Thursday, July 5, 2012

Why Mitt Says Nothing, Chapter LXVII

Greg Sargent points to this morning's WSJ editorial as confirming something that Greg has talked about quite a bit -- that Mitt Romney refuses to talk about actual policies.

It's certainly true, and it's easy to see why when you look closely at the editorial:
The biography that voters care about is their own, and they want to know how a candidate is going to improve their future. That means offering a larger economic narrative and vision than Mr. Romney has so far provided. It means pointing out the differences with specificity on higher taxes, government-run health care, punitive regulation, and the waste of politically-driven government spending.
 How exactly can Romney give more specificity on "government-run health care"? On "punitive regulation"? They might as well have asked for the Mittster to be more specific on Obama's apology tour and, I don't know, Kenyan birth.

Andrew Sullivan personalizes it and argues that Romney is simply weak, but I think the better interpretation is that he's trying to lead a party that's become impossibly nihilistic when it comes to public policy. I mean, what non-fictional policy is Romney supposed to be specific about? Repealing the direct election of Senators?

Now, in terms of winning the election, the WSJ has it exactly wrong: the out-party is almost always best off being as vague as possible, and that's certainly the case when the incumbent party is most vulnerable (it doesn't help that their example is John Kerry, a candidate who probably did better than should have been expected). Exactly no one is going to vote against Romney because he declines to advocate specific policies, but there's always the risk that embracing one set of policy choices could alienate voters who otherwise might just want to throw the bums out.

However, conservatives are quite right to push Romney for specifics -- not because they would help him in November, but because specific commitments will tend to constrain him once he takes office. One of the key  implications of the Journal's "more specifics about myths, please" editorial is how room there is within the GOP for policy-making; of course Romney isn't going to produce a health care plan, given that no Republican right now has one.

The other key implication? I've talked about this before too: normally, parties have some standard go-to issues with popular proposals they talk about to maintain the illusion of policy seriousness. The current Republicans just don't have that any more. They used to have, for example, foreign policy -- but that's just a minefield for Romney these days. Crime has faded as an issue. There's the deficit, but of course that's for vague talk only, since conservative orthodoxy won't allow Republicans to support plans that would actually reduce the deficit in any real way.

All of which is only to say, again, that Romney's substance-free campaign is a function of the current condition of the Republican Party, not anything particular about the candidate.


  1. To what extent was the individual mandate, or cap and trade, part of "maintaining the illusion of policy seriousness"? If Republican think tanks and the odd politician expressed support, it was just to have an alternative to whatever the Democrats were proposing at the time, not to actually pass it if Republicans got into power.

    If you had asked me in 2006 whether the Republican party as a whole supports a universal health care program that relies on individual mandates, I probably would have said no. Universal health care? Republicans? okay, just maybe if it was a pure mandate and the government would give people no assistance in purchasing it. When the Republicans proposed an alternative to Clinton's plan in 1993-1994 it was surely intended to be an excuse to kill the bill, not to serve as a blueprint should the Republicans gain control of government. Of course Romney did pass such a plan--but in a very blue state, with the votes of a heavily Democratic legislature.

    1. This analysis ignores that Bush undertook the Medicare expansion to cover drug benefits. The Republicans acted then because they thought the Dems could nail them if they didn't.

      So you might be right. These proposals may only be created so the Republicans have talking points on important issues.

  2. "How exactly can Romney give more specificity on "government-run health care"? On "punitive regulation"? They might as well have asked for the Mittster to be more specific on Obama's apology tour and, I don't know, Kenyan birth."

    This is what I think represents the unbreachable inferential difference between you and conservatives. If you do not think Obamacare means turning private insurance companies into state-regulated utilities, and you do not think there are reams of regulations on the books choking the economy and deliberately promoting one company over another, I do not know what to tell you. I can even predict the response - an immediate equivocation over the words "government-run" and "punitive." But you do not get to choose how other people use their words, and the meaning here is clear and obvious.

    The problem is not that Republicans are talking in myths, it's that you (deliberately?) refuse to hear what they are saying.

    1. Anon: point taken, but you have to admit that Romney hasn't offered any specifics. He'll repeal and replace Obamacare with......(Obamacare - mandate). He rails against all these regulations choking the economy, but rarely (if ever) offers specific regulations that he'd like to get rid of.

      The point isn't that we all have different views of what the ideal world would look like: we do, and those differences are important. The point is that Romney has been very, very vague on what his differences are with Obama, and have usually consisted of "not Obama." He doesn't seem to have any specific plans. I'm fine with this, generally speaking. Romney can simply be running as a trustee rather than a delegate; he can make the case that, when things come up, these general principles would guide his thinking. However, it's hard to watch Romney and not think that those principles are "wet finger, find direction of wind." As a Democrat, I have no reason to think that the winds he'll pick up on will favor my side, so he's functionally equivalent to a center-right politician to me. However, for a Republican, I could see some real concern, as you can't be sure that he'd take your side on an issue if its only popular within your party, or in the public and a portion of your party. For us liberals, we can be pretty sure that there'd be a more liberal position that could pass than Romney's; for conservatives, on the other hand, you have a very unsteady standard-bearer.

    2. "If you do not think Obamacare means turning private insurance companies into state-regulated utilities, and you do not think there are reams of regulations on the books choking the economy and deliberately promoting one company over another, I do not know what to tell you."

      Call it equivocating, but I don't think utilities count as government-run, and I don't think regulations that benefit some entities over others are punitive. (If you had seen some harsh new regulations targeted right at BP after the spill or Koch Industries after the recall, that would meet my definition of punitive.)

