The Party of No Ideas

Two years ago, in a much-discussed cover article for The New Republic called "The Case Against New Ideas," Jonathan Chait argued that Democrats should resist the pleas of pundits to look for their political salvation in new plans and visions. But as the 2008 race gathers speed, it appears to be the Republicans who have abandoned ideas -- new or otherwise -- in a quest for the GOP nomination that has been remarkable in its utter lack of substance, even by the standards of contemporary campaigns.

Think about it this way: Can you think of a single substantive proposal consisting of more than a sentence or two that any of the GOP candidates has made on the campaign trail? I'm not even talking about some lengthy policy paper or plan for overhauling a major sector of government. But any idea to do something, anything, differently than the Bush administration has? The closest one can come is the immigration bill that Congress is debating, of which John McCain is a co-sponsor. But one gets the impression that McCain wishes no one would bring it up, at least until the primaries are over and all those pesky nativists have nowhere to go but to the Republican nominee. Is there anything else the Republican candidates are actually proposing to do? Any discernable agenda coming from any of them? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

It's true that in practice, "ideas," particularly "new ideas," usually serve mainly as signifiers of change from the way things are currently done. This makes things harder on Republicans, as the party currently in charge of the executive branch. A Democrat can offer a relatively simplistic three-point plan for getting out of Iraq, and it sounds like a new idea. But for a Republican who still supports the war (as they all do, with the exception of Ron Paul), coming up with a "new idea" on Iraq would require some exceptional creativity. And this is not a particularly creative crew.

But one would think they'd come up with something, if nowhere else than on national security. This is where their strength is supposed to lie -- where their knowledge and experience are supposed to keep us all safe. But if anything, on national security the Republicans are even more substance-free than on domestic issues. The national-security discussion coming from the candidates resembles nothing so much as the dominance displays of lower primates ("Ooog! Ooog! Me double Gitmo! Ooog!"). Anyone looking for a serious analysis of our security challenges in the coming years will be sorely disappointed.

Likewise, one struggles to find a domestic issue in which the Republicans display any particular interest. Want to read Mitt Romney's health care plan? Don't worry -- you won't have to stay up all night slogging through mind-numbing details about employer mandates and risk pools. Here it is, in its entirety:

The health of our nation can be improved by extending health insurance to all Americans, not through a government program or new taxes, but through market reforms.

To repeat, that's the sum total of what Romney is offering on health care. And that's coming from the one GOP candidate who actually has experience on health insurance reform.

It isn't just Romney. The entire "Issues" page of Rudy Giuliani's web site runs to a grand total of 788 words, including headings. Barack Obama's health care plan alone is over six times as long (not including three pages of footnotes). And Obama is the one who keeps getting flack for being light on substance.

We should acknowledge that, from a political standpoint, there isn't much advantage in offering detailed proposals -- and a 20-page proposal certainly doesn't get you twice the benefit of a 10-page proposal. Political consultants routinely advise candidates against putting out position papers and detailed plans, the logic being that few will decide to vote for you based on the elegance of your blueprint for, say, reforming entitlements, but some people may just vote against you when they find something therein they don't like (helpfully pointed out for them by your opponent). And one might also point out that Democrats have put a lot of energy into policy proposals in the past, to little discernible political effect (true to form, they've been pumping out the position papers this cycle, with John Edwards leading the way).

But a presidential candidacy has to be driven by some kind of policy rationale, some picture of where the candidate wants to take the government and the country. The level of detail isn't really the point, but you do have to offer the voters some sense of what is supposed to happen when you become president. With the GOP candidates, we get nada.

As with most of the Republicans' problems, this aversion to anything resembling an agenda can be traced in no small part to George W. Bush. Like a Bizarro World King Midas, everything Bush has touched has turned to garbage, with the consequence that the standard Republican agenda is almost irredeemably tainted by its association with the last six years.

Tax cuts? We tried that, and got huge deficits. Gettin' tough with terrorists? Not working out so well. Protecting the family? That song's getting older by the month. Nearly anything a Republican proposes can be answered with, "That's just another version of George W. Bush's plan for [insert issue here]. We don't need more Bush."

So every Republican candidate is probably dreading the moment in the general election debate when the Democratic nominee points to him and says, "If you're looking for four more years of George W. Bush, there's your guy." The clips for the ads have already been chosen: John McCain hugging Bush at a 2004 rally; Giuliani saying "Thank God George W. Bush is our president" at the GOP convention in New York. According to an internal memo obtained in February by the Boston Globe, the Romney campaign's plan to distinguish their candidate from the president comes down to "intelligence." Hey, if it worked for Adlai Stevenson …

What Republicans have always understood better than their Democratic counterparts is that even though presidential campaigns are won on personality, issues are the vehicle through which personality arguments are made -- or as Mark Schmitt put it, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." Once upon a time, John McCain's support of campaign finance reform communicated that he was a courageous reformer willing to antagonize entrenched interests to clean up the system. In 2000, Al Gore was apparently convinced by his advisors that global warming was a loser of an issue, so he never talked about it, depriving himself of an opportunity to show himself as passionate and visionary. The dynamic works in the negative too: John Kerry's complex position and history on Iraq enabled the "flip-flopper" charge to take hold. In each case, the issue offered voters a concrete way to understand the candidate's character (accurately or otherwise).

The Iowa caucuses are still seven months away, and it's entirely possible that the next few months will see a flurry of policy ideas from the Republican candidates. But in the meantime, GOP voters are being treated to a campaign of truly astounding vacuousness.

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