The Limits of Wonkery

THE LIMITS OF WONKERY….This is pretty far down in the weeds and probably doesn’t interest very many people, but at the risk of beating a tedious subject to death here’s another take on the question of whether or not presidential candidates should commit themselves to detailed healthcare proposals (or any other kind of proposal, for that matter). I have two answers:

First: During a campaign, nobody cares about 100-page white papers. That’s not going to stop them from being produced (all those policy aides have to do something, after all), but they won’t buy you a single vote. They might lose you a few votes, though, so you’re probably better off not bothering.

But: You need to do something to make both your priorities and your positions credible. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown policy paper, but it does need to be more than “It’s a tragedy that 43 million Americans have no health insurance.” You have to offer at least enough detail to convince voters that (a) you really are serious about doing something, and (b) you have at least some idea of what approach you want to take. Basically, your proposal needs to have at least enough detail to draw serious fire and survive. This is what gives you a mandate to follow through once you’re elected.

That said, I’d like to suggest that the two examples served up here by Steve Benen illustrate this point pretty well. The first is George Bush’s tax proposal of 2000, and it was right in the sweet spot: detailed enough to demonstrate he was serious about it but not so detailed that it drew the fire of every special interest group in the country. It got plenty of attention and was clearly something that people were voting for. Result: a solid mandate and a big tax cut in 2001. (And 2002, 2003, and 2004.)

The second example is Bush’s Social Security proposal in 2004. In this case, there was too little: Bush mentioned privatization only in passing and it never became a big campaign topic. Nobody had to seriously defend it, its popularity was never really tested, and Bush’s victory that year obviously owed nothing to it. Result: no mandate and a crushing defeat in 2005.

Bottom line: this is one area where the golden middle really is the right place to be. Serious proposals need to have enough meat on them to produce a mandate for action, but not so much meat that they tie you up in knots for the entire campaign season.

Fascinating, no? Aren’t you glad you read all the way to the end?