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Do campaign policy proposals matter? A Vox Symposium

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Matt Yglesias As people have started taking Bernie Sanders’ campaign more seriously, something that’s come up is a lot of more wonkishly-minded people are noticing that his policy proposals — especially on health care but also to an extent on bank regulation — are a bit hazy and don’t stand up to a ton of scrutiny on details.

I’ve written some stories making those criticisms, and some pushback I’ve gotten is that it doesn’t really matter. Everyone knows presidential proposals don’t become law and the details need to be hashed out with congress.

Ezra Klein Right. I think there's a deep and actually interesting set of questions here. How much coverage should we give candidates' plans? How much detail should we demand from them? And does it even matter what they say now if they can just completely reverse themselves when in office, as Obama did with the individual mandate?

Let me start by making the case for why I take campaign policy seriously.

First, I don't think it's my job, as a journalist, to grade campaigns on some kind of campaign bullshit curve.

If they release a proposal for what they're going to do about a major problem in American life, I think the right stance is to demand that that proposal actually answer the question it's posing. I don't want to be complicit in candidates saying they have a plan on X when they really don't.

But second, and perhaps more importantly, I think the media broadly underestimates how much work actually goes into the creation of campaign policy proposals.

Particularly for campaigns that are well-staffed, these proposals often take weeks or months, reflect the opinions of a wide variety of outside advisors, and are endlessly hashed over in internal debates. For reasons that are probably worth a separate conversation, I think the media systematically underestimates how telling and predictive the product of these kinds of processes is, and systematically overestimates how telling and predictive a candidates' offhand comment on a hot mic is.

Finally, I think there's really good evidence that politicians feel very constrained once in office by the promises they made during the campaign.

There are examples of reversals — the individual mandate is one, of course — but overall, elected officials often try very hard to stick within the boundaries of the arguments they made when getting elected.

Dylan Matthews I think the final point is fair. That said, I worry about that your second criticism is a bit circular. It’s true that Hillary Clinton’s college affordability plan, say, was workshopped over the course of months. But that’s because basically every left-leaning higher ed wonk with government experience and/or the specialized knowledge to work through a plan like that is backing Clinton.

Now, maybe that’s a point in Clinton's favor, but I think we’re assuming that Sanders has resources at his disposal that he probably doesn’t.

Andrew Prokop Let me also offer a note of skepticism about Ezra's last point, particularly in the context of Clinton vs. Sanders. It is true that Democratic presidents, when elected, generally advance Democratic policies. And Republican presidents who are elected generally tend to advance Republican policies. That's not a surprise.

But when it comes to these intra-party primary disputes, I think wonky-minded journalists can vastly overexaggerate what more minor and wonky policy differences actually reveal about the candidates.

In retrospect it is clear that Obama's opposition of the individual mandate in 2007-'08 provided no useful information to Democratic voters about how he'd differ from Hillary Clinton as president. It was a position driven by the concerns of the moment.

Similarly, Obama and Clinton's sudden and loud free trade skepticism in the weeks before the 2008 Ohio primary was essentially meaningless and indeed quickly discarded by both during the administration

Are we to believe that Clinton's sudden lurch to the left on a wide variety of issues during this primary will really indicate what she'll do when the primary's over?

Do white papers teach larger lessons?

Ezra Klein I think the Obama case is interesting, and for a very specific reason: the information flow here goes both ways. I think Obama's team was, to some degree, persuaded that they would need an individual mandate, and there would be support for proposing that policy (even with its obvious political dangers) by the outcome of that debate. Another way of putting it is that absent the serious vetting of the details of Obama's plan it's possible that the final bill doesn't have an individual mandate because Obama decides he was against it and can't afford that flip-flop.

Matt Yglesias So I see two issues here.

One where I agree with Ezra is that I think as journalists we have an obligation to take these proposals seriously. It’s important for people to understand their flaws,and that’s one mechanism through which things improve.

But the other issue is whether we can really draw "larger lessons" or whatever from the plans.

And that’s where I’m pretty skeptical. I think we know based on the past twenty years of history that Hillary Clinton acts from near the center of gravity inside the Democratic Party whereas Bernie acts from its leftward flank and scrutinizing their white papers doesn’t add much to that.

Dylan Matthews It might not tell you a whole lot about their relative ideological positioning but it might tell you something about their relative mastery of the issues.

