changes. Thus, I come to my “pick” for which policy area is most likely to be picked by a new GOP president for a major initiative…

Health Care Reform. Despite publicly railing against the Affordable Care Act, none of the GOP candidates have proposed a replacement for it. Simply repealing it is not tenable to a majority of members of both chambers of Congress, so a GOP president would need to come up with something else, probably tweaks of the existing law. Because this would probably require assuring people that they wouldn’t lose their coverage, it is really murky (to me, at least) how a newly-elected GOP president would proceed here. It seems far more likely that the president would call for a repeal of the statute to reach his or her desk, but even if such a repeal did reach his or her desk, it seems highly unlikely that the details of the replacement policy would have been dictated (at least publicly) by the president. After all, while Obama succeeded where Clinton failed, Clinton still failed and Obama’s presidency has been swallowed up by it. Furthermore, to a new president seeking a legacy, being the president that “replaced Obamacare” probably rings a little hollow compared to something like deciding to put a man on the moon or the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. (More on that below…)

Infrastructure. The simple reality is that America’s infrastructure is in pretty bad shape. Another (and perhaps politically more relevant) simple reality is that nothing makes Members of Congress as happy as spending on capital projects in their districts. While there are various possible reasons that Republicans are often opposed to infrastructure spending, these arguments are less compelling to political executives like presidents or governors (e.g., Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker), who spend their time dealing with day-to-day implementation and maintenance issues. Put bluntly, collapsed bridges, train derailments, flight delays, floods—these issues redound upon both the workload and legacy of executives far more than they do on those of legislators.

Another variable in this equation is the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Many (but obviously not all) infrastructure projects can be legitimately financed through this fund, and the fund is (supposed to be) financed through the federal gas tax, making it “off-budget,” so that increases in spending from the fund will not increase the deficit. Furthermore, while increasing spending from this fund in a budget neutral way would require raising the gas tax, both the AAA and the US Chamber of Commerce strongly support doing exactly this. Raising taxes is of course anathema to the modern GOP (and, admittedly, not popular), but the HTF presents Members of Congress with a catch-22: unless they want to increase the deficit (or find other programs to cut), the only way to use the HTF is to increase the gas tax, because the HTF is broke.

What Will Make the Difference?

Arguably, the biggest determinant of what area(s) any new president decides to focus on is the president’s own policy goals and, hopefully, these are at least somewhat mirrored in his or her campaign pledges. Whether campaign pledges have an independent influence on subsequent policymaking is still debated, what seems clear is that a president’s ability to influence policy in his or her honeymoon period depends on the configuration of Congress (e.g., Beckmann and Godfrey (2007), Beckmann (2010)). [2]

However, at least as I see them, the downsides for a GOP president to pursuing income inequality and health care are, barring some external change in the federal government’s budget picture, independent of the configuration of Congress. Of course, this is not the case with immigration, where the support for reform has been real, active, and bipartisan for decades. Thus, while the electoral realities of the issue suggest that getting solid GOP majority support for any given set of reforms will be very difficult—particularly given the rhetoric in the GOP nominating race right now—if the right candidate wins (say Bush or Rubio wins the GOP nomination) and congressional races in both chambers break the right way, then immigration reform could very easily be seen as a big win. But, again, note that I see this scenario as really boiling back down to the first determinant: the new president’s own policy goals. [3]

While presidents are constrained by Congress and the political landscape they inherit, a fundamental reality is that presidential attention to an issue affects the media’s attention to an issue, and some combination of this affects (though doesn’t completely determine, of course) how Congress treats the issue. The fact that a president’s personal priorities can (and almost surely must) play a role in what issues and policies he or she decides to focus upon is why, at the end, though parties and ideology each loom large in American politics, sometimes, in a few instances, it really might just come down to which of the bums you throw into the Oval Office.

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[1] While I would bet that both chambers of Congress would continue to be clearly controlled by the GOP in such a scenario, I will sketch occasionally the differences between pursuing policy goals through statutory means (requiring Congressional assent) versus through unilateral action (using executive orders or other administrative tools).

[2] This is consistent with the administration-by-administration, issue-by-issue variation in whether presidents choose to pursue policy through legislative or unilateral means (Howell (2004)).

[3] Of course, it’s very possible that any new president will pursue something that few, if any of, can foresee: just consider Clinton’s decision to promote “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or George W. Bush’s direct and high profile involvement in stem cell research. But, while high profile, these priorities focused on issues that, while important, were not at the time in the mainstream. Both Clinton and Bush pursued other policy decisions at the same time that were more closely tied to the more mainstream issues discussed during the campaign.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]