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Commentary: Stop caring so much about candidates' policies

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Party of New York Presidential Convention in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 7, 2016. 

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Does the press give short shift to the presidential candidates’ respective policy proposals? Maybe. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you’re wondering what Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would do in the White House, I’d argue it’s not a good idea to take their policies at face value.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Every four years the press is lambasted for not spending enough time discussing the respective candidates’ actual policies. This year in particular, we’re seeing a lot of media critics take reporters (and, to some extent, the electorate) to task for not focusing on what each candidate says they’ll do and litigating the merits of these proposals.

“The best ways to judge a candidate’s character are to look at what he or she has actually done, and what policies he or she is proposing,” opined The New York Times’ Paul Krugman in a much-discussed column earlier this month. “Under the rules of this reality series which media consumers turn into a gigantic hit every four years, collapsing in front of a cell-phone camera at a 9/11 memorial service is more important than a dozen position papers,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi last week.

Krugman gets it at least half right; when evaluating how a candidate will do in office, looking at their past is essential. But those “policies he or she is proposing” are really vague blueprints for how a candidate will approach issues once in office, and it would be a waste of everyone’s time and energy if the press treated most position papers as something with much consequence.

Take two prominent examples from recent memory. In 2000, George W. Bush’s foreign policy platform was mostly built around a rejection of “nation building” abroad. This was because President Clinton’s 1999 military intervention on behalf of Kosovo was deeply controversial on the right. Yet today “nation building” and Bush’s presidency are essentially synonymous because of his ill-fated efforts in Iraq.

Years later, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were locked in a bruising primary battle over health care. Clinton favored an individual mandate; Obama, running to Clinton’s left, spent months arguing that such a mandate was flawed. Yet when it came time to actually muscle a health care plan through Congress, Obama adopted and pushed for an individual mandate that would become central to his legacy.

This is not to say that presidential candidates’ always ditch their issue agenda once they’re faced with actually having to govern. But it’s undoubtedly true that policies and platforms embraced in the heat of a campaign are always seen through a strategic lens, and about winning over as many voters as possible.

So when Hillary Clinton announces that she’s come to the realization that Bernie Sanders is right on such and such an issue, it’s only proper that such a move be treated as what it is: an attempt to win over his voters, and a signal to her left that she will not govern as a centrist. If, once in office, she actually decides to push for free tuition at public colleges for the middle class, for instance, then we can explore the ins and outs of such a plan. Until then, it’s a safe bet to consider such an idea a chiefly political gambit, and to report and comment on it as such.

That’s just one of many proposals that have come from the Clinton camp this cycle. Indeed, liberal pundits and journalists often praise her for the sheer number of specific policies she says she will pursue as president. This is in stark contrast to her opponent, who has taken so many contradictory positions this cycle that it’s unreasonable to conclude he even has a platform.

We have a general understanding of what Clinton would try to do in office, although that knowledge really comes from what we know about her as a person and her ideology, both of which stem from her biography and how she reacts to events such as, say, her pneumonia diagnosis. Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have much of an ideology whatsoever, which means his business record, ethical lapses, and personal history should take on even greater consideration.

Trump’s main policy proposals, such as they are, include the restriction of new immigration, the deportation of undocumented immigrants already here, and protectionist trade policies. Beyond that, what he would do in office remains something of a mystery, a fact no amount of new platforms or proposals will change. At this point, given Trump’s temperament and his habit of changing his mind, there’s no reason to see any of his policy proposals as more than jumping off points. In some cases, it would be a mistake to take them seriously at all.

If you want to try and figure out how either Trump or Clinton would approach the presidency, their specific policies are simply not the best case to consider. Elections should be seen as the contest between two personalities, two biographies, two skill sets, and two world views, with questions of character and judgment superseding concerns about an ever-malleable platform of specific policies. That’s what will matter most when one is president, and that’s what the press should focus on primarily during the campaign. 

Either candidate can change their mind about any specific policy at any moment. But what they can’t change, at this point in their lives, is who they fundamentally are. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.