Trump vs. Clinton is the 1980s vs. the 1990s

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You could shout yourself hoarse arguing what the just-begun 2016 general election is about. The insider versus the outsider! No, feminism versus machismo! No, “Stronger together” versus “I alone can fix it”!

One thing that 2016 really isn’t about is newness. Neither candidate is anybody’s idea of a fresh face. Hillary Clinton will be 69 on Inauguration Day, Donald Trump, 70. Each entered this race a celebrity minted in a distant epoch from which neither candidate can fully escape.

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What’s the 2016 election really about? The Eighties are running against the Nineties.

The 1980s and 1990s remain who Trump and Clinton, respectively, are—or at least how they seem most of the time. The 1980s was the decade when Trump emerged as a local symbol of New York City’s brash new wealth and parlayed that into national fame. His taste for Italian marble and gold-plated fixtures perfectly matched a period that extolled conspicuous displays of personal wealth. For Clinton, the 1990s, a decade dominated by technology-driven prosperity, affirmed her conviction that brainpower and idealism could overcome bitter political divisions. She entered the White House as a full partner in a duo bent on seizing a political center evaporating faster than liquid helium. (“Two for the price of one,” husband Bill promised.)

Even in a tumultuous and norm-defying campaign, Clinton and Trump have held fast to the identities they crafted in their formative decades. Clinton is identified permanently with her husband’s “third way” triangulation of the 1990s, even as she’s drifted leftward on issues like trade and the minimum wage. It was simply what she had to do to defeat her democratic socialist primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, and to keep up with her party’s new focus on income inequality. Trump is regarded permanently as the real estate titan he was in the 1980s even though his business model later shifted toward licensing the Trump name (always in gold, always in caps) to properties he didn’t own. Few realize that even Trump’s renovation of Washington’s Old Post Office—currently his highest-profile building project—is a leasing deal; the title is held by the federal government. Even the dire tone of Trump’s nomination speech, in which he declared that we live in an era “more dangerous than, frankly, I have ever seen,” was a far better description of the soaring crime he lived through in the late ’80s in New York than of today. (Trump himself was channeling Richard Nixon in 1968, but the ’80s were all about slamming shut the Pandora’s box that was the ’60s.)

Even in a tumultuous and norm-defying campaign, Clinton and Trump have held fast to the identities they crafted in their formative decades.

Truthfully, the two candidates don’t work very hard to update their images because the decades that hatched them represent golden ages to which they promise America will return.

Trump’s very slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1980 (“Let’s Make America Great Again”). It’s a straightforward appeal to GOP nostalgia for a decade of conservative ascendancy, economic prosperity and a president whom Republicans idealize. Asked in January what “Make America Great Again” meant, Trump said, “I think during the Ronald Reagan years we were very good. … We felt good about our country.”

Clinton’s New Jerusalem, meanwhile, looks very much like the 1990s. Hillary’s new “Change-Maker” slogan is an echo of Bill’s rallying cry at the 1992 convention: “It’s time to change America.” In May, Hillary said she would put Bill “in charge of revitalizing the economy,” a role that would make him the most powerful first relative since Robert F. Kennedy. The politics are a bit tricky. Hillary knows that Democrats feel ambivalent about resurrecting a public figure whom opponents once branded “Slick Willie.” But she also knows that nobody is ambivalent about the eight-year economic expansion that Bill Clinton presided over during his presidency. “You know, at the end of the ’90s,” Hillary said in March, “we had 23 million new jobs. Incomes went up for everybody.” Elect me, Hillary was saying, and we’ll make it happen again.

In theory, one party (call them the Ins) always stands for continuity while the other (the Outs) always stands for change.

As a Republican, Trump is obliged to disparage Obama. Trump sees the Obama presidency as a “total disaster,” to quote a phrase he’s used to describe the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s foreign policy. But Trump’s disparagement doesn’t stop there. He uses the same phrase to describe fellow Republican George W. Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war and Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA. That takes the 21st century off the table and also the final decade of the 20th. To avoid “total disaster,” Trump’s followers must travel in time back to … you guessed it, the 1980s.

