On paper, we should be entering the most interesting part of the primary season. Everybody begins with the same cliché-ridden announcement speeches – come with me to a better tomorrow, let’s build a bridge to the 21st Century, or “crown thy good, America, crown thy good.”
In the closing weeks before the Iowa caucuses, everybody will be too busy pointing out that once, twenty-seven years ago, senator so-and-so once lamented, sotto voce, that he doesn’t really care about ethanol that much and thus demonstrated a lack of compassion for the hard working American farmer.
What we should be enjoying right now are the candidates unveiling the first broad outlines of their policy proposals. In their announcement speeches, every aspiring commander in chief laid out that they want – surprise! – a better America, and lately that means (yawn) a safer and secure country, a strong economy, energy independence, a cleaner environment, blah blah blah. They’ve explained the what; now they have to lay out the how.
This is why it would be good to see candidates announcing their First Draft Plans.
Andrew Ferguson made the argument last year that negative ads are good for you, in a sense that the difference between a negative ad and a positive one is that a negative ad has a fact in it. When a candidate runs an ad showing him in front of implausibly cheerful schoolkids declaring, “I want better schools for our children, because I believe the children are our future; teach them well and they will lead the way,” there’s nothing for the opponent react to (other than the grave offense of echoing Whitney Houston lyrics). The candidate is just talking intentions and desires. And since few candidates campaign on promises of worse schools, higher taxes, lousy public services, etc., the campaign turns on who has the more appealing-sounding platitudes.
A negative ad – “My opponent voted to cut school funding” at least has some sort of past decision by a candidate that can be criticized or defended. The discussion gets beyond intentions to actual decisions and consequences.
John Edwards came out with some details to his health care plan a little while back. The problem with unveiling a detailed plan is that it provides actual ideas and facts to pick apart, and if a candidate is honest enough to include the fine print, it will inevitably include some sort of unpopular flaw, like tax hikes on incomes that few would define as “the rich” or benefit cuts or denying any federal aid to anyone left-handed or what have you.
So if Edwards comes out and realizes, “wow, this part of the plan doesn’t seem like a good idea,” if he withdraws it, he’ll be accused of flip-flopping. This encourages even more caution and lack of detail in policy proposals.
It would be nice if a candidate could come out and say, “yeah, I dropped that idea, the response suggested that it would just never pass.” So I propose every candidate gets at least one free pass, one bad idea that they can throw out to the public as a trial balloon. Presumably the candidate and his advisers are engaging in self-critique and thinking these things through, but they deserve the liberty of risking a bad idea. And after seeing the reaction and having their proposals picked apart by policy experts, think tank issue gurus, columnists, etc., then the candidates, closer to those first primaries, can offer their Revised Plans that they can be held more accountable for.