A Serious Issue

The Republican Party has 17 presidential candidates. Where are their ideas?

GOP primary debate stage
Where are the ideas?

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Between Donald Trump’s dominance in Republican primary polls—and Bernie Sanders’ sudden surge in New Hampshire—it’s easy to get caught in the horse race of the 2016 presidential election, even if most Americans aren’t paying attention. But at this stage, the polls are meaningless, or at least, they don’t tell us much. What counts are the less glamorous parts of election season: endorsements, fundraising, and policy.

On policy, the Democratic field has been active. The front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has made proposals for reducing college debt, defending the right to vote, and raising middle-class incomes. In the wake of protests from Black Lives Matter and other activists, her immediate challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has issued a robust program for “racial justice,” ranging from criminal justice reform to greater redistribution, with an eye toward shrinking disparities in wealth and education. Even the least visible candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has released a thorough plan for police and criminal justice reform. Between the three contenders, Democratic voters have clear choices for the kind of liberal governance they want.


With 17 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, you’d think Republicans would enjoy an even greater quantity of ideas and policies. But as Darren Samuelsohn found for Politico, that’s just not the case:

A POLITICO Agenda analysis of the 17 GOP campaigns’ websites found that nearly half lacked a specific “issue” page at all. The absence of a clear, one-stop spigot of policy information was especially notable at the top of the field. Front-runners Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker don’t have policy tabs of any kind. For the rest of the pack, the policy pages of their websites are largely afterthoughts, light on significant detail.

As Samuelsohn notes, there are exceptions: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul “gets deep into the issues and pushes the bounds of where a Republican might go,” with proposals for ending domestic surveillance of American citizens, shrinking the prison population, and limiting the use of force in foreign affairs. Likewise, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “offers multi-pronged plans on education, the economy, and entitlement reform.” Even then, the ideas come with more breadth than depth. And that’s just as true for candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Bush, who emphasize reform and “wonkiness.”


I don’t think Republicans are bereft of plans or ideas; for starters, there’s the legislative agenda of the congressional GOP, which will influence whichever Republican is nominated, and will influence his choices if he’s elected next November.

But, so far, the GOP primary isn’t an ideas fest—with few exceptions, the candidates aren’t talking policy. Yes, last week’s debate was entertaining, but no one on stage could give—or even hint to—a coherent governing agenda. At most, we had two hours of conservative boilerplate, as everyone promised to cut taxes, repeal Obamacare, stop the Iran deal, and get rid of “job-killer” regulations.

If you asked me to name one thing Clinton would do in office, I could describe her plan to change the capital gains tax and encourage long-term investment. If you asked me the same of Sanders, I could explain his plan to fund college tuition with a financial transaction tax, or his plan to tax carbon emissions and use the gains to help consumers and spur renewable energy sources. If you asked me that of Bush, I could give you a guess—based on the GOP platform and his own interests—but I wouldn’t have a great answer. I might even shrug.

As an analyst of American politics, I think this is unusual. But if I were a Republican voter, I’d be concerned.