Thursday, October 4, 2012

Should Presidential Candidates Be Specific?

Mitt Romney has been (very selectively; he doesn't really mean it) arguing that making specific promises while you're running for president is a mistake. Matt Yglesias sort of buys into it:

At one point during the debate, Romney nailed this precisely by noting that the details of tax policy are something that Congress hammers out. The president has some enormous powers in the legislative process, but they're powers of agenda-setting and the ability to veto—not at all the power to delve deep into details. And indeed I'd say President Obama ended up having a lot of problems with his base that could have been avoided had not Candidate Obama made so many specific pledges that he had no real way to deliver on.

Rather than demanding more specifics, what I wish is that reporters would press candidates for more clarity...In general, though, this kind of way of talking about things—what won't you do, rather than what will you do—makes a lot of sense as way for presidents to talk about their agenda.
I get what he's saying, but I think this is wrong from the point of view of both Romney's party and, perhaps, ordinary voters.

For party actors, at least for those with policy preferences, the game is to constrain party politicians as much as possible. It's true that presidents have limited control over the fine point details of legislation, but that doesn't mean they have no influence at all. That's obviously true for interest groups as well. Suppose that you're the Realtors, for example; you really want candidate Romney to commit to leaving the home mortgage interest deduction out of any potential tax reform, or at least to stay quiet on it in the hopes they can win on the Hill; they really don't want him to indicate he's for scaling back or eliminating it.

What about for ordinary voters. They, too, have an interest in politicians including presidents promising what they want to do -- because the press and the opposition will probably pay more attention to it during the campaign than they will after the election, except in rare high-profile cases. Say that Romney wants to slash spending on Obscure Program. It's eventually going to come down to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees or, perhaps, Ways and Means and Senate Finance, where it will be lost in the media shuffle most likely. But if the presidential candidate commits to it before the election, then opponents will know to mobilize, and proponents will too -- even if the president's actual role in the fight in those committees is marginal or nothing.

Now, for the president, being unconstrained by policy commitments is almost always a good thing. The only exception is the extent to which the president can claim a mandate if an issue was discussed on the campaign trail, but it's not at all clear what that gets presidents anyway, and of course they can always claim something as part of their mandate regardless.

So, yes, it's probably right that Obama had problems he might not have had if he had been less forthcoming earlier...but he also probably did things that party actors wanted which he might not have otherwise done.

Promises are good for representation, good for parties, but constraint politicians. And so everyone but the politicians should be pressing for them.


  1. Totally I agree. I think this is a bit silly from MY: What, exactly, is the difference between saying "I'll do X" and "I'll veto any bill that doesn't have X"?

    Besides, the problem isn't just that Romney is laying out broad principles, but that those principles are seemingly incompatible with each other, so it's not even a clear statement of his priorities.

  2. If incumbents can be pilloried for the details of legislation that Congress passes, then candidates (either incumbent or challenger) can be attacked for not offering specifics.

    1. Speaking of the differences between legislators and executives: Jonathan, I found this old article from your brother, from March 2006, on Massachusetts' health care reform:

      "Senator Edward Kennedy has helped push the process, and Mitt Romney, though largely irrelevant — he can and would be overridden if he dared veto — has helped by encouraging passage of the bill in his State of the Commonwealth speech. But at this point, the all the power rests with [Speaker] DiMasi and [Senate President] Travaglini."

      On the other hand, Wikipedia suggests that Romney proposed universal coverage early on and thereby got out in front of Travaglini (who had initially proposed only covering half of the uninsured).

      I don't know the history here, but it does make me wonder how much we should be calling it "RomneyCare".

  3. Well, if they're not going to be specific, they should be straight with us about how they'll work out the specifics; what the guiding policy will be.

    But to promise something for over a year, say that's not what your promising, clearly say there's a plan that does this other thing, when in fact there's no plan?

    There is a difference between being specific and being deceptive.

  4. I have a question related to all this, and I guess it has to do with the role of party actors. It is: Why would any nominee, or presumptive nominee, ever do anything BUT what Romney did in Debate 1, which is just announce that he's in favor of whatever's popular or polls well?

