Donald Trump’s persistence as a sideshow prevents serious Republican candidates from establishing themselves with the electorate. For that, Democratic insiders are grateful and their Republican counterparts apoplectic. I am far to the left of most Democrats but still take no pleasure in Trump’s idiocy. With the possible exception of late night comedians, we should all look forward to the day Trump finally swaggers back to his customary state of coddled irrelevance.
From income inequality and criminal justice reform to climate change and global insecurity, the country faces a number of complex and important challenges. Of course, the country always faces complex and important challenges, and many people might think the issues we currently confront are no more pressing than those of a randomly selected moment in American history. The challenges of the current era share an essential feature that too many have overlooked, but that goes to the heart of American democracy: Each one calls upon the country to consider anew the fraught relationship between the government and the people.
Criminal justice presents this tension most obviously. By its nature, the criminal law strikes a balance between the competing interests of individual freedom and coercive order. But it is no less the case for the other issues we confront. Because government sets the conditions and creates the incentives that shape the behavior of individuals and businesses throughout the world, government action can make climate change, income inequality, and global insecurity much better or vastly worse, depending on the policies pursued.
So, if any of the nearly two dozen presidential candidates were charged with the solemn obligation to lead the country, how would they translate abstract political philosophy into concrete public policy? Would they encourage criminal justice reform by advancing a more prominent role for the federal government, or would they devolve power to the states? Would they rely on regulation to confront income inequality, or would they trust the hidden hand of the market? Would they expand or contract the administrative state as a possible response to climate change? Would they restrain or enlarge the power of the government to punish the people?
On the world stage, would they trust the dispute resolution mechanisms of international law, or retreat into isolationism? And at every step, would they be rigid ideologues or flexible pragmatists? Fundamentally, these questions call upon the candidates to declare the government’s proper sphere in American life. As the next president confronts the most pressing demands of the day, she or he will, by necessity, recalibrate the relationship between the people and the state.
For that reason, I would like to know how Bobby Jindal would deal with the problem of police–community relations in the inner city, or the practice of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. I would like to know how Scott Walker would respond to the reality of climate change, regardless of whether he believes it is caused by human activity. I would like to know what Ted Cruz envisions as a solution for a level of income inequality unseen since the Gilded Age. And I would like to know how Jeb Bush would address the global insecurity that his brother’s policies helped create.
Frankly, I’d like to know how Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and Martin O’Malley would answer these questions too.
It is possible, I suppose, that the president has far less discretion in responding to these challenges than we like to think. Any president, the argument goes, will be forced by factors beyond his control to respond to these issues in more or less the same way, and it is therefore irrelevant whether we attach ourselves to Rand Paul or Hilary Clinton. But anyone who believes this should ask themselves whether, for instance, Rick Santorum would have pressed so hard and invested so much political capital to create and defend a national health care program like Obamacare.
Others will protest that I have asked the wrong question. They seem to believe that any Democrat would be preferable to every Republican, and therefore disarray among the latter is always a cause for celebration among the former. But this view should be reserved for hyper-partisans, and I do not number myself among them. No political party has a monopoly on moral bankruptcy or policy ineptitude, so it is at least worthwhile to ask candidates to make their positions known in the public square, in the hope that the country will benefit from the exercise.
I am considerably to the left of every Republican candidate, and probably every Democrat. Yet I accept what is obviously true: the Republican field includes a number of thoughtful, dedicated leaders who, if elected, would serve the country with vision and integrity. Lindsey Graham, for instance, has distinguished himself in foreign policy, and Rand Paul’s libertarianism has made him a staunch ally of individual liberty. I am quite certain I would not like many of the policies they might pursue or the officials they might appoint, but no one can fairly criticize their commitment to responsible leadership. The same can be said of several other Republicans in the race. I am no fan of Ted Cruz, but I recognize him as a man of intellectual rigor with a clear and principled political philosophy.
And because the race will inevitably be very close, I would like to know their views on the issues we face. I would like the country to reflect, collectively, on the relationship between government power and individual liberty in the context of historic levels of income inequality, gross over-criminalization, mounting threats from climate change, and accelerating global insecurity from a host of state and non-state actors.
But as long as presidential politics cannot rouse itself above the tabloid question of whether Donald Trump is a jackass, this is a conversation we will never have.