Over the last few weeks, in between devoting untold column-inches and airtime to anything and everything but actual issues, the mainstream media and liberal commentators (to the extent one can distinguish the two) have been complaining - as has the Obama campaign itself - that we have not had a discussion of "the issues" or "the real issues." To understand why this is happening, we have to understand three things:
(1) What they mean by "the issues"
(2) How we got where we are in terms of the political climate
(3) Why that climate, combined with the nature and strategies of the two candidates, dictated that head-to-head clashes on particular domestic policy issues were going to take a back seat in this campaign.
As you will see, the net result is that Barack Obama has been hoist by his own petard. Obama made a deliberate choice in light of the political environment to run a campaign of broad themes rather than one with an identifiable issues-based core, and it's too late in the game for him to reverse that decision. I. "The Issues"
I think I've made this point before recently, but when you hear people on the center-left or Left talk about "the issues," what they mean is health care. Well, not only health care, but invariably what they have in mind - as you can tell from reading many years' worth of such complaints - are domestic policy issues that can be solved by some combination of federal government spending, federal government regulation, and federal bureaucracy. Thus, a Republican who gives a campaign speech about taxes, national security/foreign policy, the courts and social and/or law enforcement issues can still end up being denounced for "ignoring the real issues" or running on "distractions from the real issues."
For the most part, Republican campaigns on the national level have responded to these sorts of complaints by rejecting their premises: (1) that large, expensive federal government programs are the answer to what ails us and (2) that things like national security, taxes and social issues are not legitimate subjects for debate. On a deeper level, GOP campaign strategy in national elections - especially in successful Republican campaigns - has tended to do two things:
(1) Focus on a few simple points about a few core issues.
(2) Spend the rest of the campaign drawing contrasts on things like character, experience, personality and values.
As I've said many times before, ideas don't run for president; people do.
Journalists tend to sneer at this approach as if it's some sort of voodoo trickery on a gullible citizenry, but you don't have to view the voters as ignoramuses to recognize that the average voter quite rationally does not have the time or the resources to evaluate, say, two complex competing health care plans, especially when proposed by politicians who cite competing and conflicting statistics, factoids and anecdotes to support them. Nor do most citizens these days trust the media to adjudicate such disputes fairly. A successful campaign can at most widely communicate a handful of things about its views on the issues - when Bush ran in 2000, for example, pretty much everybody knew about his tax cut plan and that he wanted to toughen educational standards, and most people got the message at a general level about his support for missile defense and private Social Security accounts. This was his core message, the rest of which was details and background noise to the average voter. Beyond the headlines, voters tend to just rely on their background impressions of what the parties usually stand for. (Which is not to say the candidates can afford to ignore the need to flesh out answers on ever imaginable issue - there are still many people who vote on one or another single issue that flies below the surface of the main debate - but there just isn't a way to communicate your message on every issue to the great mass of voters).
With the core message set, much of the rest of the campaign ends up being a battle to convince voters that the candidates share the voters' values and worldview and are the kind of people who will do at least some of what they promise and handle the inevitable unpredictable crises. Sometimes, that means using positions on real issues to illustrate a point - that John Kerry was unable to take and hold a clear position on the crucial life-and-death issue of the Iraq War, that Michael Dukakis took such an unserious approach to crime that he supported prison furloughs for violent sex offenders, that Barack Obama is such an extremist on abortion that he even proudly opposed a bill designed to protect children born alive after an abortion. Those issue discussions are intended less to "debate the issues" than to reveal something in the outlook of the candidate that will permeate multiple issues. Voters who lack the means to weigh two sets of platforms end up relying on their own ability to take the measure of the men.
In short, there are perfectly valid reasons why presidential campaigns are almost never mainly about "the issues" in the sense that liberal journalists use the phrase. (What stories actually sell newspapers and get read or watched on TV tends to reinforce that fact). As I will discuss below, however, that's not the only reason why this race seems to be less about "the issues" than usual.