    I mean, I understand that policy-committed party actors might squawk, as they did a few times earlier this year when Romney briefly waffled on this or that. In those cases Romney backtracked and reacquired the hard line, but it surprised me that he did; I took it as further evidence that he just has a character flaw. Because once he's sewn up the nomination, i.e. from about April onward, and certainly from the convention onward, the nominee holds all the cards. The party wants to win, and and he's their one and only vehicle for winning. They know that whatever he's saying now, he's going to be much more responsive to (in this case) Republicans' policy agendas than the other side would ever be. So they really have no choice but to fall in line, right? Which is why Brian Beutler at TPM has just posted the following:

    What is a big surprise to me -- and what I think has the real potential to shake up the nature of the campaign -- is how hungrily all the conservatives who'd crapped on Romney for being a moderate squish lapped up all that mushy centrism.

    Think about it.

    Romney talked up Romneycare, disavowed the central tentpole of his tax plan, downplayed his radical Medicare plan, claimed he wouldn't reduce education spending, and demurred about all key budget cuts except his bold plan to slash public broadcasting subsidies. And today his typically absolutist base couldn't be happier.

    Of course they're happy -- he might win! So what if he does it by disavowing ten or fifteen of their most cherished positions. Right?

    Now, I can see how there might be a few super-absolutists, real diehards, who would still complain if the new, energized, lookin'-like-a-winner Romney declared, say, that maybe the future of health care has to include some kind of mandate after all. Maybe some of the party's funders would express their displeasure and hint at withholding their largesse. But the further factor that seems to me to militate against that is this: The guy might be the next president. Do you really want to be on the wrong side of the next president? The one your party is about to elect? Do you want to be the guy who threatened him just as he was making his comeback, even if he was making it by shoving your concerns aside?

    I wonder if there's a game-theoretical model or something that would address what I'm talking about. I just see virtually no incentive for a nominee to say or do anything except what he thinks will maximize votes, and and all kinds of incentives for the people in his party to go along with whatever he says. Which means what we saw Romney do in Debate 1 should be the normal thing that every candidate does. Right? What am I missing?

    1. And further to this, as Jonathan Chait points out -- citing the example of Bush in 2000 -- there's every reason for party actors to suppose that a candidate who tries to make a radical program sound moderate and soothing will actually go ahead and implement its radical elements once in office:

    2. No doubt you're right that some of this reticence is just down to tradition, or rather, to habit and inertia. But surely the continued existence of nonpartisan media has something to do with it, too. There's still enough time for really wretched headlines to make a difference.

      (also: hi Jeff! Are you coming back to regular commenting too? Hope so!)

    3. Jeff: I wonder if there's a game-theoretical model or something that would address what I'm talking about. (just announce that he's in favor of whatever's popular or polls well)

      Would you settle for a recent example?

      Scott Walker, totally reasonable dude backed by Koch money, running for Governor of Wisconsin, who never mentioned anything about revoking public union negotiating rights in his campaign.

      - - - - - - - - - -

      PolitiFact Wisconsin: "It seemed to us like the first public hint Walker gave that he was considering eliminating many union bargaining rights was at a Dec. 7, 2010 Milwaukee Press Club forum, some four weeks after the election."

      - - - - - - - - - -

      Caused a bit of a stir, in retrospect. Whatever Romney throws at the wall in the last month, remember his prime directive - what can I say to the audience in front of me to get the most votes?

      Anyone who takes anything Romney said last night as actual policy changes is buying a pig in a poke. But Romney is counting on casual voters not to notice.

      I think what you may be missing is the lack of a Walter Cronkite today - the incentive against doing what Romney did is the media mercilessly raking a lying/flip-flopping candidate over the coals. Maybe Romney doesn't feel that's so much of a disincentive today.

      Maybe the party actors feel this way, too. Does anyone who closely follows politics really think Romney will change his tax plan to be neutral on high-earners?

    4. I heard him make a promise to all those small business owners on K Street; I paraphrase, "I like regulation, the right kind of regulation." Romney will "repeal and replace." Repeal and replace. That mantra's spreading like the flu, ACA got infected first, and now it's Dodd Frank. Could be an epidemic.

      It's lobbyist that educate the legislators on how to write legislation. Groups like the Sierra Club and ALEC, sometimes offering model legislation to law makers for free. Packaged up and ready to go.

