The Do-Something-Else Principle

Why Republicans don’t want to run on policy.

Back in 2012, Ezra Klein noted an interesting distinction between the two major candidates for president:

The central difficulty of covering this presidential campaign — which is to say, of explaining Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s disparate plans for the country — is the continued existence of what we might call the policy gap. The policy gap, put simply, is this: Obama has proposed policies. Mitt Romney hasn’t. …

Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals. They do not include the details necessary to judge Romney’s policy ideas. In many cases, they don’t contain any details at all.

That distinction between the parties has continued into the 2016 presidential cycle. Rarely does a week go by without some Democratic candidate announcing a policy detailed enough to put a price tag on and assess who would be helped or hurt. Hillary Clinton has a plan to address student debt. Bernie Sanders has drafted a bill — Congress could enact it tomorrow if it were so inclined — to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure. Democratic candidates are competing to make detailed proposals to increase renewable energy, promote racial justice, raise the minimum wage, limit the power of money in politics, guarantee the right to vote, and do dozens of other things. Sanders likes to propose fully drafted laws, while a Clinton proposal is more typically a list with a price tag and maybe a funding mechanism. But the details are there.

You may hate these plans, and think the proposals that implement them are terrible. But if you don’t know exactly what Democrats are proposing, it’s probably because you haven’t bothered to find out. The candidates (or their web sites) would love to tell you. [1]

On the other side, though, details are scarce. Republicans want to “shrink the government” and “secure the border” and “defeat ISIS” and “repeal and replace ObamaCare” and “promote a culture of life” and enact “a growth agenda” and “make America great again”. But when you ask exactly what any of that means in this case or that case, things get iffy.

Why? When a pattern like this persists over multiple elections, the cause has to be more than just the style of particular politicians.

On some issues, the cause is obvious: Republican candidates aren’t going to have point-by-point plans to deal with global warming, because their ideology won’t allow them to admit it exists. [2] Likewise, they’re not going to have a plan to deal with racial injustice, because (according to them) there is none: Blacks are a disproportionate share of the prison population because they commit more crimes, and police gun them down more often because they are more threatening. Likewise, Republicans are not going to have a minimum wage proposal (other than maybe getting rid of the minimum wage) because setting wages is the market’s job.

But that doesn’t explain why so few Republicans have detailed their plans for cutting the federal budget [3], or replacing ObamaCare, or reducing entitlement spending [4]. Republicans say they want to do all those things. They just don’t say how.

The reason, I believe, is what I am calling the Do-Something-Else Principle:

When a public problem is genuinely hard, and has so many moving parts that the average person has a hard time holding them all in mind, any realistic detailed solution will disappoint the general public. Consequently, a politician who gets identified with any particular solution is at a disadvantage when running against a rival who wants to do something else.

No matter who proposes it or what kind of principles they base it on, once a solution gets nailed down well enough for the nonpartisan wonks at the Congressional Budget Office to estimate what it will cost and how well it will achieve its goals, most Americans will get disenchanted, thinking “There has to be a better way.” So a canny politician — particularly one who is out of power and has no responsibility to actually govern — will align himself with that longed-for “better way” and avoid getting pinned down on specifics as along as possible.

Examples of do-something-else are legion: ObamaCare is a specific program, while “repeal and replace ObamaCare” is a proposal to do something else. [5] The Iran nuclear deal is a specific agreement that Congress can vote up or down, but the “better deal” that Republicans support is something else. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform that the Senate passed (with votes from Republicans like Marco Rubio who have since retreated from it) is a specific plan, but “securing the border” is something else.

So far, the campaign has only two complex issues on which Republican candidates have taken definite stands: abortion and immigration. On both issues, they have been dragged kicking and screaming into policy commitments, and it hasn’t worked out well for them.

Abortion. Republicans run best when they can maintain a vague abortions-are-oogy position without getting drawn into individual examples. But the Christian Right fell for that back in the Reagan administration and has been wise to it since. Today’s pro-lifers demand clear commitments.

Consequently, everyone who isn’t a religious extremist finds Republican candidates’ abortion positions disappointing, or maybe even horrifying. Mike Huckabee has supported the government of Uruguay in forcing a 10-year-old to give birth, even though the pregnancy resulted from rape by her stepfather. Huck has also pledged that as president he would “invoke the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution” to protect a fetus’ right to life, a position that would justify sending federal troops to abortion clinics in much the same way that Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent troops to the South to enforce school desegregation. Scott Walker won’t support abortion even when the life of the mother is at stake, and Marco Rubio has come out against rape and incest exemptions to abortion bans.

Hillary is eagerly awaiting her opportunity to run those videos in the general-election campaign.

Details kill you. Stick with “abortion is oogy”.

Immigration. Republicans were doing fine with “secure the border” until Donald Trump came along. Trump is operating by his own rules, and I’m not completely sure what they are. But one rule seems to be that he can put out detailed plans where the details make no sense.

