Did Both Parties Skip the Idea Primary?

It’s very, very rare that I agree with Robert Borosage, but I think he’s on to something.

(Clear away the usual conservatives-and-Republicans-are-wrong-

about-everything rhetoric; with time I find myself increasingly able of tuning this stuff out. It’s like rhetorical Muzak.)



This ought to be the most fun part of the campaign season. We have plenty of time to get into the hammer-and-tong fight of competing scandals or I-demand-you-take-

back-that-outrageous-slander manufactured brouhahas. Traditionally, the early nobody’s-paying-attention period is a time for candidates shape their campaigns, messages, themes, and agenda. By now, candidates are usually talking to their policy gurus. Who will be the wonks who will make up the influential voices of the next administration? Who will be the Natan Sharansky (democracy promotion) of the next president, or the next Marvin Olasky (faith-based initiatives and compassionate conservatism)?



While the influence of “the Neocons” is often overstated, who are the current crop of candidates’ Richard Perles? Their deep thinkers and strategists who help put together not just a policy agenda, but an overarching vision of what they seek to do with the presidency?




For that matter, who is the Ira Magaziner or Robert Reich of a future Democratic administration?

With the news that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama plan on keeping a not-well-specified “small number” of U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, it seems like a good time to ask whether anyone can name a major policy difference between a Clinton administration and an Obama one. Is the biggest difference that their preferred date of withdrawal from Iraq for a majority of troops would be about six months apart?



Has either proposed a dramatic, sweeping change in the way the U.S. fights the war on terror? On health care, supposedly Senator Clinton’s signature issue, the rhetoric is the same across the Democratic field – a right, not a privilege; universal coverage; put children first; people are hurting, the cost keeps getting higher; preventative care is a magical cure-all…

(If there’s no major policy difference between Clinton and Obama, then the contrast is on character and personality – bad news for the New York Senator.)




Throw Edwards in there. Has anyone heard any proposal from any of them on schools, on economic policy, on dealing with illegal immigration or anything that makes you jump out of your seat and say, “boy, that’s a good idea!” Am I leaving out anything from one of the other trailing candidates? Anything from Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Kucinich?



For that matter, we’re not seeing eons of difference in policy proposals on the Republican side. Indeed, it is early, but so far, in the various exploratory announcements and declaration speeches and ceremonies, we’ve heard very little on, “As President, I intend to do X by Y.” (We’ve gotten some talk about goals (the what) but much less about the method (the how).) So we’re talking about Mitt Romney’s statements on gays from 2002, or Giuliani’s statements on abortion from his first mayoral run. So far, there’s been nothing strikingly compelling or repelling about these candidates’ vision of where they want to take the country, and so we argue about their past stands, decisions, and positions, instead of what they want to do with the office they seek.




How many candidates on either side are running for president because they want to do something? How many candidates on either side are running for president because they want to be somebody?


Would the country have been better off in 2000 if Republicans had taken a longer, harder look at what Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” really entailed, in areas like federal spending, adding an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, whether Bush could be trusted to veto McCain’s campaign finance reform legislation, immigration?




At some point, the campaigns are going to have to stop accusing the other of “the politics of personal destruction” or observe that they’re “kind of cute” and sit down with the experts and hammer out a decent white paper or two. And then the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types will say “boy, that sounds like a good idea” or “wow, that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.” On that day, we’ll finally be able to start discussing what these guys want to do, instead of their houses, their marriages, their poll numbers, their fundraising, etc…

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