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Morning Jay: Unfortunately, Most Campaigns Are Vague

6:00 AM, Jul 13, 2012 • By JAY COST
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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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