Leaving aside Sanders’ relative lack of experts on his side to flesh out proposals, there really is a large single-payer movement in the US with some very developed proposals.

John Conyers’ HR 676 being the most notable. And you could reasonably expect Sanders, as a very vocal advocate of this policy, to know how those bills work. And I don’t know that he does, and the spareness of his plan adds to my suspicion that he doesn’t.

Sanders plans versus Clinton plans

Andrew Prokop Matt, that's why I'm unpersuaded by, say, comparisons of their dueling Wall Street reform plans. I think it is very clear from decades of history and even her own comments during these recent debates that Clinton generally considers Wall Street a useful ally and source of funds, both politically and personally.

Sanders meanwhile has dedicated his entire career to denouncing them. So Clinton's claims that her plan is "tougher" really fall flat to me in the context of all that history.

Matt Yglesias I think Clinton trying to say her Wall Street plan is "tougher" is a hard sell for the reasons you offer, Andrew. But I think you can make a good case for her argument that her plan is actually better.

Sanders wants to take the largest banks in America and cause them to stop existing. That’s maximum toughness. But I’m skeptical it will actually prevent financial crises.

Ezra Klein Specifically on Sanders, I think it's worth noting that Sanders himself has produced detailed single-payer plans in the past.

I think what happened with this plan is that they weren't ready to release an actual plan, but they felt Clinton's attacks were gaining traction, and so they rushed out a proposal that wasn't anywhere near ready. What frustrated me about the plan was that it made a series of promises and assumptions about how generous the coverage would be and how effective the cost controls would be that ultimately amounted to selling voters on a fantasy.

And that is something I think journalists should be tough on.

Is campaign coverage totally pointless?

Ezra Klein But I want to pull this back a bit from Clinton v. Sanders.

Let me ask the question from the other perspective. Let's say we take the view that that white papers aren't predictive and that campaign policy doesn't matter. But let's say we also take the view — as I hope we do — that voters should, to some degree, be thinking seriously about whether they agree with the candidates on the issues, and they need some way of evaluating that. Where does that leave us?

Matt Yglesias I think it makes the most sense to focus on topics where there are real intra-party fissureswhich, for Democrats, is really not health care.

But if you look at something like trade, we know that there is a very real very longstanding Democratic Party cleavage and that Sanders is firmly on one side and the Clinton and Obama administrations were both on the other side or on the Republican side this disagreement about democracy promotion.

Dylan Matthews Trade is a funny example, Matt. I kind of think there are structural factors that would force anybody — even a President Sanders or President Trump — to become a free-trader upon taking office.

You can’t just afford to piss off allies by scuttling trade talks with them.

Andrew Prokop Even for foreign policy and the GOP it's difficult though. Of course everyone remembers Gov. George W. Bush's disdain of "nation-building" in 2000.

Dylan Matthews And the real neocon candidate in 2000 was John McCain. Even in 2001 the Weekly Standard was bemoaning Bush’s weak response to China after the fighter plane incident.

Ezra Klein I think the Bush presidency absent 9/11 remains one of the most fascinating counterfactuals in American politics.

Matt Yglesias Maybe President McCain would have started a war with China?

Dylan Matthews Rollback’s gotta start somewhere.

Andrew Prokop To answer Ezra's question above, though, I don't really think there's anything else we can do other than evaluate what the candidates are proposing. We might be skeptical that Donald Trump would ever implement a ban on Muslim immigration, but he is saying that he will and he's a leading presidential candidate and his words deserve to be taken seriously.

Specifics and emphasis matter

Dylan Matthews I think there’s also a question of specificity.

We all knew, way before the current fight and Sanders’ current plan, that Sanders wants to nationalize the health insurance industry and Clinton does not.

That’s a real, big difference that I think tells voters a lot without getting into the question of "are Sanders’ pay-fors more reasonable than Clinton’s" or whatever.

In a world without white papers disagreements like that would still exist, and still inform people.

Andrew Prokop Dylan, you've done a lot of work evaluating the Republican candidates' tax plans. Have you drawn any lessons about the candidates from that?

Dylan Matthews It’s left me with a deep sense of nihilism. Obviously none of the plans are going to be enacted.

Insofar as they’re useful, they’re useful because they tell you about trends among Republican wonks.

The fact that Ted Cruz and Rand Paul both proposed VATs says something very interesting about how certain conservative economists view that policy. But does it tell me much about what tax cuts Ted Cruz would pursue as president? Do I think he’s likelier to do that or to just cut the corporate rate to 25 percent? I’m not really sure.

