Can it get much worse than this? Probably.
After an unbelievably bad August, Donald Trump may not quite be the Titanic, but he certainly is the Gaff Spree. He just about sank his candidacy with a slew of stupid remarks and tweets that seemed to reinforce every negative that his opponents have raised. But Labor Day has yet to arrive, and with 68 days until the election, Trump’s bilge pumps—and I do mean bilge—are working overtime. He has finally started using a teleprompter in an effort to limit his extemporaneous remarks, he has cut out the offensive tweets (note the silence following Clinton’s closest aide’s embarrassing marital problems), and he is modifying some of his most controversial positions (like deporting 11 million illegals) in an effort to garner some Hispanic and black votes. His meeting with the Mexican President was quite the campaign stunt. But then he doubled down on his tough immigration policy in a speech last night. Trump is obviously not counting on winning too many Hispanic votes. The question is whether his immigration policies will motivate Hispanics to turn out in record numbers to vote against him. That would be bad news for him and Republicans generally.
Are Trump’s latest “pivots” too little and too late? Probably. The latest polls show Secretary Clinton with a 4.3% lead nationally, but she leads by at least that much or more in almost all of the so-called battleground states that will decide the election. Trump still has a path to victory, but it is a very narrow one.
Secretary Clinton had a pretty awful August herself, one that might have sunk a candidate running against a more credible opponent. Her biggest problem, and one that may well spill over into her Presidency, is that her e-mail scandal has morphed from a mishandling of classified documents into a possible cover up for the activities of the Clinton Foundation. “Pay to play” is a time-honored Washington tradition, but the Clintons seem to have taken the concept to a new level. Also troubling for the former Secretary of State are stories circulating today that the FBI has recovered e-mails relating to Benghazi among the “personal” e-mails she thought she had deleted. All of this just reinforces Mrs. Clinton’s non-trustworthy negatives (56% now). The voting public may have accepted the fact that she lies, but corruption is a different matter. And if one of those lies turns out to be part of a cover up of really bad behavior, it might not swing the election, but it could at least raise the tide for some of those Republican boats that are otherwise likely to go down with Trump.
Which leads to the other big question circulating in Washington last month: “What’s going to happen to the Republicans in November?” There are two schools of thought. The traditional is that a weak candidate at the top of the ticket causes inordinate losses in down-ticket races (House, Senate, Governorships, etc.). The second is that Trump is such an outlier that down-ballot Republicans will be able to distance themselves from him in order to survive. There is probably some truth to both theories. As of this writing, the Republicans are likely to lose control of the Senate (primarily because they have far more seats at risk) but keep control of the House. A Clinton landslide would still probably leave the Republicans in control of the House, albeit with an unruly majority, but Secretary Clinton’s veracity and ethical challenges are making a “wave” election appear less likely at this point.
A final political point is that Trump and Clinton are not the only two names on the Presidential ballot in 2016, but they might as well be. Neither the Libertarian nor the Green candidates have attracted much press or public attention, although they are rising slightly in the polls. To have a serious chance of affecting the outcome, the better-known Libertarians (ex-Republican Governors Johnson and Weld) would have to poll at least 10% nationally in order to get on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton later this month. So far, they are short of that target.
Shifting from politics to policy, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office just released their ten-year budget outlook, and they forecast that the federal deficit will increase by 33% this year. Ironically, or perhaps alarmingly, the deficit is the one subject that almost nobody is talking about in 2016. What a difference six years makes. The simple explanation is that voters really don’t care about the deficit per se, they care about the consequences of deficit spending. With low interest rates, a reasonable amount of credit available, and no cuts in popular Federal spending, those consequences seem negligible. So what’s the worry?
The worry is that unless you subscribe to the philosophy that the US government can go on printing money indefinitely or– in a pinch– stiff its creditors, the current level of deficit spending is unsustainable. And looking at the campaign promises of both candidates, it is only going to get worse. First, both have promised massive infrastructure spending, and this is one area where even a divided government should be able to agree in 2017. America’s infrastructure is in dire need of improvement, and that kind of spending trickles down into every Congressional district.
A second big drain on the Federal coffers is already in place, but its impact is just starting to be felt: student loans. Plenty of private individuals (including universities) made a lot of money off the old student loan program, but when the Obama Administration effectively nationalized it, the Federal government was left holding the bag. Today, the Education Department has a $1.2 trillion student loan portfolio, with roughly 43% of all borrowers in default. That’s 22 million “students”. Add to that another 3 million whose loans are in indefinite deferment and you have an annual cost to the government of over $100 billion a year. The Obama Administration has already agreed to make debt forgiveness easier starting in 2017, and candidate Clinton has promised total relief.
The final big deficit bomb to explode in the next four years will be Obamacare. At the time of its enactment, economists were predicting that the convoluted medical insurance program was unsustainable. Now those predictions are starting to come true, with premiums soaring and insurance companies abandoning state exchanges. Eventually the law will have to be rewritten. Repeal is not an option, thanks to all of Obamacare’s very popular provisions such as required coverage for existing medical conditions. The rewrite will involve either higher returns for Obamacare’s providers or, as most Democrats would prefer, the adoption of a single-payer plan such as Medicare for everyone. Both options will be very, very expensive.
Even without an Obamacare rewrite, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a $2.6 trillion increase in Social Security and healthcare expenditures over the next five years. That is more money than the entire Federal budget in 2006 and more money than the USG received in tax revenues in 2012. And these budget demands are in addition to the other spending priorities for 2017 and beyond: more money for defense, more money for disaster relief, more money for Federal pensions, and more money for social programs.
And why are there not enough dollars in the Federal coffers to pay for all this? For the last two decades, the solution to deficit spending has been a zero-sum political game. Either you increase taxes or you cut spending, with Democrats pushing for the former and Republicans the latter. But with a divided government and a divided electorate, a real focus on deficit spending proved illusive. As a result, only modest spending caps and modest tax increases were enacted. Sooner or later, most probably in the next eight years, Congress and the White House are going to have to address the deficit problem. It will probably take a crisis to produce the necessary reforms. A big crisis.
All of which makes this Presidential election even more important. And even more dispiriting.