More Policy, Please

Why are Democrats—and Republicans—afraid to discuss their ideas at their own conventions?

In this very unusual convention season, one of the notable oddities is the absence of a Republican platform. Citing the COVID-19 crisis and the difficulties of convening delegates, the party just re-upped its 2016 platform even though there have been, um, a few developments since then. (A near Depression and a global pandemic come to mind.)

But the GOP death of policy doesn’t just reflect a chasm between the parties. The Democrats have a platform—and it’s worth reading—but the major speeches delivered last week were light on specifics and were more about the threat of Donald Trump ending our democracy if given another four years. At the same time, the speakers portrayed Joe Biden as compassionate, not scary, and totally not sleepy. Democrats conveyed these ideas well.

But if you weren’t reading the platform or knew about the various ideas kicking around the Biden firmament—Cory Booker’s idea of Baby Bonds to build up wealth for the poor, Elizabeth Warren’s crackdown on monopolies—the speeches didn’t tell you much other than reiterating a commitment to social justice and green jobs.

The lack of specifics is something that reporters and academics always moan but it’s worth remembering that voters have shown a surprising interest in policy, too. They may not be reading monographs on monetary policy, but they do understand the stakes. The 1992 campaign was rich in public policy, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s “Putting People First” book actually becoming a bestseller. The “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign was much mocked but it represented important policy distinctions. Bush chided a fellow Texan,Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, for wanting to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, and he promoted an expanded federal role in education, which led to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Collapsing tax brackets were also part of his tax cut plan that year. You can question the wisdom of any of these policies. But they were policies nonetheless. They were articulated clearly and brought some electoral success.

The 1968 Nixon campaign has rightly been derided as a cynical exercise—playing on legitimate fears of crime and disorder while avoiding the extremism of George Wallace, in an effort to conflate Hubert Humphrey with Abby Hoffmann. It worked, of course. And perhaps Donald Trump’s efforts to turn Biden and Kamala Harris into skateboard wheeling anarchists will help him. (I doubt it, but I also don’t underestimate the possibility.)

The 1968 race, however, actually had policies and contained the seeds of Nixon’s better qualities: his Tory liberalism that unleashed a slew of what now seem like liberal icons: The Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration , Affirmative Action, minority set-asides.

Even Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, and one of the most odious figures in American politics, felt a need to put the policy out there. In his 1968 seconding speech at the GOP convention in Miami Beach, Agnew sounded a tad Clintonesque when he said that one of his “objectives of being on the ticket was to analyze the problems of this nation without resort to the canned philosophies of liberalism or conservatism.”

Referring to the much examined “urban crisis,” as it was known, Agnew said: “I know there is a bright new world of ideas for cities such as cultural, commercial and industrial centers as well as satellite cities—that we are only beginning to explore.” That laid the groundwork for a number of Nixon initiatives, such as revenue sharing and a program that was a forerunner to the Section 8 plan to help the poor into private housing. Nixon would backtrack on a lot of these ideas later in his tenure, but it was, at least, serious engagement in policy.

Republicans have made a bet this year that lies about Trump’s record—and Biden’s—can prevail. Democrats have made a bet that decency and competence and Trump-fatigue will be enough. Is it?

Putting more policy details out there isn’t always a political winner. The press’s idiotic reporting of Al Gore’s Social Security “lockbox” in 2000 and his inability to explain it well was a mess. But more often than not, voters want to know what you want to do and how you want to do it. Even if you jettison your plans once in office—FDR giving up on fiscal austerity, George W. Bush deciding that being the policeman of the world is a good idea, Bill Clinton and his “middle-class tax cut”—the mere engagement with ideas matters. Trump will not care about policy. He’s not capable of it. He’s already chucked the few things that made him interesting at one time like protecting entitlements. Biden, on the other hand, understands the government as well as anyone. He ought to talk about it more.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Guest Political Editor at the Washington Monthly. He is also contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter having covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.