Matt Yglesias One thing I would say I’ve learned from Dylan’s analysis of the tax plans is that all the GOP candidates have abandoned the brief fad for deficit hawkery in the GOP.Mitt Romney ran on a tax plan that was kinda sorta paid for through loophole closing, and the new plans don’t make any gesture in that direction.

It’s a huge point of agreement for a GOP field that sometimes seems hopelessly divided.

What Ted Cruz wants

Andrew Prokop Cruz is an interesting example to me because I just saw him on the trail and at every appearance, he very specifically promises just two pieces of legislation.

One is a repeal of Obamacare, and two is his tax reform plan. He lists them both at every campaign stop, and promises he'll run on that agenda specifically, calling them his two major bills.

That's a level of specificity when it comes to promises that goes further than a lot of the candidates who just, say, throw out a plan on this or that.

Dylan Matthews That’s very interesting. I hadn’t realized it had become that central. This does make me think that it’s a bit odd that it’s de rigueur to put out a detailed tax plan, or health care plan. But it’s less expected to put out detailed plans on things that can be accomplished through executive action.

Andrew Prokop Yes!

Dylan Matthews That’s changing a bit, with Ted Cruz’s and Trump’s immigration plans. But it’s arguably much more important. Donald Trump is not going to pass his tax plan as it currently exists.

He could, however, rather easily make life hell for unauthorized immigrants, deport millions of them, and so forth.

Proposals as a window into process

Ezra Klein One thing I think is true here — and you see it in this discussion — is one thing that policy coverage is implicitly evaluating but rarely makes explicit judgments on is process.

And I think this is one way in which it is predictive. You can't know, when you're running for president, exactly what the makeup of Congress will be in two years, or whether there'll be a terrorist attack on New York City and Washington, DC.

But one thing that policy creation does help illuminate is how the candidates deal with demands from different factions of their party, how inclined they are to fall back on massive magic asterisks or implausible promises, how much or how little the policy they want to fight for diverges from the party's norms.

A frustrating thing about campaign coverage is the job of running for president is very different than the job of being president.

Exciting speeches, for instance, are very important when running for president, particularly during primaries.

But they're arguably counterproductive when being president, particularly when facing a divided Congress.

But the process of making policy, while not an exact replica of what anyone does in the White House, does demand a lot of the same skills. It's certainly possible that a candidate who runs a campaign with bad policymaking processes will improve once in the White House, but it's something I'd worry about.

Matt Yglesias Ezra, you’ve written before about how Democrats and Republicans aren’t just mirror-images of each other. Democrats are more focused on policy specifics and interest group demands and I think that’s one of the big things that these campaigns tend to illustrate.

Democrats tend to produce well-workshopped white papers to demonstrate responsiveness to different constituencies while Republicans tend to offer big gestural ideas to illustrate where they are coming from.

Sanders has thrown things for a loop by offering what’s really a more Republican-style gestural campaign.

I think that probably does tell us something important, but it’s hard to know what it tells us since we haven’t had a person run for office and win that way as a Democrat in decades

Dylan Matthews I will say, I think the Democratic tendency here is very longstanding.

The other day I was looking at a Birch Bayh ’76 pamphlet and it went on at length about his plan to end Fed independence and push for looser monetary policy.

Bob Kerrey had a detailed single-payer plan in 1992.

Matt Yglesias I <3 u Birch.

Ezra Klein So to offer one overarching thought here: For all kinds of reasons, I think a giant percentage of campaign coverage is useless at best, counterproductive at worst. There's demand for much more coverage than there is actually important news during the campaign, the coverage squeezes out important non-campaign stories, and the coverage often turns out to have been a really poor guide to what officials do once elected.

I think policy coverage is relatively better than most forms of campaign coverage, but the whole enterprise has some real problems that I don't think anyone actually knows how to solve.

Dylan Matthews I think this is actually one of the best arguments for how we discuss policy currently.

We talk about single-payer in part because Bernie’s proposing it.

But in part we talk about it because it’s an interesting, important topic, and Bernie gives us a peg to talk about it. So even if it’s not valuable as a diving rod predicting a Bernie presidency, it’s valuable because it gives us a reason to inform people about something important. See also me using a weird Ben Carson gaffe to talk about property tax-based education funding disparities.