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Morning Jay: Unfortunately, Most Campaigns Are Vague

6:00 AM, Jul 13, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Conservatives are increasingly frustrated by the vagueness of Mitt Romney’s campaign, which perhaps can be best summed up by his non-sequitur of a slogan, “Believe In America.” Romney has to put down some detailed policy proposals to win, the argument goes.

Romney supporters

I’d love to see Romney get specific, and thus force Obama to do the same. My favorite election in American history is 1896, because the two sides took clearly contrasting stands on the vital issues of the day. The country was offered a legitimate choice, and the victor had a governing mandate.

Unfortunately, that election was the exception to a 150-year rule.

For most of the 80 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the two parties were incapable of offering contrasting paths because they were non-ideological, regional coalitions. That began to change with the Depression and the New Deal, which started the long process of transforming the Democrats into the liberal party and the Republicans into the conservative party.

But that does not mean that presidential campaigns have been fought on ideological ground. Instead, most campaign messages are built on non-ideological arguments, and there is a shocking level of correspondence between Democratic and Republican narratives.

To appreciate this, I gave a close read to the nine convention addresses of nominees who eventually defeated the incumbent party – FDR in 1932, Eisenhower in 1952, JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992, Bush in 2000, and Obama in 2008.

Each speech basically follows the same structure:

(1) The state of the union is in shambles.

(2) The incumbent president is to blame.

(3) The noble history of the American public demands a change in power.

(4) Therefore, elect me.

The only thing that really separates one speech from another is point (3), when presidential candidates usually connect their biography to the history of the country. Eisenhower referenced his military career; JFK his youthfulness; Carter his moral integrity; Clinton his middle class background; Obama his diversity. You get the idea.

What about policy specifics? They are typically lacking. Sure, presidential candidates will promote big policy goals – like full employment, universal health care, a good education for every child. But they hardly ever talk about the ways to accomplish these goals. In other words, they give the listener few bankable promises.

FDR made some claims that hinted at the Agricultural Adjustment Act in his 1932 address. However, Ike, JFK, Nixon, and Carter offered nothing specific. Indeed, Kennedy made vagueness a virtue when he said “[T]he New Frontier…is not a set of promises – it is a set of challenges.” Indeed!

The convention speech stopped being a wasteland of hackneyed paeans to American greatness and partisan bromides about the perfidy of the opposition with Ronald Reagan, who promised specific tax cuts – 30 percent reduction across the board as well as improved business depreciation taxes. He also promised “an immediate and thorough freeze on federal hiring.” But that was about it – most of his speech was a vague, hazy argument that followed the above script.

And so it has gone ever since. Clinton promised to implement the recommendations of Bush’s AIDS commission, cut 100,000 bureaucrats and hire 100,000 new cops, protect abortion rights, and reform welfare. George W. Bush promised to cut taxes in several ways, create private retirement accounts, and promote missile defense. Barack Obama promised tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, tax hikes for the rest, and $150 billion in “investments” in renewable energy.

That’s about all the specific promises I counted – and, remember, these speeches usually run 45 minutes to an hour each.

I would not expect Mitt Romney to deviate much from this script.

Conservatives who view themselves as part of a reformist movement are bound to be disappointed with this. I appreciate that, but I think it speaks to the disconnect between conservatives and conservative politicians. The former are involved in politics because they want to accomplish big things. The latter may have gotten in to politics to do big things, but they are careerists whose goal above all is to win.

The desire for victory is what keeps presidential campaigns so vague. This is the path of least resistance, which is why every victorious challenger has run basically the same campaign for generations: decry the state of the nation, indict the incumbent party, praise American greatness, and connect their biography to that greatness. Full stop. Bold policy promises tend to be the exception, not the rule.

If anything, the Romney campaign has a greater incentive than ever to be cagey. Poll after poll shows that most Americans do not understand the terrible state of public finances, or the severe constraints on policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Any policy choice, moving either leftward or rightward, is going to accrue some “intolerable” cost in the short run, with the hope that it will pay dividends in the future. That is quite unlike the political economy of past generations, when the government was not stretched thin, and it is a substantial electoral dilemma because swing voters barely have a clue about the state of the public finances.

So, why should Romney dare get specific, and open himself up to demagoguery by Democratic hacks like Debbie Wasserman Schultz? It’s the same reason President Obama has submitted budget after budget to Congress based on economic fantasies of renewed economic growth. He does not want to admit that he is making controversial choices, as he knows full well that the GOP will nail him for it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d like Romney to get specific, and take the fight directly to the Democrats. It would be good for governance after the 2012 election. But the way our politics are structured, campaigns do not worry about anything after Election Day. That’s a problem for the next phase.

To be clear, I’m not castigating all voters for letting politicians get away with this. Far from it! In fact, if you’re reading this, then you almost certainly understand what the nature of our big problem is. Instead, it gets down to the fact that the least informed voters hold the most political power--the independent, swing voters. Roughly 80 percent of the vote is locked in to one party or the other, which is where you will find most of the well-informed citizens who get the big picture and support a party for solid reasons. However, the 20 percent in the middle are not well informed, do not have strong opinions, and oftentimes hold contradictory views. They determine the winners, so campaigns are all about appealing to them. This means few specific proposals and lots of happy talk about our glorious past.

I, unfortunately, expect the same from Mitt Romney this year.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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