Posted tagged ‘Republican Party’

Is it enough to be “The Party of No”?

February 21, 2010

Republicans are warming up to the possibility of winning back Congress in this year’s elections. The advice from nearly every pundit and political leader is that it is not enough to just be anti-Obama. To win, all say, Republicans must put forth a plan to solve the country’s problems. This wisdom ignores the success of Democrats in the last election, who ran entirely on blaming Bush for everything and offering very little beyond amorphous “hope and change.” Elections are indeed won based upon little more than not being the last guy. The problem arises when it is time to govern.

Obama supporters may counter that there was a great deal more than “hope and change” offered by the Democrats in the last election. Every campaign puts forth white papers and policy statements. Consider the following examples of three levels of policy statements:

1. We will reform health care to lower costs and extend coverage to all Americans.

2. We will achieve health care reform through greater efficiency, increased competition, and preventive care that saves money in the long run.

3. We will provide coverage to 30 million more people through government benefits using money saved by transferring $500 billion in Medicare costs to increased private insurance premiums.

These are examples of the depths of policy proposals, which we will generalize as Levels 1, 2, and 3. There is a totally noncommittal Level 0, I suppose, that of “hope and change,” but nothing useful flows from that. It’s a slogan, not a policy.

Level 1 sets a goal without saying how it will be achieved. It is in the general category of “motherhood and apple pie.” They are things with which few would disagree as being generically good. Those whose disagree at this level may be reading into it what they believe will follow. The thought may be, “That’s a cover for extension of government.”

It’s a mistake to argue against generic goodness on the grounds that you know the real intent. Better to say, “Of course that’s wonderful. Tell me exactly how you propose to achieve that goal.” One might also take up the banner of the good cause which, “Yes, and the way to do that is to allow interstate competition through legislation that …”

Announced goals do speak to the candidate’s agenda. If he talks more about issue A than issue B, we may conclude that A is more important to the candidate than B. It would have been important to know that Obama would make health care a higher priority than fixing the economy or fighting terrorism. Saying that everything is important is a cop out. There must be priorities.

Level 2 seems to provide policy details, but actually does not. It subdivides generic wonderfulness into subcategories of wonderfulness, still avoiding the specific plans for implementation. The questions of how the goals will be achieved are left unanswered. This is the level at which campaign white papers are usually written, with more specifics in some areas where the campaign chooses to be bold.

This level of information further defines priorities. If there is a lot of talk about regulation and little talk of competition, we get the overall message that the candidate believes in the power of government as paramount. Campaigns are most often waged on the level of political philosophy as expressed through the second level of goal setting. That’s useful and important, but it is still removed from the business of actually governing.

The third level of policy outlines how the goals are to be accomplished. It is unrealistic to suppose that a candidate of Party will offer draft legislation. There are to many considerations to work out all the details. But short of that, it is reasonable to ask the mechanisms by which goals will be accomplished. If health care coverage is to be paid for by “efficiencies,” then it is reasonable to ask for the types of efficiencies and how much each is expected to yield. If GITMO is to be closed, it is reasonable to ask what will be done with the terrorists currently housed there. If solar and wind energy are to be subsidized, it is reasonable to ask the costs of backing up the solar for power at night and the wind energy when it is calm.

Journalists very rarely ask questions that probe beyond Level 2. Perhaps they are not smart enough to ask those questions, perhaps they think voters will not care about such details, and perhaps they think the job of journalism ends with sound bites. So far voters have not cared.

Republicans can get by in the next election by being the Party of No. It worked for Obama and the Democrats, and it can work for Republicans. Republicans must state a set of principles that they propose to bring to policy matters, and they must craft a list of priorities that well-matches the voters’ priorities. Voters care about jobs and deficits the most. They care somewhat about terrorism and national security. They care much less about health care or global warming or, for that matter, about abortion or gay marriage or any of a number of hot-button ideological issues.

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