For example, consider the first reprisal he lists if Mexico refuses to pay for the wall he wants to build on our southern border:

impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages

A “remittance payment” is money that a worker in the United States sends back to his family in Mexico. Both documented and undocumented immigrants do this, totaling more than $20 billion. But these are not drug kingpins and we’re not talking about the kind of large-scale transfers the government is set up to trace. Even National Review, no fan of Mexican immigrants in general, doesn’t see a practical way to block the undocumented guy washing dishes at your local diner (for $3 an hour) from sending $20 to his mom, much less block only the payments from undocumented workers and allow remittances from legal employment. (The work-arounds would be simple. Maybe I’ll take the $200 I’ve saved up and wire it to my cousin in Toronto, who can wire it from there to our grandma in Oaxaca.)

Anyway, though, the idea that Trump has a detailed immigration plan is forcing the other candidates to comment on it. They’re taking positions on birthright citizenship and using derogatory terms like “anchor babies“. It’s not doing any of them any good with the non-Republican electorate.

Why only Republicans? The Do Something Else Principle generally works to the advantage of the party out of power. The president has to govern; he can do something or do nothing, but he can’t stand for doing “something else”. (You might think that controlling Congress would give Republicans a similar interest in governing, but apparently not.)

But there is also a subjective element in the Do Something Else Principle that makes it more applicable to Republicans: It only works when the issues are complicated. When a simple proposal would do exactly what it’s supposed to do in a perfectly understandable way — like raising the minimum wage, for example — you’re either for it or against it. Supporting “something else” doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For years, Republicans have been pushing the idea that governing should be simple: There’s right and wrong, principled and unprincipled. We just need simple, good-hearted leaders who have the will to do the right thing, not brainiac experts who design complicated systems. (No Sarah Palin speech is complete without a reference to “common sense solutions“. George W. Bush once pushed a nominee for the Supreme Court — a job normally thought to require expertise — by assuring us that “I know her heart.”) Voters shouldn’t need to study an issue or understand anything difficult, nor should they have to yield to people who do study and understand things. “I’m not a scientist” is a reason to ignore climate change, not a reason to listen to the people who are scientists.

Consequently, the voters of the Republican base, particularly those who live inside the Fox News bubble, have been trained to throw up their hands quickly when things get complicated. Undoing structural racism? An insurance mandate? A tax on carbon? There has to be a better way!

Republican candidates, by and large, are not stupid. They just pander to voters who have been over-indulged in their intellectually laziness. Those base voters don’t want to understand complex issues, they just want to be told that the solution follows easily from the common-sense principles of their ideology. If no actual solution is simple or ideologically correct, then you shouldn’t present one. Just tell them that you’re going to do something else.

[1] The exception that proves this rule is Clinton’s position on the Keystone XL Pipeline: She hasn’t announced one, and that’s a serious problem for her campaign. Democratic voters expect to know what their candidates plan to do.

[2] That’s not entirely true. Republican candidates are split between those like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who think the Earth is not warming, those like Marco Rubio, who believe the Earth might be warming, but don’t care because “the climate is always changing”, and those like Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who acknowledge the reality of global warming, but don’t believe political leaders should do anything about it, beyond crossing their fingers and hoping for “innovation”. But all the candidates are united on the don’t-do-anything conclusion.

Given that, “do nothing” actually is a fully detailed description of their intentions.

[3] In previous years, Rand Paul made headlines with detailed descriptions of how he’d cut federal spending. However, a plan to slash the CDC doesn’t look so good in light of the recent Ebola scare, so Paul has de-emphasized the specifics now during his presidential run.

In his announcement speech, he stated his intentions in a more do-something-else way:

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

Three trillion is a number beyond the ken of most of us. So who can say why the sum total of all the stuff we expect out of our government costs more than that? Isn’t there some other way to spend that $3 trillion that would do everything we want?

That sounds a lot better than slashing the CDC or cutting back on food safety or the national parks.

[4] Chris Christie is virtually unique in presenting a detailed plan for cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age. He thought this would enhance his image as a guy who tells it like it is, even if it means delivering the bad news. That message seems to be working for about 3.3% of the Republican electorate. He will probably be out of the race soon.

[5] The polls that show ObamaCare is unpopular usually measure it against doing something else. It would be interesting to poll a question like: “Do you want to keep the Affordable Care Act or go back to the way our health care system worked in 2009?”

Likewise, if Republicans offered a detailed replacement plan — they’ve controlled the House since 2011 and the Senate since January, so if they had a plan they could have passed it in the House and forced the Democrats to either filibuster it in the Senate or have Obama veto it — polling that plan against ObamaCare would be a fair comparison. But if they had a plan, the burden of public disappointment would shift to them: Is their plan really the best we can do? Why isn’t the problem simpler than that?

Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have talked about their ObamaCare replacement plans recently, but they have produced exactly the kind of “simulacra of policy proposals” Klein was talking about. As Politico observed about Walker’s “plan”:

Walker leaves many other questions unanswered about his plan, including how many people might be covered and how he would pay for it, except to say it would require no new taxes or fees.

