Details Aren't the Devil
Cross-posted at Alien The Right's Field.
Democratic candidates offer a wealth of ideas
, explained in rich detail. Republicans offer a few vague platitudes and promise to get back to us after the election.
Steve Benen says that, infuriating as it may be, the Republican approach may be savvier
I’m not sure Republicans are wrong about this. When a GOP candidates says, “Vote for me — and I’ll work out the details later,” I’d love for there to be consequences. There never are. In 2000, Bush’s vague and ambiguous tax plan didn’t make any sense. Al Gore tried to make it a campaign issue, but the media ignored it and voters didn’t care. In 2004, Bush said more than once that he could privatize Social Security without raising taxes, raising the deficit, cutting benefits, or raising the retirement age. How did he propose to pull that off? He didn’t — he just mentioned ideas and goals without any details. There were no political consequences.
In fact, American voters don’t seem to care all that much about the details in advance. A candidate talks about what he or she finds important, and how he or she would approach the issue if elected. Voters either agree or disagree. If a candidate were to make some kind of outlandish campaign promise — free ice cream for everyone, every day, for four years — there would probably be a higher expectation to explain how that might work, but a more general policy prescription needs a lot fewer support materials.
One of the neat tricks Republicans managed to pull off during much of the past decade or two was to earn a reputation as both the party of principles and
the party of ideas. Logically, those two things may be connected, but as Benen's analysis suggests, in a practical sense it can be difficult to wear both hats at the same time. When you spend a lot of time on wonky policy details, it can be hard to express basic foundational principles in a clear way. At the same time, when all you talk about are principles, your rhetoric can be so divorced from reality that it becomes meaningless.
This is just an impression, but I think that Republicans, having achieved a reasonable sense of balance between principles and ideas for quite some time, are tilting over into meaningless abstractness at this point. Much of this has to do with the exhaustion of the Goldwater conservative movement, which seems finally to have reached its Waterloo in the era of Bush the Lesser. Movement conservative ideas simply came to their logical and practical limits -- if the ideas worked, Bush would have implemented them successfully. They didn't and he couldn't, and all the rest of what conservatives say about it is just excuse-making. Does anybody really think there's a future in social security privatization or "health savings accounts"? Honestly?
Bush knew that conservatives couldn't simply slash away the social insurance state, but the price of a politically-feasible transition was too much for the right's ideology to bear -- as the Part D debacle proved. And that was just a preview of the costs that would be associated with any privatization of social security. There just isn't any way
to remake America along Goldwater-conservative ideological lines. You can't go back again. There are new, young conservatives out there with some interesting (if embryonic) ideas of their own, but they aren't influential enough yet to have much impact on the presidential race, so what we're left with is a field of candidates repeating the rhetoric of conservative years past, even as that rhetoric has lost its relevance to the details of governance.
Republicans are usually the party that attracts those who crave transcendence and the appeal of pure ideology. Democrats are usually the party of pragmatism, ideological muddle, and practical government. There's nothing wrong with that basic dichotomy. A party gains an advantage when it is able to reach beyond its basic mode and do a little bit of what its opponent can do -- a strong GOP has at least some
good, wonky ideas, and a strong Democratic party has at least some ability to appeal to the voters' civic-spiritual side.
My point is that Benen may be right, but he's thinking of a Republican party that was able to achieve that balance more effectively. Even just in the past couple of years it has lost the balance. Both its domestic agenda and its foreign-policy credibility have come undone. I'd like Democrats to talk about principles more, but let's let them be the party of details, too. In the end, details do matter.
Labels: 2008, Democrats, Presidential election, Republicans