For all the jabs that candidates exchange over their opponents’ character flaws, ages, and mental acuity, the 2024 presidential campaign has featured policy discussions to a surprising degree. This is important because no matter what you think the U.S. should do on issues of the day, when candidates focus on what they want to do in office, voters in a democracy benefit.
Characterizing the current campaign as policy-oriented may be hard to believe, at least initially. The policy exchanges tend to get overshadowed as media organizations rush to cover controversies within the campaigns or he-said-she-said candidate squabbles. The raucous debates we witnessed last fall certainly looked like an old-fashioned food fight, particularly when candidates talked over each other on overcrowded debate stages.
However, as the field narrowed, it created space for the sort of deep vetting that is the hallmark of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire. Presidential contenders trudged through snowy college campuses and conference centers. They shared food in diners and swilled beer in taverns. Perhaps most importantly, though, candidates participated in town hall meetings, many of which were televised. While the default is to expect grandstanding, many of these sessions have been different, offering insights into where would-be presidents would like to take America.
Some of the biggest policy challenges have, in past years, been the hardest for candidates to acknowledge. This is why I was shocked—pleasantly so—when just last month in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, I heard Nikki Haley acknowledge the ominous financial trends confronting Social Security before then wading into politically risky policy reforms like raising the retirement age. Although I was sitting several miles away, my gasps might have been audible on Dartmouth’s campus where I teach. However, my reaction was not out of disagreement or disgust. Instead, I was shocked to hear serious policy discussion. Unfortunately, her comments did not make the local evening news highlight reels, but hundreds of people in the hotel conference room had a legitimate chance to become more informed on a major public policy dilemma confronting America.
Other candidates have not shied away from this very same policy debate. Donald Trump has attacked Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis for their positions on Social Security, implying that he would act differently. However, the irony here is that while conservatives form the core of part his political base, Trump sounded like a liberal when he lambasted others for their willingness to cut or delay old age retirement benefits. On the other side of the political spectrum, and somewhat more in line with his ideological convictions, Joe Biden offered a range of Social Security payroll tax increases for high-income earners, increases in the eligibility age, and benefit adjustments. You may not agree with these positions, and some economists might not think they go far enough, but the candor from candidates on policy is a win for all Americans.
The breadth of the public policy discussion has also been noteworthy. It may not seem like it sometimes from the menacing political ads on television, across the internet, or in postcard mailers, but voters in town hall meetings have lobbed tough questions at candidates on topics as diverse as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Houthi rebels in Yemen to global climate change and immigration. No geopolitical sore spot seems to be off limits, such as the wars in Gaza or Ukraine, as well as the potential for conflict in Taiwan. Even slavery and the role it played in American political development centuries ago has reappeared as an issue to be discussed and debated.
Candidates should be rewarded for taking actual policy positions, especially if the stances could be classified as counterintuitive or courageous. Whether their policy plans are wise or politically viable should be seen as related but secondary concerns. This is not to say that governing is easy, as we have seen in the budget brinksmanship every few months from lawmakers inside the Capital Beltway. Still, we need to know what politicians plan to do, and to a surprising degree, policy differences have been a welcome but underappreciated feature of the presidential primary contests in 2024. Let’s hope the burgeoning policy debate continues throughout the remaining primary calendar and beyond as we progress toward the general election.
Jason Barabas, Ph.D., is a Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences. He lives and works in Hanover, New Hampshire.