Clinton speaks favorably of Obama, as she must; he’s her party’s incumbent, and she spent four years as his secretary of state. But she tends to describe Obama’s administration as a mere continuation of her husband’s (interrupted by a George W. Bush presidency that “wrecked the economy”). The Affordable Care Act, for instance, “was called Hillarycare,” Hillary said in January, “before it was called Obamacare.” That’s a stretch—Obamacare resembles Hillarycare only in the very broad sense that both were ambitious health reform plans proposed by Democrats. But in Clinton’s telling, the biggest policy accomplishment of the Obama administration—really, the biggest policy accomplishment of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson—was rooted in the glorious 1990s.

Much as they might focus on up-to-date topics like ISIL and cyberwar, Trump and Clinton are vying for control of the political Wayback Machine, and the only difference is where they want to set the dial. Want to know what they’re likely to do in office? Just take a look at the signature themes—war, economy and good old family values—that define the eras that they epitomize.

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Broadly speaking, the 1980s was a decade of peace and the 1990s a decade of war.

That confounds political stereotypes because Ronald Reagan was a bit of a saber rattler. “I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever,” Reagan famously quipped in 1984, not knowing the microphone in front of him was hot. “We begin bombing in five minutes.” Reagan presided over a vast arms buildup, including a wildly ambitious anti-nuke umbrella in outer space that critics dubbed “Star Wars.” Some historians credit this arms buildup with winning the Cold War simply because the Soviets couldn’t keep up. Reagan also aided proxy wars in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But where American soldiers were concerned Reagan was extremely risk-averse, withdrawing them, for instance, from a multinational peacekeeping mission in Beirut in 1983 after the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah killed 241 Americans. Reagan later sent thousands of TOW missiles secretly to Iran in exchange for the release of (what turned out to be) five of the seven hostages held by that same Hezbollah. As president, Reagan sent U.S. troops into battle only once, for a grand total of three days in 1983, to wrest the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada from a Marxist coup. The liberal commentator Michael Kinsley called it a “test-tube war.”

The real wars happened in the 1990s. The largest deployment was 1991’s Persian Gulf War, wherein U.S. forces chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (but not out of Iraq). The Gulf War was a 1990s event but not a Clinton administration event; it was waged by George H.W. Bush, and it rekindled, however briefly, Americans’ faith in full-scale military intervention after their Vietnam debacle. (“Good night, Vietnam,” reporter David Shribman quipped in the Wall Street Journal). Bush also committed troops to support relief efforts in Somalia, where civil war was raging. Clinton escalated that deployment and then withdrew the troops as the country descended into anarchy. Later in the ’90s Clinton ordered airstrikes to quell ethnic strife in Bosnia and Kosovo, and also twice in Iraq to counter assorted misbehavior by Saddam.

Trump’s foreign policy stance is an exaggerated version of Reagan’s: Talk tough and go out of your way to avoid military interventions.

Except for Somalia, all these military operations were on balance successful, and all of them, including Somalia, were short term. In both respects, they were vastly different from U.S. deployments over the following two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trump is much fonder of Russia than Reagan was (to put it mildly), but otherwise his foreign policy stance is an exaggerated version of Reagan’s: Talk tough (“I’m gonna build a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now,” Trump has said.) and go out of your way to avoid military interventions. Did Reagan provoke the Soviet Union by calling it (however accurately) an “evil empire”? Trump sees and raises by endorsing torture (“We have to beat the savages.”). Although at the time, Trump favored the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya, just as Clinton did, he now says he opposed them. Clinton, meanwhile, is more measured in her rhetoric but favors a more hawkish foreign policy that’s closer to the 1990s policies of George H.W. Bush and her husband. As secretary of state, for instance, she favored U.S. training for Syrian rebels, only to be overruled by Obama.

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The 1980s was a decade in which the budget deficit spun out of control. The 1990s was a decade in which the deficit, however briefly, disappeared.

