“It’s the economy, stupid!”
That was the mantra uttered by the first Clinton presidential candidate in 1992. Focusing on the economy is actually typical of most election cycles and certainly the economy is central to this election. But if you look closely you’ll see that, perhaps more than any other time in recent history, it is America’s relationship with the outside world—from the economy to immigration to security—that is taking center stage at this election.
Jefferson tries isolationism
Two hundred years ago Thomas Jefferson famously advised that the guiding principle of America’s foreign policy should be to avoid foreign “entanglements,” a perspective that has since earned Jefferson a reputation as a founding father of American isolationism. Yet during his presidency, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France, a move that had the dual effect of helping to finance Napoleon’s war with Great Britain and making more territory in the New World off limits to Great Britain, which might explain why, after beating Napoleon, Great Britain went to war with the United States and tried to seize parts of Louisiana.
Isolationism easier said than done
The main lesson here is that avoiding involvement with the rest of the world is far easier said than done, which perhaps also explains why, despite considerable isolationist sentiment, the US played a pivotal role in both WWI and WWII. Like it or not, we can’t seem to avoid being “entangled” with the rest of the world.
But we can debate just how far that entanglement should go, and that topic has been at the center of American politics since the time of Jefferson. Arguably, this election pivots around this question, as a quick review of the key issues reveals.
Trade: Trump takes strong anti-trade stance; Clinton trying to walk the tightrope
No candidate has made trade more central to his economic platform than Donald Trump. Trump is threatening to upend the US’s entire trade regime by, among other things, withdrawing from NAFTA, refusing to enter the TPP (Transpacific Partnership), and aggressively punishing China and any other country that is identified as trading unfairly (South Korea is apparently also on the list). Trump is also promising that his trade agenda will bring “massive” amounts of jobs back to the US and that it will happen “fast.” During the convention, Trump made a direct appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters on this issue because Sanders trade position was close to Trump’s. With Bill Clinton being the architect of both NAFTA and China’s ascent to the WTO, Hillary Clinton, like it or not, inherits the free trade mantle, and her prior involvement in TPP only strengthens that perception. But with anti-trade rhetoric resonating so strongly, Clinton has been backpedaling on trade, particularly by saying that she won’t back the TPP unless improvements are made.
Immigration: Trump wants a wall, Clinton wants path to citizenship
The difference between Trump and Clinton is perhaps greatest relative to the immigration issue. Trumps wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and would implement a temporary ban on immigration from countries with a history of radical Islamic activity. Hillary Clinton wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform that ensures a path to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants and has suggested she will expand the number of Syrian refugees permitted to enter the US from 10,000 to 65,000. Whether for economic or security reasons, the electorate seems to have a clear choice in this regard.
ISIS and Radical Islam: Clinton wants to stay the course; Trump wants to do more
Hillary Clinton’s approach to ISIS is fairly consistent with the Obama administration’s current policy. Clinton wants the US to continue its support for taking out ISIS in Syria and Iraq, including an intensified air campaign and close coordination with Arab and Kurdish allies in that fight. She also emphasizes the need to find a diplomatic conclusion to Syria and Iraq’s internal discord. As is typical, Trump adds an unconventional wrinkle. Trump says he would bomb oil fields controlled by ISIS in order to cut off its financial basis (and would then rebuild the oil fields quickly after defeating ISIS).
Which way will voters lean?
There are some similarities and some sharp differences. How will this play out in the election? It’s hard to say, in part because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders reflect shifting views of the members of both parties. Below are the results of a Pew Research Poll taken in April, before the end of the primary election season. Key takeaways from the poll are as follows:
Trump wants less global engagement, Clinton was more (or at least status quo)
Trump’s supporters have the most negative view of America’s involvement in the global economy while Hillary’s supporters have the most positive view and Sander’s supporters are closer to Republicans than Hillary supporters on this issue. Relative to Syrian refugees, 85% of Trump supporters identified them as a major concern, while less than half that number of Democrats did the same. Lastly, overall, Republicans rate higher than Democrats in terms of foreign policy prowess.
If you can read these tea leaves and predict a winner, you ought to call Las Vegas. I’m sure there’s a way for you to profit from that. In the end, which positions sway undecided voters might depend on whether, given events over the next few months, security or economics is top of mind for voters. Regardless of who wins, the fact that we can’t avoid talking about the rest of the world might be the strongest indication we have that we can’t stop being engaged with the rest of the world.
Pew Research Report Results:
Refugees are major threat to US
Worried that US will not go far enough to stop Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria:
Worried that US will go too far to stop Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria:
U.S. involvement in the global economy is bad for US:
Which party will do a better job dealing with…
Terrorism: R (46%), D (37%)
Foreign Policy: R (46%), D (38%)
Trade: R (48%), D (37%)
Obama job rating on foreign policy: 40% approve, 53% disapprove