I mentioned earlier Jonathan Cohn’s post pointing out that Democrats in 2008 put together carefully constructed, expert-vetted policy proposals (on health care, at least), while Republicans in 2012 are tending towards gibberish and nonsense. Matt Yglesias says the GOP path might be the better way to go:
[T]he main consequence of that business was to raise unrealistic expectations and lay the groundwork for unfair backlash when it turned out that in the United States of America laws are written by congress. To me, I learned from Tim Pawlenty what I wanted to know. His speech made it clear that he agrees with the George W. Bush approach and will seek to push tax revenues to the lowest legislatively feasible level, with a special eye toward the tax burden on high-income individuals and corporations.
What I think Yglesias is getting to here is the complexity of the concept of “promises” made by candidates to their constituents. On the one hand, there are policy promises: if I’m elected, I will do the following specific things. As he notes, fulfilling policy promises can be especially complicated in a Madisonian system since no single elected official has the authority to do, well, anything (yes, presidents can sign executive orders, but it’s often politically impractical for them to do so even if they really want to enact a policy; once you get beyond that, it’s of course even worse for presidents who need legislation or for any single Member of Congress to guarantee that anything will pass, or even come up for a vote).
But policy promises are only one of the many types of promises candidates make. There are also process promises: if elected, I’ll consult with voters, or with particular interest groups; if elected, I will use some particular decision-making method. This is, by the way, the better way to think of the mandate/independence debate: the question isn’t whether in some abstract sense it’s better for politicians to do what constituents say or to think for themselves — what we really want our politicians to do is to keep their promises, which makes them good representatives, and so they should generally keep their process promises, too.
And then there are identity promises. If elected, I’ll stay “one of us.” If elected, I’ll be an expert on arms control. If elected, I’ll be black, or Jewish, or a woman, or Catholic. For the latter, it’s not just that a candidate belongs to some demographic group; what matters especially is that she runs on that identity. That makes it “count” as part of the candidate’s political identity. It’s a promise that she’s making. Or, one that she doesn’t make.
I think that the kinds of policy talk that Cohn correctly, in my view, believes divide the parties is best looked at in that sense. Democratic constituents want policy wonks and Democratic organized groups want detailed policies, or at least campaign professionals think they do; Democratic candidates therefore promise to be policy wonks. Or at least pretend to be, which is generally the same thing. On the Republican side, what they appear to want is ideological fealty and intense identification with a set of cultural and political stuff, and so they get candidates who find ways to show those things.
Be careful: no candidate makes only one promise, or even one type of promise. So don’t interpret this as saying that Republicans only have to give the correct social signals and their constituents will support them regardless of what else they do. Policy and process (and perhaps other types of) promises matter, too. But I do think it helps understand what I agree is a real difference in how Democrats and Republicans right now run for presidential nominations.
Getting back to what Yglesias said: I agree that all of this has consequences for how they act in office — because politicians really do try to keep their promises, whatever, and whatever type, those might be. But if the candidates and the people who run their campaigns are correct, there’s not much that can be done about it. Democrats want someone who acts wonkish, and so all the candidates scramble to respond. What would be interesting is for a candidate to deliberately counterprogram…a Republican running primarily as a wonk, or a Democrat running on social and cultural identification. Jesse Jackson was the last major candidate, I think, who did that on the Democratic side. Perhaps someone with a better shot at the nomination coming in will attempt it in 2016.
[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]