THE PLANK APRIL 30, 2008
Jon Cohn took his best shot at parsing John McCain's semi-coherent health care speech yesterday, but Tyler Cowen--no raving liberal--thinks it's a fool's errand because Republican policy "proposals" aren't worth taking seriously:
Trade aside, so far I've yet to see many actual policy proposals from
the McCain camp. Mostly I've seen attempts to signal that they won't
do anything too offensive to the party's right wing. Very few of these
trial balloons seem to be ideas that McCain had expressed much previous
loyalty to. I don't even think we should be analyzing these statements
as policy proposals. We should be wondering why the Republican Party
has given up on the idea of policy proposals.
This is an interesting question. I think there are two interrelated factors at work here. First, McCain clearly just doesn't give a damn about domestic policy--he seems painfully bored by the quotidian tasks of technocratic governance. And having served in Congress for 25 years, he knows that it's Congress, not the president, that writes big-ticket domestic policy bills anyway, and the proposals issued during presidential campaigns exist just for the sake of political signaling. So, if you assume he has no interest in deviating significantly from the conservative status quo on issues like health care, all he has to do is put out half-hearted, watered-down proposals in order to make clear that he won't push for any big reform. Which is how a responsible press would interpret this: "McCain Envisions Few Major Health Care Changes," or something along those lines. The Democrats, by contrast, have to put out specific policy proposals because they do want meaningful reform, and have to at least be able to claim they've thought through the details.
The second factor is that my impression is that most Republican voters just don't really care much about the details of domestic policy. If you listened to the Republican presidential debates, with the partial exception of taxation, there were almost no in-depth discussions of policy initiatives. If there were votes to be won by being detailed, presumably some opportunistic candidate with an air of competence would have hammered the other candidates repeatedly for their lack of specifics. But that didn't happen. I'm not quite sure why this is, though there are some theories out there. A similar dynamic holds for the general election: Since the public disagrees with him on most substantive questions, McCain just isn't going to win many votes on policy grounds. So, on some level, even if he puts out a carefully-thought-out, comprehensive vision for conservative health policy, he can only lose when the campaign conversation focuses on actual issues (particularly in the domestic-policy realm), as opposed to other things.