II. How We Got Here
The second key to how the McCain and Obama campaigns have approached "the issues" is recent history. Since the end of the Cold War, the American electorate has been pretty evenly divided - there are still more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, but there also tend to be more Republican-leaning independents, especially in presidential elections, than Democrat-leaning independents. Between 1992 and 2001, the conventional wisdom was that both parties needed to move towards the center to win at the presidential and statewide levels (even as House races were getting ever more polarized and ideological), but that the Democrats needed to move further, and had done so under Clinton. Most observers would agree that Bill Clinton, while unmistakably liberal on a number of issues, had in fact made some real, substantive moves to the center on issues like the death penalty, free trade and (grudgingly) welfare reform, whereas George Bush's moves to the center were milder and more rhetorical, notably on spending (when he accused the GOP Congress in 1999 of "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor") and immigration.
That all changed after September 11. In 2000, Republicans had a mediocre year - Bush barely won election while losing the popular vote, and nearly all the close Senate races went to the Democrats - but did succeed in electing the second-most conservative President since Coolidge. In 2002 and 2004, though, Republicans consistently whupped the Democrats. Bush won the first national popular majority since 1988. Republicans won all but a handful of the contested Senate races. And they did so in large part by pummelling the Democrats on a consistent message of a few core issues - tax cuts, control of the courts, and of course the paramount importance of national security. The result was a commanding Republican position in the legislative and executive branches, and talk on the Right of a realignment.
As we all know, the political environment has been all downhill since then. While the 109th Congress was not without its accomplishments, most of the GOP's major legislative goals have gone down in flames since then, the 2006 elections were a rout outside of a handful of governors' races (Alaska, South Carolina, Minnesota, Florida, Rhode Island), various special elections have gone badly, opinion polls consistently showed major movement away from the GOP brand, and pretty much everybody thought that the Democrats would make major gains again in Congress in 2008 and that the presidential election was theirs to lose.
The question is why this happened. There's certainly evidence to support the argument that Republicans got beat on the merits on some issues. While Bush badly mismanaged and mishandled the rollout of his Social Security reform plan (I also blame the Terri Schiavo controversy, which sucked up crucial media oxygen at precisely the time when Bush should have been selling his plan), the fact remains that there's a lot of public resistance to anything that alters the entitlement programs. The Democrats successfully publicized and exploited issues where the GOP view was (unfortunately) out of step with public opinion, like embryonic stem cell research. And the agonizingly slow progress of the Iraq War was, for much of the past 4 years, a major drag on GOP political fortunes.
That being said, I believe - and I think many conservatives believe and more than a few Democrats would have to admit to themselves - that the bulk of the problem Republicans have faced in recent years is not about Republican ideas, but the people the party elected to office. The problem has been one of competence and integrity much moreso than ideology. I don't weep, of course, for the public officials who have suffered the consequences of their own failures in this regard, but you have to diagnose the problem.
This is not to say, of course, that all the criticisms on non-ideological grounds have been fair or well-founded, but that's another day's argument; the perception is a reality all to itself, and it's got enough foundation to it that it's no longer worth fighting over rather than try to move on from it with new leadership that has the credibility to fix the problem.
The Democrats were highly effective at deploying the "culture of corruption" theme in 2006, and Capitol Hill Republicans gave them a lot to work with. Of course, finding corruption in Congress is like finding sand in Saudi Arabia, and of course, there has been plenty of Democratic corruption in the same time period, but (1) Republicans were running the place and (2) a key part of the selling point of the GOP is being the faithful steward of the taxpayer. Republicans win by promising to stand for the general interest in less government against special interest governance that says government has to respond with a wheelbarrow of cash whenever anybody says they need it.
But to say that Republicans were punished at the polls more than Democrats would be for corruption, overspending and shady pork projects - in short, for fiscal hypocrisy - is to understand that voters didn't lose faith in Republican ideas; they lost faith in Republicans' willingness to execute them.