Here again we see Republicans and Democrats playing against type. “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit,” Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, “mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present.” When he spoke these words, the budget deficit was $74 billion. By the time Reagan left office it was $155 billion. (Currently the deficit is $401 billion, a higher absolute figure but a smaller percentage of gross domestic product than in Reagan’s final year.) Much of the blame lies with tax cuts that failed to deliver the revenue boost predicted by the supply-side economic priesthood. But federal spending increased during Reagan’s presidency, too, by about 80 percent, much of it the aforementioned military buildup.

The deficit continued to climb during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, but under Bill Clinton it fell from $290 billion, to zero, to a surplus of $236 billion in Clinton’s final year. Tax increases passed by Clinton and by Bush (in violation of the latter’s “no new taxes” pledge) helped bring deficits under control, but Clinton also slowed spending growth. During Clinton’s presidency, federal spending increased by 29 percent—less than half the rate of increase under Reagan and slightly slower than Obama’s estimated 32 percent.

If your preferred measure of governmental bloat is the number of people who work for the federal government, that grew under Reagan by about 7 percent and shrank under Bill Clinton by about 16 percent (continuing, once again, a trend that began under George H.W. Bush). Much of that had to do with the end of the Cold War, but under Clinton even the number of civilian workers shrank (by about 13 percent), compared to growth of about 4 percent under Reagan, the very same president who famously declared his nine most terrifying words were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” (Both civilian and military federal employment shrank under Obama through 2014, the most recent year for which data are available.)

Trump makes less effort than Reagan did to disguise his hedonistic impulse toward deficit spending.

Most government expansion over the past few decades, it should be noted, has occurred through contractors. Nobody, alas, seems to know how many contract employees that entailed, but it’s a good bet their ranks grew through both the 1980s and the 1990s. According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal contract spending today is somewhere in excess of $500 million. Most of that spending is by the Defense Department, which today, remarkably, hands most of its annual budget over to the private sector.

As with matters of war and peace, Trump’s stance resembles Reagan’s, with the difference that Trump makes less effort than Reagan did to disguise his hedonistic impulse toward deficit spending. “You have tremendous waste, fraud and abuse,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in February, invoking a trinity frequently mentioned by Reagan in the 1980s. But the specific example Trump gave—phantom Social Security payments to nonexistent people aged 106 years and older—garbled an inspector general report that actually said very few such payments were made. In general, Trump distinguished himself from his primary opponents by pledging not to cut entitlement spending even as he proposed tax cuts that the bipartisan Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget estimated would expand the national debt by $12 trillion.

Hillary’s orientation is very much like Bill’s was in the 1990s—she does not espouse entitlement cuts (Democrats seldom do) but would likely accept them as part of a bipartisan budget deal that also raised taxes (though she’s never said so). Clinton has proposed new government spending that might add up to as much as $1 trillion, but her proposed tax increases would raise about the same amount, according to the left-leaning Tax Policy Center. On paper, then, Trump would expand the deficit, as Reagan did in the 1980s, while Clinton would neither expand nor shrink it, falling short of what Bill achieved in the 1990s.

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The 1980s celebrated family values. The 1990s fretted about them.

Ronald Reagan was the first (and still the only) divorced person ever to be elected president. But even his bitterest enemies didn’t question Reagan’s devotion to his wife Nancy. Some did think, though, this devotion verged on dependence: He called her “mommy,” and once, in 1984, she got caught on tape feeding him a response to a reporter’s question (“We’re doing everything we can.”). The Reagans’ daughter, Patti Davis, thought her parents’ devotion to each other “meant that they were complete” without their children. “If a band of gypsies came and took me and [Ron Reagan Jr.] away,” Patti said earlier this year on NBC’s Today, “they would miss us, but they’d be fine.” After Reagan’s first grandchild was born, it was noted widely that the sitting president took two years to see him.