Rubio’s “plan” is presented in an op-ed. It includes no numbers. (The numbers in the op-ed are all about ObamaCare, not his own program.) The ObamaCare tab on his website is similarly non-quantitative and unanalyzable, containing statements like “we must save Medicare and Medicaid by placing them on fiscally sustainable paths” without saying what such paths might look like in terms of decreased benefits or increased taxes.

The last time Republicans floated a healthcare proposal detailed enough to be analyzed was in 2009, when ObamaCare was still being debated. The CBO found that the Republican alternative would lower the 2019 federal budget deficit by a small amount ($18 billion), while doing essentially nothing to cover the uninsured: 3 million more people would be covered in 2019 than if Congress did nothing (no ObamaCare, no Republican alternative), but 52 million non-elderly adults would remain uninsured.

If somebody wants to run on “I stand for an America where in 2019 you will have a 1-in-7 chance of being uninsured”, the Democrats will eat them up.

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  • Sunshine  On August 24, 2015 at 11:04 am

    pinned down on specifics as long (not along) as possible…..

    “abortion is oogy”? Or “ugly”? What is the context? I’m a news junky but I’ve not seen this term….

    intellectual laziness (not intellectually) adjective, not adverb…

    Not criticizing. I love your blog and share it with many others. I edit almost everyone’s work, whether they like it or not. Sunshine Williams, Austin, TX

    • weeklysift  On August 24, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      oogy or oogie is a childish term of disgust. It’s on a par with yucky, which applies more to food.

  • coastcontact  On August 24, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    The reality is Americans don’t want to read the details of candidate proposals. Donald Trump is drawing large crowds based upon his words in the speeches that lack details. Party platforms are read by few and presidential candidates give them little attention unless they are questioned on a Sunday morning talk show.

    President Obama is too cerebral for most Americans. HIs lack of motivational speaking skills and lack of ability to schmooze with the GOP has made his presidency disappointing to most Americans. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was marked by both his acting skills to appear forceful and his ability to negotiate with Tip O’Neal.

    Americans just don’t care about the details.

    • Kelly Schoenhofen  On August 24, 2015 at 7:01 pm

      >HIs lack of motivational speaking skills and lack of ability to schmooze with the GOP has made his presidency disappointing to most Americans.

      I’ve thought that President Obama has the best oratorical skills of any modern president; who are we comparing him to?

      I don’t know if he has a lack of ability to schmooze with the GOP; I think he doesn’t for the same reasons so many of the rest of us can’t schmooze with the GOP elite or the faithful as well; we can’t stand them. You cannot debate (or have any meaningful conversation) with someone who will not give facts any credence whatsoever and instead only believes what they wish to believe, regardless of how contradictory their words can be.

    • weeklysift  On August 24, 2015 at 8:46 pm

      I have a hard time imagining what Obama could have done to get any cooperation from the Republicans. They had resolved to block everything before he even took office.

    • PlainT  On August 25, 2015 at 10:53 am

      His unfortunate position as president of a divided congress with republicans committed to not cooperating has made him pander to the right wing too much and THAT is what made his presidency disappointing.

  • Sam Wight  On August 25, 2015 at 2:35 am

    Your argument, while correct, belies your fundamental prejudice towards government as the solution. Democrats believe government can and should fix things, thus the details. Republicans believe government is the problem, thus the lack of concrete steps. Republicans aren’t put off by this lack of detail, they are warmed by it, because the last thing they want is more government activism.

    • weeklysift  On August 25, 2015 at 8:06 am

      That doesn’t explain why they won’t give details about things they do want to do. In the article I gave the examples of cutting government spending in general, replacing ObamaCare, and reducing entitlement spending.

      • Sam Wight  On September 5, 2015 at 3:00 pm

        That’s indicative of another difference between the GOP and Democratic party: willingness to compromise. Hillary doesn’t lose votes among her party if people only agree with her 70% of the time. GOP voters want 100%, so best to give vague generalities about which everyone can agree, than get into details. GOP officials don’t compromise in DC because their voters don’t compromise (that’s another reason the GOP has 17 candidates).

    • PlainT  On August 25, 2015 at 10:54 am

      Then why are they running for government? If you’re working in government, you should be doing your job well, not giving reasons why your job is hard/ineffective… just my opinion…

      • PlainT  On August 25, 2015 at 10:57 am

        (sorry just want to finish that thought) Actually, their anti-government stance may connect better with their voters, but it makes me more suspicious. If republicans are so anti-establishment, what do they have to gain by running the country? One needs to look no further than the effects of their policies, which is to keep the rich richer and cede more power to private sector. They may say they’re against government, but then they’re working from inside to undermine it.

    • Tyro  On August 25, 2015 at 11:49 am

      So they don’t want the government to take the steps necessary to get the government to do less. Makes sense.


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