IDEAS: Debates will inflict shock, but they won’t change the ‘menu’

First presidential debate will be  Cleveland Tuesday, Sept. 29.
First presidential debate will be Cleveland Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Note from Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson: This guest opinion column by Sean Wilson appeared on Ideas and Voices page Sunday, Sept. 27 with other pieces about the upcoming debate. Those guest columns are linked below.

In presidential elections people tend to focus upon image and loyalties, not what political scientists call “the policy state.” But make no mistake about it, this year, major policy shift is on the menu.

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Sean Wilson is a professor of American public policy and politics at Wright State University, where he teaches the American Presidency.
Sean Wilson is a professor of American public policy and politics at Wright State University, where he teaches the American Presidency.

Presidential scholars won’t remember the Trump administration the way that most people do. They’ll look beneath the surface. The Trump people were anything but normal on the policy stage; they weren’t for incremental or status quo solutions. And what people like me are watching for is whether the winner of this election will do more of that, continue only some of it, or go in a completely opposite direction.

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Consider the economy. At stake is whether to continue the neo-supply side policies of lowered corporate taxes, deregulation and energy production (fracking), versus a model more focused on the public sector.

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Both have had success in the past. But the Trump people can at least claim it more recently. During the administration’s first three years, $2.7 trillion was added to U.S. GDP, median incomes significantly rose, the poverty rate dropped to the lowest on record, marginalized publics saw record breaking jobs numbers, and the U.S. unemployment rate was amazing.

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But all of that is gone now. All of it changed in 2020 as easily as a page turns in a book. Whoever wins this year will face the reality of U.S. debt levels parallel to World War II and will have no choice but to talk about budget sacrifice and tightening, which is never fun. So get ready for that. It’s going to happen no matter who wins.

Also on the menu is globalism. Should we play capitalism as one big neighborhood or use regional networks to isolate bad apples? The Trump people want to decouple from China and pluralize the supply chain. They also want more aggressive trade agreements, even with our friends. Is the next administration going to do more, less or none of that?

And there are huge foreign policy stakes. Just as former President Obama made creative inroads in courting Iran and isolating Russia ― which changed the chessboard — the Trump people made creative inroads in doing the exact opposite. Will the winner do more, less or none of that?

And there is the controversial public style that is the Trump presidency itself. It shuns statesmanship and talks very frankly as it bypasses the establishment media in digital platforms (Tweets). More, less or none of that?

One answer seems easy: The debates are not likely to change the outcome. Whatever shock they inflict will get absorbed in the larger dynamic as the election rolls on. The debates are in fact strategically spaced out for this reason. Just ask John Kerry: He won all three and polls shifted his way, only to have the effect mitigated as time went on.

Sean Wilson is a professor of American public policy and politics at Wright State University, where he teaches the American Presidency.

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