    3. @Anon, I agree that it's hard to talk with conservatives if you immediately dismiss their concerns, such as too much regulation and too many government mandates on health insurance. However, conservatives also make the conversation difficult if you don't grant their concerns as axiomatic.

      I've taken such concerns seriously but I've found many to be exaggerations. For example, it's easy to belief there are too many regulations, so I did some research on it. Guess what--the regulations the GOP most wants to change involve financial firms and power plants. Yet the GOP talks about regulation choking 'small business.'

      So, legitimate concerns, yes. But drill down and I often find a special interest agenda. That doesn't do any good for trust.

    4. Anon:

      I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but I take it that the point is that, in principle, it should be easy for Romney to lay out the conservative alternatives to the government's purported power-grabs. If the ACA and financial regulations are such grand mistakes - distinctively non-conservative mistakes - then it should be fairly easy to point out what the mistakes are and offer conservative solutions. But the proof is in the pudding, as it were. There are no specific yet reasonable alternatives being offered. (This point doesn't apply to just Romney - a point which buttresses Prof. Bernstein's view that it is the party that's driving this issue. What does the Republican platform apart from Romney have to offer on health care and the financial sector?) Don't you think Romney would be offering specifics if he had something reasonable in mind? The claim is that the best explanation for why he doesn't do so is that there is no conservative approach left that would appeal to moderates or independents (and perhaps seniors if you throw in changes to Social Security and Medicare). This would explain why Romney is going with the "just trust me" approach.

    5. Anon 11:39:

      I definitely agree that ACA turns "private insurance companies into state-regulated utilities," and I've said exactly that many times. But, no, I really don't think that is "government-run health care." You say that one doesn't get to choose how others use words, but surely that Humpty Dumptyism is a pretty weak defense of the WSJ: does their advice really just mean that he should make stuff up and paper it over by redefining words to fit the points he wants to make, regardless of substance?

      Government-run means something, and it's different from government-regulated.

    6. Yes. To cover all bases: plus there's a difference between "government-run health care" -- which implies that providers (hospitals, physician groups) are owned and administered by the government as public entities -- and "government-run health insurance" -- which would only indicate that the government was the payer and insurer for privately provided health services. The latter is Medicare, and "single-payer" was a proposal for government-run health insurance available to all citizens. No politician, as far as I know, has ever seriously put forward a legislative proposal for "government-run health care," which would I guess gradually turn all basic hospitals and physicians into a form of public civil servant (think of the UK).

  3. Agree with Matt Jarvis' post above.

    To hammer home the point about Romney exclusively painting himself as 'not Obama', Romney's campaign website features an "Obama's Failures" section on every issue page. Literally every policy issue of potential interest to American voters has been affected by some incompetence or malevolence on Obama's part, according to Romney. He even blames Obama for mass rapes in the DRC!

    Of course the policy prescriptions that follow are vague and offer no meaningful contrast (Really, Romney? A desire for good governance and increased trade in Africa is unique to you?)

    This is probably just a reality of modern political campaigns to some extent, but Romney does seem particularly bad when it comes to insubstantial policy alternatives.

  4. We really don't know--and probably can't know--what keeps Romney from being specific because so many factors push in the same direction. It could be that he has no specific policy preferences and just likes the idea of being president. It could be that he does have specific policy preferences but he doesn't believe they will be popular among the voters. It could be that he's relying on the anti-Obama vote and fears that any specific proposal will offend some potential group of supporters, narrowing his chances. (Really, what specific thing could he say to the NALEO conference without antagonizing either potential Hispanic supporters or the GOP base or both?) Or it could be some combination of some or all of those factors and others that I haven't thought of yet. So, he's going to keep quiet and hope that Obama falls apart, and what he would do in office is anyone's guess.

    As for taking seriously Republican complaints about, say, punitive regulations, it's hard to do because they label every regulation as punitive or job-killing or something in a similar vein. There's no distinction, no evident thought process, just knee-jerk reaction. If they're not going to take their own charges seriously, why should we? We've seen how willing Wall Streeters are to undermine the world economy for their own benefit, and then to fight restrictions that might make it harder to do again. They're going to have to explain what makes a regulation punitive and how the potential punitive aspects outweigh the potential benefits before they deserve a hearing. Just saying that regulations get in their way is not going to do it. (Of course, a couple of good campaign contributions could probably do the trick, too.)

  5. I do really like the party based analysis from above as I think even with a Perry or Huckabee nominee we would see a lot of the same things, no real policy to lay out at all other than vague platitudes about bad regulations (about what exactly? mandatory TB testing for nursing home employees? Taxi licensing? Not being allowed to dump industrial chemical waste into creeks Love Canal style? Those are all regulations, do they choke off job creation?). I especially think you can see it at the state level as there were so many new GOP legislatures and Governors in 2011 that have been reduced to passing cookie cutter laws a lot of them don't even seem to understand instead of actually tackling big problems. Just like the whole "stand your ground" law from ALEC fiascoes we've been seeing as of late. Here in Minnesota the GOP took control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in decades and the innovate new policy solutions they've passed? A constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban same sex marriage and another one to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They also cut the property tax rate for commercial property (which will result in a rise in residential rates) and we'll ummm...oh yeah new stadium for the Vikings. (They passed "stand your ground" but the governor vetoed it because radical socialist sheriffs from places like Lac qui Parle County {population 7,259!} said it was a bad idea, oh well). You can see the same thing with the ryan budget with those hundreds of billions of "mystery loopholes" that would pay for it that never get explained. It's a dynamic that's just everywhere these days, and its not good for the country.


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