By the standards of two-term presidencies the Bush Administration has had remarkably few scandals centered on personal venality; most of the executive branch controversies have derived from disputes over policy and politics. But that doesn't mean Bush's image has been untouched. By failing to veto even a single bill produced by Congressional Republicans, Bush was part of the problem.
If the GOP Congress had an integrity problem, the Bush White House in its second term had a competence problem. Of course, there were things done poorly in the first term and things done well in the second, but broadly speaking voters in 2004 had rewarded a Bush team that accomplished a lot: a steady response to 9/11, the successful toppling of the Taliban and Saddam, a blizzard of complex new legislation, prevention of any further terror attacks, a booming economy.
But the second term has been marred by too many high-profile failures of competence. Hurricane Katrina, of course, was the signal failure from which Bush never recovered, and for the most part the Administration's problem was simply the fact of having put an unqualified guy in the job of FEMA chief and left him there. The Harriet Miers nomination was a failure of competence - another unqualified pick fairly tarred as cronyism - and if anything a failure to trust in the conservative ideology that helped her successor, Samuel Alito, pass the Senate. The various screwups by people like Alberto Gonzales and Scott McClellan had little enough to do with ideas, which happens when you appoint people who don't have any ideas (Slight digression: this is why Presidents should appoint people loyal to the President's policy agenda rather than personally to the President. The latter expect personal loyalty in return, the former expect to be judged on what they accomplish for the larger cause). And even the public disenchantment with the progress of the Iraq War was driven in significant part by the faction of conservative-leaning or "Jacksonian" voters who felt the war was repeating the failed half-measures of Vietnam.
To sum up, while Republican and conservative ideas took a few lumps over the past few years, there is little enough evidence to suggest that voters who believed those ideas actually lost faith in them; what they lost faith in, in larger numbers, was that Republican leadership in the White House and on Capitol Hill would, and could, carry those ideas into execution. The challenges for the two parties entering the 2008 elections, then, would be driven by the gulf between the enduring popular appeal of bedrock conservative ideas and the unpopularity of Republican leadership.
III. The More Things "Change," The More They Are Not McSame
So, the public was hungry for change from Republican leadership, but not necessarily hungry for the alternatives sold by the Democrats. (The abysmal popularity of the Pelosi-Reid Congress is surely some proof of this). How did the two parties approach this challenge?
For Republicans, the answer proved, after an agonizingly unsettled primary season, to be relatively simple: pick the candidate who could most easily distinguish himself from what went wrong. Running a campaign just on traditional GOP rhetoric wouldn't work because the voters didn't believe that Republicans believed it.
For a time, Republicans flirted with candidates who could run on executive competence, such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, but eventually the GOP lined up behind John McCain. McCain embodies a rejection across the board of everything that created the party's integrity problem. He's been a long-time critic of overspending in general (he opposed the 2003 Medicare bill) and pork barrel spending in particular. He's crusaded against the influence of big money and lobbyists - not always wisely, when you consider McCain-Feingold, and not always comprehensively (it should shock nobody familiar with politics that his staff still includes current and former lobbyists), but he's made his name trying to do things other people wouldn't. Republicans sustained a ton of damage from the Jack Abramoff scandal; McCain held hearings publicizing the story, making him a lot of enemies on top of his already extensive collection (Tom DeLay: "McCain has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of").
As for the competence issue, the simple fact that McCain was an early and persistent critic of Bush on so many fronts, most notoriously in his longstanding view that Bush needed to send more troops to Iraq, meant that the public was highly unlikely to just assume that electing McCain would be an uninterrupted continuation of the fumbles of the Bush second term.
Finally, even on the issues, McCain has dissented from Republican and conservative orthodoxy more times than anyone can recount, and done so specifically on issues like stem cell research where the public wasn't with the GOP. It's true, of course, that in many cases McCain's distancing act was at the margins of an issue and didn't put him all that close to agreeing with the Democrats, but that's fine; for voters who liked the GOP agenda more than the Democratic one but were uncomfortable with some of the specifics, McCain offers a way to buy in to less than the whole thing.
