Brooks: Focus on Policy, Not Politics
By David Brooks, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, June 22, 2012
As the summer progresses, the presidential election season will pick up steam. Battleground states will see ever more attack advertisements, and the American public can look forward to further swipes back and forth between the candidates, increased media scrutiny, the veepstakes and, of course, more debates. Being a political junkie, I know I’m going to be sucked into watching my fair share of debates. I just wish for once that these debates would be focused on policy instead of mere semantics.
When the time came for the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary, I cast my vote for Jon Huntsman. This wasn’t because I was sold on Huntsman as the next president. Instead, I was hopeful that, among other things, Huntsman would provide a reasoned debate with President Barack Obama on the social, economic and foreign policy issues of today.
During the Republican presidential primary debates, Huntsman articulated his stances on multiple issues. He noted the current foreign policy shift to the Pacific and emphasized the need for engagement with China instead of popular retaliations that could kick off a trade war. He also spoke of a need to shift focus onto counterterrorism while pulling back from what he believed to be failed counterinsurgency.
To be honest, I didn’t agree with Hunstman on all of these points, but it was nice to hear someone actually speaking about policy instead of squabbling over issues such as whether Rick Perry did or didn’t support amnesty or how, as governor of Texas, Perry has been putting a whole load of people to death.
However, even as I cast my vote, I realized that Hunstman probably would not win the nomination — I always believed Mitt Romney would win eventually. His subsequent path to the nomination was a bumpy one. Newt Gingrich tried winning the nomination not by distinguishing his proposed policies from Romney’s, but by attacking Romney’s record at Bain and Romney’s credentials as a “true conservative.” Rick Santorum gave Romney the greatest run for his money by again attacking Romney’s conservative credentials. Lost in all the name-calling and attack ads was any real discussion of the policy differences the candidates would bring to the White House. Instead of telling the American public what they would do in office, the candidates spent the bulk of their time attacking each other’s records.
When Romney finally secured the nomination, I held out a small hope that a reasoned intellectual debate still might take place. Even though Romney has apparently had a change of heart on some issues, he’s an intelligent, accomplished businessman and politician who should be able to intellectually spar with Obama. Maybe the two Harvard Law School alumni would duke it out not only by explaining why their challenger is wrong, but also by laying out clear policy goals of their own.
I know Republicans and Democrats are going to see multiple issues differently. Where Democrats see health reform, Republicans will see socialized medicine. But that does not mean that politicians from opposing parties cannot engage with each other. For example, there is a difference between saying that a candidate is a weak-kneed betrayer of Israel who lacks the gumption to stare down Iran and saying that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable risk while simultaneously articulating what you would do differently. I could come up with examples ad nauseum, but my point is that there is a clear difference between castigating one’s opponents and actually engaging with them.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope that this stage of the campaign will play out differently. Currently, President Obama has been content with nipping at Romney’s record at Bain. However, it’s doubtful that the president is against the creative destruction of capitalism and global markets. Instead, it seems more likely that President Obama is banking on populist feelings in battleground states like the manufacturing Ohio. Meanwhile, Romney has taken swipes at the president over issues like Mexico, Russia and the G20 without emphasizing constructive proposals of his own.
With the current contempt resolution against Attorney General Eric Holder and the expected unfavorable Supreme Court opinions against the Obama administration, it’s doubtful that the current rhetoric will rise above attack ads and name-calling. Nonetheless, I will be hopefully watching for a clear debate on the issues.