The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Paul Ryan, Our Non-Parliamentary Government, and the Virtue of Non-Vacuous Vagueness


I am a believer in the virtues of certain kinds of vagueness. This hasn’t always been true. As recently as 2009, when Chris Christie was running for governor of New Jersey, I was harshly critical of his campaign for its exceptionally vague platform. Later on, however, I realized that Christie’s vagueness wasn’t just a political asset in the context of his gubernatorial campaign, when vagueness can shield a candidate from focused (but not equally vague) attacks. Rather, it was also a governing asset, at least in the hands of an effective politician. Govs. Scott Walker (R-WI) and John Kasich (R-OH) ran fairly vague campaigns in 2010, and for a variety of reasons their ambitious efforts to reform collective bargaining rules and much else proved extremely contentious and polarizing. In New Jersey, in contrast, Christie managed to align himself with a faction of the Democratic party rooted in the southern part of the state. Moreover, he has been careful in choosing his battles, e.g., rather than wholesale reform of the collective bargaining process, which would greatly benefit the state’s long-term fiscal health, Christie has embraced a more adversarial approach in negotiating with public employees, having recognized that wholesale reform is, in the short term at least, a political dead letter. 

Christie’s modest successes reflect a number of factors that are hard to replicate in other environments. But there are a few lessons for national politics, as I’ve argued in two posts on Mitt Romney’s vagueness (here and here).

Like it or not, our mix of non-parliamentary government and a two-party system implies that a decent-sized legislative minority party will always have considerable leverage over the shape of legislation. This is particularly true in the U.S. Senate, but it is also true in the House. When control of the House is contested, the incentives to “weaponize” policy disputes becomes irresistibly strong. If you know that you’re never going to be part of the majority and your only hope of influencing policy is playing ball with the other team, you play ball with the other team. But if you know that we’re in a politically unstable era in which control of the House pivots, compromise looks far less attractive; pressing your political advantage has a reasonably good chance of paying off. 

So what does this have to do with vagueness? When you lay out a very explicit policy platform (and by that I don’t mean a platform riddled with language unfit for publication), it makes it harder to reach a negotiated settlement.  

Wait a second. Does that mean I think Rep. Paul Ryan was wrong to unite House Republicans around his Medicare premium support proposal last year? No, it does not. 

In some cases, committing to an explicit position can help shift the debate. Until Medicare premium support, congressional Republicans were stuck in a counterproductive mode: they’d offer sharp rhetorical critiques of big government while focusing substantive energy on earmarks rather than entitlement reform. Ryan effectively forced Republicans out of there comfort zone, i.e., from vacuous (not just vague) opposition to big government to a vague (but not vacuous) entitlement reform agenda as an opening bid to help set the terms of the political debate. While this strategy might have had short term political costs, I’d argue that it actually represented a necessary long-term move.

Note, however, that Ryan’s proposal was vague but not vacuous. Basically, Ryan constructed a proposal that was compatible with low tax revenues. My sense is that he and his allies would be willing to countenance higher tax revenues, but only as part of a negotiated settlement.

The crucial question is this: what kind of rhetorical strategy is most likely to yield a favorable negotiated settlement? Vacuous vagueness married to harsh anti-government rhetoric seems unlikely, in my view, to yield a favorable negotiated settlement, as it will make “the other team” seem sensible, restrained, and substantive by comparison. Non-vacuous vagueness, in contrast, moves the debate forward, creates opportunities for compromise, and makes “the home team” seem more substantive. This latter stance has the potential to peel off some members of the other team, and also voters who aren’t implacably hostile to the home team. 

Matt Yglesias (who has a great post on President Obama’s scoring window games) has criticized Paul Ryan, for whom he seems to have a special dislike, for his vagueness:

His budget in all its PDF’d glory contains a thirteen page discussion of tax reform. Not one sentence. Not one paragraph. Thirteen pages dedicated to explaining his vision for revenue-neutral tax reform. And even so he manages to not name a single tax deduction that he’s planning to eliminate. Home mortgage interest deduction? I dunno. Electric vehicle tax credit? I dunno. Deductibility of state and local income taxes? I dunno. I read thirteen pages on tax reform, and didn’t learn anything about Paul Ryan’s views on tax reform.

Interestingly, Ryan actually gets this right on Page 2 of the overall document, aka the Table of Contents, wherein he says “VI. Pro-Growth Tax Reform” which is exactly the correct way to express the idea. He is for pro-growth tax reform! So am I! So is everyone! And yet it’s not going to happen by finding increasingly longwinded ways of avoiding naming specific provisions.

I assume that Matt finds Ryan’s tax vagueness vacuous. I find it to be an example of non-vacuous vagueness. Here’s the thing: there is an explicit revenue target (18-19% of GDP) and there is no indication of where the threshold between the 10% rate and the 25% top marginal tax rate will be set. Moreover, it calls for maintaining (and perhaps increasing) the favorable treatment of capital income, which is, depending on how you look at it, one of the largest tax expenditures.

This implies extremely deep cuts in all other tax expenditures, including the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance. Rather than pick a fight with homeowners and realtors or people living in high-tax jurisdictions, Ryan is leaving the specific cuts to tax expenditures to the imagination (the negative interpretation) or to negotiations between the home team and the other team.  

The non-vacuous bottom line is that the revenue target will be 18-19% of GDP come hell or high water. Mitt Romney tax proposal, of which we’ve been critical, suggests that it will make up for deep revenue losses through unspecified spending cuts, which is not the tack Ryan takes. 

Interestingly, Ryan’s non-vacuous vagueness creates an opportunity for critics: (a) they can sketch out the (incredibly deep) cuts to tax expenditures implied by Ryan’s broad outline and challenge Ryan to confirm or deny whether or not he’d find the proposed cuts acceptable and (b) they can explicitly make the case that tax revenue should represent a much higher share of GDP than the postwar average in light of the retirement of the baby boomers.

While (b) is a valid argument that has been raised by Josh Barro and others on the center-right as well as most of the credible center-left, it seems extremely unlikely that Ryan’s critics will use this point as part of their political case, as the swingable share of the electorate would presumably find this explicit commitment unattractive. As for (a), it might prove effective and it would actually be a useful exercise, but the hope (for the home team) is that it would be a bit awkward — particularly if Ryan says something to the effect of, “Yep, everything is on the table. I personally think most Americans would happily trade in this or that targeted tax break for lower, simpler taxes. But I’m open to compromise with my friends on the other side of the aisle to figure out how we can fix the code in the fairest, smartest way.” 

I have a feeling that very few people are going to agree with me on this non-vacuous vagueness question. 


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