The real loser of the 2016 campaign is policy

The campaign for the 2016 Presidential nominations has shaken the political kaleidoscope, and the pieces are still moving. The populist surge of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has torn the carefully crafted campaign strategies of other candidates into tatters. Populism is trumping realism. Political nostrums – like how Evangelical Christians or women will vote – are being challenged almost daily. The political establishment looks like the Wizard of Oz, with feeble powers inside giant machines.

There are, then, many losers in 2016. But perhaps the biggest loser of all is public policy. Policy used to matter quite a lot; the very term “policy platform” implied a solid structure, on which candidates would stand. Today, the strength of a candidate’s policy prescriptions and the strength of their political support seem unrelated. Or if there is a relationship, it is an inverse one. Trump provides the most vivid example of the sundering of policy from politics. But the policies of Sanders don’t come close to adding up either. Trump’s ideas are wacky – but Sanders’ are weak.

Trump’s proposals (when clear enough to be assessed) have been judged to be wholly impractical by every expert who is not certifiable. You cannot, in fact, force a sovereign nation to pay for a 2,000-mile, $20-billion wall you are building to keep their people out. You cannot enact a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.” You cannot impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. You cannot cut taxes, ignore entitlements and wipe out the national debt. You cannot deport 11 million people. To be clear, I mean “cannot” here in the narrow, policy sense, rather than in legal or moral terms.

But cries of foul from the policy analysts have fallen on deaf ears. Each time Trump makes a ludicrous suggestion, these experts fill the airwaves with their reasoned arguments against it, Trump ignores them, and his poll ratings go up. Every time an establishment expert attacks one of his proposals, his anti-establishment credentials are burnished.

Meanwhile, the uber-wonk of the Republican field, Jeb Bush, became a piece of political marginalia. He produced some thoughtful and sensible policy ideas, on student financing, economic growth, health care, energy, school reform, and so on. Look where that got him.

Trump has grasped an important truth about politics in the digital age. Policy statements do not need to be serious proposals. They are merely ways to signal to the electorate what your instincts are, and what kinds of things you care about. It doesn’t matter if they don’t pass muster in the DC think-tank community. They are essentially a long list of the candidate’s likes and dislikes – politics in primary colors.

At his rallies, Trump announces his plan to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S., and asks: “And who’s gonna pay for it?” Then he holds out the mike to the crowd. They dutifully shout back: “Mexico!” It’s not true, and it can’t be true, but it doesn’t seem to matter. If Trump wins and appoints Ben Carson, the U.S. will have a Secretary for Education who has wondered aloud if Joseph built the pyramids.

Over on the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton, a wonk to match Bush, continues to fight a nervously close battle against a man who seems to design his policies on a blank sheet of paper, never allowing the facts on the ground to dilute the purity of his vision.

To be clear: I’m not saying that Sanders and Trump are equivalent. Trump plays on fear and loathing; Sanders indulges utopian idealism. But like Trump, the main purpose of Sanders’ policies is to signal a broad set of values, rather than chart a realistic way forward. Even the most progressive analysts of health care policy, like my Brookings colleague Henry Aaron, consider the Sanders plan for a single-payer health care system to be a pipe dream. As Aaron writes: “We know that single-payer mechanisms work in some countries. But those systems evolved over decades, based on gradual and incremental change from what existed before. That is the way that public policy is made in democracies.” Indeed. But not the way public policy is being made on the campaign trail.

Likewise, Sanders’ fiscal policies simply do not stack up, even if he can make the economy grow like it’s the ‘60s (the 1860s, that is). But don’t take my word for it: ask ultra-liberal economist Paul Krugman. Or indeed the four Democrat former chairs of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers who jointly wrote to warn of the fuzzy math at the heart of Sanders’ tax and spending plans. Sanders is playing fantasy fiscal policy.

But just as the unhinged ideas from Trump are doing nothing to dampen his fans, so the unrealistic ones from Sanders are not putting off his core supporters. And just as the scorn of the establishment helps Trump, so the attacks from experts on the mainstream left on Sanders’ ideas bolster his image as a revolutionary idealist, refusing to accept the status quo.

We should be honest: it is only in exceptional circumstances that policy is likely to be the central ingredient of politics. The personality, vision and message of the candidate, and the efficiency of a political operation, are typically more important. We should also be honest that the aspirational nature of campaign pledges very often puts them well beyond reasonable reach. Remember Hoover’s “chicken in every pot and a car in every garage?” Presidents can’t make that kind of change happen.

But even if policies declared on the campaign trail have often been a stretch, they have at least been a stretch in the right direction. Even if they were aspirational, they were not bonkers. The capacity to propose sensible policy has historically been a necessary test of political candidates, with scholars and serious journalists acting as examiners. Good policy may not often win you an election, but really bad policy could lose one. Now, in a fragmented media market, this basic test of policy seriousness may no longer disqualify a candidate.

Most successful Presidential candidates have, once in office, attempted to follow through on most (75% according to one study) of their campaign promises. Obama tried for 80%, according to Politifact. But many of those being made this year cannot be taken seriously, even perhaps by the candidates themselves. They are positioning devices, rather than proposals.

For a scholar working in a public policy think-tank, these are of course disheartening trends. What use is there for policy analysis when it seems as if politicians barely need policies at all? But there are deeper dangers here. If policy and politics separate entirely, the people who end up in office are likely to have little regard for policies, or even the skills required to make them. This will reduce the chances that policies will be implemented successfully, or that they will be effective, and therefore make them even less relevant to an electorate already concerned that our governance system is broken. Worse, the careless disregard for facts, laws, costs, and even basic math is corrosive to the democratic process. It is too much, perhaps, to expect politicians to seek to make voters better informed about the key issues. But I think it is reasonable to hope they will not misinform them.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that policy will make a political comeback. But I’m not holding my breath.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in Bloomberg Government.