Voters don’t always care very much about policy details when it comes to picking a president

December 12, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 12, 2013

Recently, Robert Mann, a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University, wrote a Times-Picayune column panning Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016. The crux of Mann’s argument is telegraphed in the headline, “Jindal’s meager record at home won’t get him to the White House.”

Referring to America Next, a new organization affiliated with the Louisiana governor, Mann writes:

The group hasn’t yet proposed a single policy innovation, so it’s not clear exactly what specific programs Jindal will tout.

However, selling his vision to the nation may be a challenge. That’s partly because the policy-cautious Jindal really hasn’t revealed much vision unless, by “vision,” one means serving up warmed-over, off-the-shelf conservative ideas. As for leadership, his modest job approval ratings provide no evidence of a deep well of affection or enthusiastic support at home.

The problem is that whatever ideas Jindal ultimately champions will emerge near the end of his tenure as governor. Republican primary voters and the news media would be justified in asking, “If your ideas are so new and compelling, why didn’t you try them in Louisiana?”

Ever the optimist, Jindal apparently believes that a little repackaging and some clever spin will do the trick. Still, it’s not clear what stunning accomplishments the governor will champion as proof that he is the most exciting and innovative candidate.

There’s a lot more in the column, which I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the contemporary Republican Party to read. But I wanted to focus on the passage quoted above.

Specifically, I wanted to question the notion that Republican primary voters will be looking for any stunning accomplishments or policy ideas in their ideal presidential nominee.

As evidence, consider John McCain, the party’s 2008 candidate. McCain engaged the eventual nominee, George W. Bush, in a fierce primary battle in 2000 before the Texas governor began to take a decisive lead. When McCain was tabbed by Republican voters to take on Democratic nominee Barack Obama, the Arizona senator was very much a known quantity. If anyone at the time considered him to be much of an innovator, I wasn’t aware of it.

McCain was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and ascended to the Senate four years later. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner-of-war (and the scion of a Navy family), McCain has no private-sector or executive accomplishments to speak of.

On the policy front, he may be best known for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that he co-authored with his Democratic colleague, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Generally speaking, that bill, which took effect in late 2002, has never been beloved of Republicans.

See, for instance, this short ABC item from 2009 about the Democratic National Committee opposing a move by its Republican counterparts to dismantle McCain-Feingold’s ban on large, unregulated contributions to national political parties (soft money, as it was commonly called). Perhaps more to the point, read this fairly comprehensive March 2008 Washington Post story, which begins:

Some of the same conservative activists who have recently signed on to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign are also still hard at work trying to undo his most famous legislative accomplishment.

To date, these grudging McCain supporters have mounted four Supreme Court challenges and others in lower courts to dismantle the landmark 2002 law known as McCain-Feingold.

What about the 2012 Republican nomination? It was, of course, won by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a very successful businessman with a limited list of accomplishments in the public sector. Romney served one term as the head of the state conservatives often derisively call Taxachusetts. He also helmed the committee that successfully staged the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City following a bribery scandal that tarnished his predecessor at the Utah organization.

Romney touted as one of his main qualifications for national office his ability as governor to work constructively with legislators from the opposing party. Of course, Gov. Romney didn’t have much of a choice; the Massachusetts legislature was 85 percent Democratic when he took office, and the GOP lost seats in the next round of elections.

In a 2012 NPR story, David Welna explained what happened next: “Romney issued some 800 vetoes, and the Legislature overrode nearly all of them, sometimes unanimously.”

Of course, Romney could lay claim to one big legislative accomplishment from his time as Massachusetts government. But that’s not what he did when he ran in 2012.

Why not? Because the major bill Romney helped pass established a universal health insurance plan that provided a model for the Patient Privacy and Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare. (Cue ominous minor chords! Cue conservative derision!)

Here’s how Romney opened his March 22, 2012, editorial for USA Today: “Friday is the second anniversary of ObamaCare. It is past time to abolish the program, root and branch.” A few months later, after the Supreme Court upheld the bulk of the health care reform law by a 5-4 vote, Romney said, “Our mission is clear: If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama. My mission is to make sure we do exactly that.”

In other words, Romney had a big idea and a big accomplishment; he just happened to want to disassociate himself from them completely.

Let’s look at some of the other politicians who contended with Romney for the 2012 Republican nomination. What was the big policy idea or accomplishment that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann stood for? I have no idea. Rick Perry was thought to be an appealing candidate because of the competency he had supposedly demonstrated as Texas governor, but he torpedoed himself in part because of his inability to recite a simple list of three federal agencies. Newt Gingrich certainly had ideas — lots of ideas, including establishing a colony on the moon, conscripting poor children to work as janitors and privatizing Social Security. The former Speaker of the House briefly held a double-digit lead in the polls after Thanksgiving in 2011. But by January, Romney had replaced him at the top.

Herman Cain surged toward the top of the polls for a short time based on his appealing personality and background. His big idea, the 9-9-9 tax reform proposal, was deemed tripe by many experts. However, that wasn’t what sunk Cain’s candidacy; a series of awkward revelations about the married business executive and minister’s relationships with different women seemed to do the deed.

I don’t want to pick solely on Republicans or Republican voters; Democratic politicking can be just as vapid. If Hillary Clinton had any big policy accomplishments to her name when she contended for the 2008 presidential nomination, they escape me. Barack Obama appealed to the public for multiple reasons, including his ability to deliver a rousing speech and the fact that — unlike Clinton and many other candidates — he hadn’t supported the Iraq war. In fact, the major policy positions Obama was known for involved repudiating much of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

But Obama was re-elected last year even though his repudiation of the Bush approach to international affairs turned out to be rather limited. Yes, Obama banned torture, and he helped conclude the Iraq war — although nothing he did, to be clear, concluded violent unrest in that nation. (Also, in the interests of clarity, the framework for withdrawing most U.S. military forces from Iraq was originally negotiated by Obama’s predecessor.)

However, Obama expanded the Bush administration’s program of warfare by drone, with its consequent civilian deaths. He also, we learned after his re-election, either authorized or idly sat by as federal authorities pursue an unprecedented program of electronic surveillance. And the president’s stated intention of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp has yet to be realized; true, that’s not all down to the president, but he has not expended any notable amount of political capital on pursuing that goal.

In short: It’s fair to say that Obama was elected because he successfully persuaded Americans that he could bring hope and change to Washington and the nation, not because of any policy plank or accomplishment. And while one might argue that Obama was re-elected because a (slim) majority of Americans favored his major policy innovation, Obamacare, it would be more accurate to say that he owes his 2012 victory to a mix of factors, including his having greater personal appeal than Romney.

Which brings us back to Bobby Jindal. Are the Louisiana governor’s purported lack of vision and dearth of accomplishment obstacles that will prevent him from becoming the Republican nominee for president? Probably not.

I wouldn’t bet on Jindal getting the GOP nod. But I think he’s still a viable candidate, regardless of his policy chops or lack thereof.

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