WASHINGTON — Two leading White House contenders have won the ardor of voters at opposite ends of the spectrum with promises that would prove politically difficult, constitutionally shaky, or just plain impossible to fulfill.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have virtually nothing in common except for outsider status and pie-in-the-sky policy priorities, which they sell with highly charged emotional appeals targeted at voters’ economic and social anxieties.
Trump, leading the Republican primary contest, says he would build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it. Never mind that Mexican leaders have dismissed the notion out of hand. He would temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, a religious test that experts say would probably violate both international law and the Constitution.
He says he would force Apple to build all of its products in the United States, a plan that would be outside the bounds of current US law. In seeming disregard of US and global trade rules, he wants to slap a stiff, blanket tariff on imported Chinese goods.
He claims he could solve Russia-US tensions over Syria and Ukraine through sheer negotiating talent. Last June he said he had a “foolproof” plan to defeat the Islamic State but would not reveal it because “I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing.”
Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, hews more closely to legal realities than Trump, but he still campaigns on an aspirational platform of political longshots. He vows to break up the big banks. He wants to give every student the option of going to college without paying for it. He envisions a health care system in which everyone is covered, including undocumented immigrants. He wants to mandate that employers pay for new parents to stay home with their babies for three months.
The unrealistic nature of their promises is a startling feature of a 2016 campaign full of surprises, as candidates who once would have been dismissed as fringe play dominant roles.
“The issue details don’t matter right now as much as the attributes that you sell,” said Kevin Madden, a Washington-based Republican consultant. “What’s the old saying? That in a world where there’s a wealth of information, there’s a poverty of attention.
“With Trump, it’s the way that he says it, in such a common-sense way, that taps into anxieties that voters already have,” he added. “That Washington is making things too complicated. Just build a wall! Don’t worry about parliamentary procedures or negotiations between House and the Senate and the White House.’”
The opponents of Sanders and Trump have tried to call them out, with limited results, on what the rivals describe as bogus promises.
Hillary Clinton has contrasted her more incremental, realpolitik approach to Sanders’ sweeping, activist vision. She has staunchly defended President Obama’s chief domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, with its government subsidies for private insurance, and accused Sanders of wanting to tear it up in a quixotic quest for Medicare for all.
“I don’t want to overpromise,” Clinton said last week at an event in Iowa. “I don’t want to come out with theories and concepts that may or may not be possible. We don’t need any more of that.”
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and other Republican candidates frequently knock Trump for his overly broad promises and lack of detail to back them up.
“I tell everybody who goes to a Donald Trump event, if you get to ask a question, just ask him how? I don’t care which one of the things he talks about. Just ask him how? How?” Christie said during a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H. “I can answer how because I’ve done it.”
But polls show that large swaths of 2016 voters are looking for something bigger than track records and demonstrable policy chops. The sorts of detailed plans put forward in 2012 by Mitt Romney, who issued an economic treatise boasting 59 policy points, have become afterthoughts in this election cycle.
“Candidates offering 15-point programs with 10-year budget scoring that would pass muster with Office of Management and Budget is not resonating in the same way as a candidate who tells them what they want to hear,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration and has donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Those voters are emotionally responding to the candidates who are speaking to their anti-establishment anger — and, as such, voters are not holding them to an exactitude standard.”
Big promises in politics are nothing new, of course. And when President John F. Kennedy in 1961 proposed sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade, he was met with skepticism and a Congress that filed amendments opposing the proposal. So before dismissing Sanders and Trump, consider this: Neil Armstrong beat Kennedy’s deadline of walking on the moon by six months.
But the Middle East is a far more vexing problem than rocket science. That has not stopped candidates from spinning easy answers.
Senator Ted Cruz has said he wants to “carpet bomb” Islamic militants. Trump has said he would “Bomb the [expletive] out of ISIS.” The tough talk disregards the impact on civilians, and the domino effects that robust American intervention could have on the region.
All of the Republican candidates have said they would dismantle Obama’s deal to at least temporarily halt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. And, Trump says of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “I guarantee you I will be never calling him the supreme leader.”
On the Democratic side, Sanders’ universal, government-operated health care proposal is a central part of his pitch. Sanders delights in discussing it in town hall meetings — he’ll call out to the audience, asking people to stand up and reveal the size of their health insurance deductible.
People shout out numbers: $2,500! $6,000! $4,000! Then Sanders proposes a world where nobody ever has to pay a deductible again.
The plan — known on the campaign trail as BernieCare — expands Medicare so that it covers all Americans. “As a patient, all you need to do is go to the doctor and show your insurance card,” according to the Sanders’ website.
The cost: Sanders estimates $1.38 trillion annually. To put that number in context, the federal government pays nearly $1 trillion in Social Security checks each year.
To fund the health care plan, Sanders would raise taxes.
The Vermont senator acknowledges that the current political environment makes his plan unrealistic. But his message is for “political revolution” and tells audiences that a vote for him is the first step toward changing the country’s landscape so such ideas would be possible.
Trump, on the other hand, isn’t even trying to justify the costs or feasibly of his claims. And he’s been impervious to being called out by fact-checkers in the media, even though Trump’s statements were awarded PolitiFact’s “2015 Lie of the Year.” Nearly 80 percent of his claims that the nonpartisan group examined were ruled false.
Trump has said he would remove all illegal immigrants on his first day in office — “We are going to get them out so fast and so quick” — which would be impossible given that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But few promises have been as frequently touted as the one to build a wall along the southern border. He continues to say that Mexico would agree to pay for it, even though Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, has said he would do no such thing.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser. Annie Linskey can be reached email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.