Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Can You Win Elections With Easy to Understand Policy Proposals

My daughter was recently in a summer camp that concluded with the campers performing a clever little musical comprises of songs from Schoolhouse Rock. Those songs demonstrate how you can present concepts, some of which are rather complicated, in a cute and catchy manner and... well, leave most of the listeners able to sing along with various parts of the songs but still, by way of example, unclear on how bills become laws.

In his latest column, Roger Cohen1 shares a fair observation about the President. President Obama has given a huge number of speeches, some of which have received considerable praise for their substance, but he rarely includes a take-away. Cohen brings up Bill Clinton, and refers to a simple homily Clinton used in conversation to explain why you need to explain policy in understandable terms ("You’ve got to put the corn where the hogs can get to it").

Like Brooks, Cohen argues that the President needs to explain why we should reelect him:
[T]he big opportunity that has opened up for the president as the Democratic National Convention begins is to do something he has not been very good at: explain in plain language how the United States came to its present pass and how he plans to set the country on a path to growth and jobs again. That in turn will explain why a second term would differ from the first.
Cohen offers an unflattering reaction to the President's budget policy, "Obama’s plan is so long-winded nobody really gets it", but... if I were to call that unfair it would be because it's difficult to find something that I would actually describe as a "plan". Cohen is also fair in observing that many of Obama's stated policies need to be translated into "ideas that pass the policy-wonk test", with the concept being, "If only a policy wonk can understand, forget it."

I have to say that I like Cohen's proposal - to encourage the candidates to lay out their policies in clear, simple terms. Sure, you would have to have a lot of footnotes, more detailed versions for the wonks and analysts, etc., but give the voters something that they can reasonably understand and compare to the other party's proposals. It appeals to my preference to focus on policy, not politics. And, alas, it's not going to happen. At least not directly from the candidates or their campaigns. And if a third party were to scrupulously analyze the candidates' statements, prepare a careful and accurate, understandable point-by-point summary, and publish it, the candidates would probably take issue with at least half of the clarified points - because obfuscation can help you win elections. You can't be everything to everyone if your positions are easily located and easily understood.

Clinton, as Cohen notes, can help, but Clinton's more apt to help with homilies and take-aways than with the translation of complicated issues into simple policy points. One of the most famous lines associated with Clinton? James Carville's "[It's t]he economy, stupid." The line resonated and worked for him, but it did not illuminate.

That said, President Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention provides him with an opportunity to do more than lay out applause lines. He can heed Cohen's advice, and can attempt some amount of public education on the economy. Not just "The other side's ideas are garbage," but a bit of "This is why we're still struggling, this is why Romney's budget ideas are harmful, this is my plan to improve things, and this is why I think it will work." I think Cohen is also correct that the failure of Romney and Ryan to discuss foreign policy - something that they, alas correctly, have determined that most voters don't care about - gives Obama the opportunity to speak clearly of the role of our nation and military in the world, to honor the military, and to articulate a vision for America's future role.

The Republican campaign still largely boils down to, "Vote for us because we're not Obama". If the President makes a strong case for his reelection, Romney will face pressure to do the same thing - and assuming it's not too late, I'm not sure that he has much more to say than, "I'm not Obama".

Update: Dean Baker writes,
[I]t's hard to those who write for major news outlets to notice an $8 trillion housing bubble. This is the story of the downturn and the current "fiscal woes."... In reality, the U.S. has no fiscal woes right now (the interest rate remains near post-war lows), we just have inadequate demand.
I am more sympathetic to Cohen's argument because I did not read it as situational, but as a commentary upon what he would like to see from government in general, much less a "we need austerity in a recession" and much more, "if the government implements sound fiscal policy, we will be better off in good times and bad." The fact that we can presently easily borrow money at a negative effective interest rate is a basis for arguing against forming policy based upon confidence fairies and bond vigilantes, but it's not an excuse for ignoring the long-term. Borrowing will become less affordable, the debt will still need to be serviced, and Medicare is on an unsustainable path.

A comment adds, "he's flat wrong about the necessity of a decade to recover." The comment is true in the sense that it might have been possible to foster a speedier recovery, or that the recovery might accelerate, but given the "facts on the ground", putting a ten year recovery period on the 2008 recession does not, to me, seem unrealistic. The hole Bush's policies dug for the nation made us fall farther and harder than necessary - Cohen seems to be arguing, "Government shouldn't dig us into holes like that, and an illusion of prosperity driven by a bubble is no excuse for bad policy."
1. A brief note about Roger Cohen - when I saw that I had an unusual amount of traffic going to my last post, in which I was very critical of a Cohen column, I tracked it back to a Blogrunner link on Cohen's page on the Times website. As of this moment, it's still there. I don't want to read too much into automatically generated links but I do know that the Times can manually pull the plug on any link or site that they don't want to include in that section - and the fact that I haven't seen that type of traffic to a link critical of the Times' right-wing columnists suggests (not proves, but suggests) that Cohen has a much higher tolerance for criticism than a lot of his peers. That he's interested in ideas and in being challenged, even by us mean old bloggers. If so, good for him.

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