The very fact of McCain's moderation on a number of issues, however, creates two problems for him in running an issues-based campaign in the way that Bush did in 2000.
First, following the reasoning set out above, contrasts on the issues have to be crisp and stark - we saw in the Democratic primaries how much energy was wasted by Hillary and Obama comparing the microscopic distinctions between their respective health care plans. But because McCain has often sanded down the edges of the distinctions between his position and that of the Democrats, it's harder for him to draw out cleanly, without a lot of explaining, how he differs from them in where he stands. He's been able to hit Obama on some of the many issues where Obama's record is extreme to the left (e.g., abortion and taxes), but these are mostly not positive selling points for McCain.
Second, because of his many apostasies from party orthodoxy, McCain has always been at risk for re-opening old wounds with his own base if he talks too much about the areas where he's taken sides against President Bush or - worse yet, in the case of immigration - taken sides along with President Bush and the Democrats against the Republican base. This is one reason why McCain's campaign in the primaries was almost entirely devoid of discussions of domestic policy issues except to respond to the other candidates' attacks. McCain's been running ads lately that serve to blur distinctions with the Democrats by highlighting his positions on stem cell research and immigration, but again, these are efforts to remind swing voters of the separation between McCain and the rest of his party; they are not, in and of themselves, the stuff of a core issue platform.
As a result of these hurdles, McCain has struggled at times to come up with that ideal 3- or 4-bullet point-style agenda that a national campaign aspires to. His corporate tax cut plan is good policy but not terribly exciting - McCain has gotten traction attacking Obama's tax-hike plans but far less for his own relatively modest proposals for additional cuts. He dedicated a lot of his convention speech to school choice and other education reforms, but hasn't made a sustained pitch on that issue. He's been surprisingly vehement about free trade, but that's an issue where there's really no constituency demanding a change from the status quo in the direction McCain favors.
Still, by midsummer he had found a few core items to emphasize. #1 on the list is energy, on which McCain has joined with the Congressional GOP in hammering Obama and the Hill Democrats for opposing expanded domestic oil drilling and nuclear energy production. Typically of McCain's moderate record, he had to jettison his own prior opposition to offshore drilling to accomplish this, and signal his willingness to reconsider his position on drilling in ANWR, especially now that he's added the pro-drilling Governor of Alaska to his ticket (on nuclear he's been a long-time proponent). Energy is the one issue where a President McCain, if elected, can claim a legitimate mandate to get significant legislation passed early in his term. (You don't get a mandate you don't campaign for).
Number 2, improbably, has been Iraq, really the one issue McCain trumpeted ceaselessly in the GOP primaries into the face of the prevailing political winds, but which ultimately won him the respect of long-skeptical Republican primary voters. If anything, the surge in Iraq has been too successful, as voters are now less concerned about avoiding defeat there and the pace of victory has muddled McCain's message as even President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki now believe that U.S. troop withdrawals can proceed apace over the next 18 months or so. But McCain has visibly put Obama on the defensive repeatedly over their diametrically opposite positions on the surge and the fact that McCain's position, of the two, has been proven conclusively correct and Obama's conclusively wrong.
And #3, pork-barrel spending and earmarks. Pork is generally an inside-the-Beltway issue because what it says about the integrity of our government is outweighed by the small impact it actually has on the overall budget, compared to, say, the colossal size of entitlement programs. As a result, I've been skeptical from the outset of the value of focusing on earmark reform to the exclusion of more substantive issues. But McCain has been betting that with voter disillusionment with the GOP being driven largely by the integrity and competence issues discussed above, his best bet is to win people back by showing them that he's going to clean house.