      But there's one itty bitty detail to watch out for. Because the public process gets repeated again; a whole new round of detailed planning, public comment, meeting. The rule making. And from what I can tell, not nearly as much of the public pays attention. But the lobbyists do.

      Rule making, where watchdogs sleep while lobbyists, many of them small business owners, stalk the hallways of government offices everywhere with regulatory capture in their hearts.

      Talk about creating uncertainty.

    5. Greetings to you too, classicist, from (once again) a very different time zone. Busy month just past, but it's finally shaking out, so yeah, I hope to be following the Historic Romney Upset Comeback Victory in real time here over the next month.

    6. To answer the question...yes, there's a strong incentive to do it. Constraints, however, might include:

      1. The candidate might actually believe and want to run on the party position.

      2. The people within the candidate's candidacy might actually believe in and want to run on the party position.

      3. Party actors might be afraid that if the candidate abandons the party position for the popular position now that they'll be sold out if the candidate wins.

      4. The candidate might fear party reaction and/or the charge of flip-flopping - which matters even if those fears are unrealistic.

      5. And then there's the current GOP problem, with a large segment that has perverse incentives because they do better with the GOP as an out-party.

      All that pushes candidates towards sticking with the positions they took to get the nomination; against it is the incentive to win.

  5. I was reflecting yesterday on how petty our age is, how tabloidy, how gravitas-free.

    Romney lied a lot? And Obama looked like he had taken a Xanax? Was that the review on the Real Housewives of New Jersey? Romney also told some truths, such as his idea for Medicaid involving piddling block grants to states (with perhaps one percent annual increases), since states really like to be in control. Education, conventional health insurance, you name it, the states like control, so let's hand it over. We can cut $1 T out of the Federal govt budget by putting $1 T of responsibility back on the states. Panacea, baby.

    I read a lot about lies today, but apparently no one noticed that Romney's "states responsible" approach means that, at a time when the US faces a debt crisis of unprecedented magnitude, Romney favors turning us into...the Eurozone.

    Only worse than the Eurozone, since at least one can credibly argue that Greece back on the drachma, net of the banking disruption, would be for the best.

    Who knows what the hell Mississippi will do when they can't hang in Romney utopia?

    1. I read a lot about lies today, but apparently no one noticed that Romney's "states responsible" approach means that, at a time when the US faces a debt crisis of unprecedented magnitude, Romney favors turning us into...the Eurozone.

      Brilliant. CSH, please fax this to the Obama debate-prep team.

    2. Seconded. That line is good enough to warrant repeating even if it means I have to explain about talking to strangers on the Internet to my department chair. At a time when I am by no means certain of eventually getting onto the TT. You're welcome.

    3. "Strangers on the Internet"! For some reason, my mind flashed forward a ways to the 50th anniversary edition of the Plain Blog, which will feature a birthday shout-out to one of the stars of that surely-soon-to-be-classic film.

      Besides, you don't have to source the quote, you know. Tell the hierarchy you thought of it! Especially if that helps in any way in the tenure review process ;).

    4. (eds. note: not that I am advocating some sort of Biden-like plagiarism, but rather that all great ideas come from other ideas, Newton's thing about standing on the shoulder of giants -

      - whoa. I may have implicitly characterized myself as a giant, which is just awful. Back to reality, as all academics know, there's often a fine line between a game-changing idea and a tweak. One man's meat...)

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. If somebody promises you a dessert topping that is also a floor wax, you naturally want to see them demonstrate both functions before you are going to buy a case of it. That is why there is so much insistence on Romney being more specific: he's promising to do stuff (20% across the board tax cuts without cutting taxes on the rich, raising them on the middle class, or increasing the deficit) that is laughably impossible. So naturally everybody says back to him, "Prove it. Show your math."

  7. One of the few places where Romney has been specific is his tax plan, but the specifics don't work mathematically. Now it occurs to me--if I were prone to believe in conspiracy theories--that he could have done this on purpose. Everyone is arguing over whether the specific numbers work out; seemingly implying that it might be worth doing if possible. Nearly no one (save the Economic Policy Institute) has argued that it could destroy 2 million jobs if fully implemented (or as fully as it could be implemented). Do you suppose bad math could be a winning electoral strategy?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?