Reagan avoided the subject of gay rights, even though, as a former actor, he had many gay friends (prompting the liberal commentator Hendrik Hertzberg to dub him a “closet tolerant”). Reagan didn’t mention AIDS publicly until 1985, and when the topic came up at news briefings it prompted snickers. The topic of gay marriage lay far enough in the future as to be a non-issue; as late as 1989, mainstream culture judged it an entirely novel idea when the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan published his first essay on the topic. On abortion, Reagan was a sharp critic, even going so far as to write an election-year book in 1984 titled Abortion And The Conscience of A Nation. Through the 1980s, teenage birth rates, teenage pregnancy rates and teenage abortion rates stayed about level.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton showed himself to be a more doting father than Reagan—we learned last week he binge-watched all six Police Academy movies with Chelsea—but a less doting husband. Evidence of the latter trickled in during the 1992 primaries (prompting a Clinton campaign aide to coin the phrase “bimbo eruptions”) and turned into a flood in 1998, when an independent counsel hired to investigate a fishy-looking real estate deal decided instead to pursue Bill’s commitment to (and veracity under oath concerning) his marriage vows.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton showed himself to be a more doting father than Reagan, but a less doting husband.

The 1990s were the decade when the phrase “culture wars” came into vogue (thanks largely to the 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter). On gay rights, Bill immediately pledged to end a ban on gays serving in the military. That prompted a political furor that ended with the implementation of an unworkable policy called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that limped along until 2011. Bill was much more cautious on gay marriage, favoring civil unions but signing into law a nationwide ban on gay marriage that the Supreme Court eventually struck down (by then with Bill’s approval) in 2013. On abortion, the Clinton administration’s policy was that it be “safe, legal, and rare,” a verbal construction that captures the somewhat anguished tenor of the times. In spite of that anguish, many of the social trends that inspired the greatest anxiety were in retreat. Throughout the 1990s (once again, starting under George H.W. Bush and continuing under Clinton) birth rates, pregnancy rates and abortion rates among teenagers declined. Indeed, trajectories for hot-button social issues grew so favorable that by decade’s end William Bennett, a former Education secretary under George H.W. Bush, had to stop publishing an annual jeremiad he called the “Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.”

Trump, like Reagan, is in his personal life a (somewhat-less-closeted) tolerant: a twice-divorced man who during his first marriage began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife. Unlike Reagan, though, Trump lacks gallantry; he once boasted in writing that “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” On social issues, Trump hews closer to Hillary Clinton than to his fellow Republicans, opposing, for instance, North Carolina’s ban on transgender bathrooms. But Trump’s attitudes on gay and transgender rights have been somewhat conflicted over the decades. He shunned his longtime mentor and lawyer Roy Cohn in 1985 when he discovered Cohn had AIDS, which he would die of in 1986. On the one hand, in Trump’s nomination speech he diverged from his text to congratulate the crowd for cheering his pledge to “protect LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” On the other hand, Trump draws the line at gay marriage and abortion, both of which he now opposes. Hillary Clinton favors gay marriage and is pro-choice.

One could go on. Violent crime rose in the 1980s and fell in the 1990s, for reasons that experts still argue about. Income inequality grew during both decades, though only during the 1990s did economic expansion increase median income in any significant way. (Important caveat: The much-despised 1 percent expanded its share of the nation’s collective income faster under Clinton than under Reagan.) The stock market crashed in 1987 and sort-of crashed in 1998, in neither instance prompting a recession. Personal computers became a consumer item in the 1980s but were able to do much more in the 1990s with the advent of the World Wide Web. Brood X, the only cicada cycle worth worrying about, blanketed the sidewalks with crunchy carcasses in 1987 but didn’t reappear until 2004, bypassing the ’90s entirely.

Should the 1980s get your vote, or the 1990s? That’s a personal choice—more personal perhaps, and certainly more nuanced, than the choice between two actual human beings who are running for president. Both candidates want to build a bridge back to the 20th century. The question voters must decide is: which part?

Timothy Noah is the Labor & Employment editor at Politico. He has previously written for the New Republic and Slate, and is author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Bloomsbury, 2012).

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