McCain isn't the only one, however, whose ability or willingness to campaign on a crisply defined agenda has been impeded by the dynamics of the 2008 race. Voters are generically sick of Bush and mistrustful of Republican leadership, but that doesn't mean they've overnight embraced the agenda of the Democrats, much less the agenda of Barack Obama, the most left-wing presidential candidate since George McGovern and maybe since Henry Wallace.
One way to square this circle is the one Obama has chosen. It's a strategy with three parts:
First, campaign generically on "change." Voters who are unhappy with the status quo can identify Obama with "change" without having to have the uncomfortable conversation about whether Obama is proposing to change what they dislike about Bush in a direction they would support.
Second, run as the candidate of "new politics." Voters cynical about the loss of integrity by Republicans in Washington (and the perennial scandal problems of Democrats) can identify Obama as the man to rise above corruption by virtue of running a campaign that shows him to discard many of the things voters identify with a corrupt system.
Third, tie his opponent to Bush, with the "McSame" or "McBush" label. Argue at all turns that McCain is exactly the same as Bush.
It's not hard to see why this strategy was so successful in the early going, why it has worn badly thin since then, and why it has effectively precluded Obama from running on a concrete positive agenda. If Obama talks about an issue on which the main voter disagreement with Republicans is that they didn't keep their promises and Obama is promising the opposite, he loses the "change" argument; he also loses that mantle if he basically serves up issue proposals that sound like the same things Democrats have been peddling for decades, which on most issues aptly describes his policy proposals, few of which would have looked - or did look - out of place in the McGovern platform. If Obama talks about an issue where he disagrees with Bush and so does McCain - and there are plenty of those - he loses the "McSame" argument. "McSame" is fundamentally a weak argument because it's not credible in general, and all but the youngest voters know it - anybody who followed politics since 2000 will be left wondering who this Obama dude is to show up and tell them that after all those years of McCain pissing in Bush's morning coffee, he's really the same as Bush after all. It's also not specific to the causes of voter disenchantment with Bush. Obama basically ended up having his strategy outsmarted by GOP primary voters who correctly diagnosed the party's problem and turned to the man most likely to fix it. Throw in the many ways (I won't get into these here) in which Obama has abandoned his various "new politics" promises, and you end up with essentially an empty shell of a platform.
This is not to say that Obama has no issue agenda. His website will earnestly explain to you at length, albeit with some important details omitted, what he would like to do in office. He handed out a longer laundry list even than McCain in his convention speech. But beyond two issues he really has not driven home the sort of specific, concise and consistent message that would enable the average voter to recite from memory what he stands for. Go ahead, recite for me the 3- or 4-point plan that constitutes Obama's core message; most people can't do it even if they've been following this campaign fairly closely.
One of those two issues is ...wait for it...health care. Obama's plan is complex and basically a variation on the same "universal coverage" theme the Democrats have been pushing for 35-40 years, and we've had several demonstrations of the facts that (1) Democrats frequently lose national elections even when voters prefer their proposals on health care and (2) when Democrats actually get in power and try to enact their health care policies, they become a lot less popular. Still, it's something.
The other issue, the one that was really the centerpiece of Obama's primary campaign in differentiating himself from Hillary, was his unbending opposition to the Iraq War, including his opposition to the surge and his proposal for a complete withdrawal by March 2008. But even to a war-weary public it's hard to see how that's now anything but a net liability for Obama; certainly it's no longer an issue he can trumpet without some serious blowback.
Of course, Obama is also running on "the economy," but simply denouncing all bad things that happen is not the same as having a plan anybody understands.
I've long believed, and I think it's a general rule of thumb among political consultants, that you can't successfully roll out a new message after the conventions, and it's foolhardy to try. Obama got this far by campaigning at a high level of abstraction for "change," and even now the polls have him running close enough that despite the recent surge of momentum in McCain's direction he may yet win. But nobody should be surprised if neither candidate gets any more specific in identifying a core of concrete issues than what we have heard so far.