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Too Much Information

July 24, 2007 |
Voters mistakenly use the level of detail in a plan as a clue to the candidate’s level of commitment to solving a problem. But what we really need are clues to character.
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Washington -- Look at the “issues” section of a Republican presidential candidate’s Web site and you’ll typically find only the most basic statements: “cut taxes,” “defeat the terrorists” and not much more. Republicans speak in terms of principle, not programs.

While the absence of policy detail in the Republican presidential campaign is remarkable, Democrats go too far in the other direction. Their campaign has entered the season of plans, the period during which a barrage of 20-page policy proposals frames the debate. The candidates disappear behind a screen of white paper.

And there will be more. The Service Employees International Union, among the most powerful voices in Democratic politics, has asked presidential candidates to issue a detailed health care plan by the end of the month to have a chance at the union’s endorsement. But the union is doing its members no favors by encouraging the candidates to take part in this ritual. By the end of the campaign, whomever the union endorses would have been better off if he or she had never written a health care plan at all.

Elaborate policy proposals rarely get attention during a campaign -- except when they are being used against the candidate as part of a furious nit-picking fight over details.

Eight years ago, I worked on Senator Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign. Mr. Bradley issued a detailed health plan, which got lost in a squabble with Vice President Al Gore over technical questions like whether the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program could provide services comparable to Medicaid.

Fighting over such minutiae served neither the Bradley candidacy nor the cause of universal health care. Yet here we go again, picking apart Barack Obama’s health plan, John Edwards’s poverty plan, Bill Richardson’s plan on climate change.

The explanation for these plans is that voters deserve to know what a candidate would do if elected president. But highly detailed plans don’t tell us that. Nor does the ability to assign some staffers to produce a plan indicate the skills necessary to serve as president. The plans put forward in the primaries are long forgotten by Inauguration Day.

That’s what happened after the Democratic primary-campaign battle over health plans in 1992. Bob Kerrey moved first, taking the left-wing position of support for a single-payer system. Paul Tsongas embraced the centrist, technocratic fix known as managed competition. Under pressure to produce a plan, Bill Clinton half-heartedly wrote one based on the “pay or play” idea, which would require employers either to cover all their workers or pay a tax.

But when Mr. Clinton, as president, unveiled his actual health plan more than a year later, it looked a lot like Mr. Tsongas’s. Meanwhile, Mr. Kerrey forgot his previous embrace of single-payer and became a critic from the right of President Clinton’s Tsongas-like plan. This isn’t evidence that politicians are deceitful or willfully break their promises. They were promises that shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

We don’t give our presidents total power to enact policy. They have to work with a Congress made up of people with their own views and constituencies. Does anyone really think that a plan cooked up by a bunch of smart 20-somethings after a couple of all-nighters amid the empty pizza boxes and pressures of a campaign is superior to what could be developed with the full resources of the federal government and open Congressional hearings and debate?

Democratic primary voters are infatuated with the idea of plans, not the plans themselves. We like to think that we vote based on our rational analysis of issues and ideas, not on such tawdry matters as personality. So we insist that candidates produce plans to show that they are as serious as we like to think we are. Voters mistakenly use the level of detail in a plan as a clue to the candidate’s level of commitment to solving a problem. But what we really need are clues to character.

Democrats should just state their principles, explain their reasoning, and describe their basic goals for health care or poverty. In a recent Democratic debate, Hillary Rodham Clinton almost did. “The most important thing is not the plan,” she said. “We’re all talking pretty much about the same things.” What is crucial, she added, is that “you’ve got to have the political will.”

And yet, any day now, Mrs. Clinton will issue the second part of a health care plan so detailed it had to come in installments. If only she and the other candidates had the political will to admit that, should they win, they don’t know exactly what they will do.

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