The No Agenda Election

CHARLOTTE - The message from the Obama White House is that the 2012 election offers a stark choice between radically different visions for the country. And yet if you look at the campaigns the two major party candidates are actually running, the core argument is almost exactly the same: Vote for me, because the other guy is worse. Neither party is running primarily on a positive agenda of its own, perhaps because neither party really has one.  

Let’s start with the GOP. Part of what was remarkable about last week’s Republican Convention was the lack of any substantive governing vision. Led by presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the week offered generic anti-Obama disappointment coupled with generic pro-business and pro-America sentiments – but little clarity about what combination of policies Romney would pursue as president. His campaign has released a tax plan that doesn’t add up, a plan to slash spending that doesn't say what spending will be slashed, and a promise to both restrain out of control spending on Medicare and reverse Medicare cuts made by the Obama administration. It’s not exactly what you would call a coherent governing agenda.

Romney isn’t offering a positive vision. He’s offering a negative vision. He’s not asking people to vote for him because of what he would do, but because of what he would undo: the milestones of Obama’s presidency. He’d repeal ObamaCare, strike Dodd-Frank from the books, divert more spending to defense, and, instead of raising taxes on upper incomes as Obama has proposed, reduce those same tax rates. Even Romney’s Medicare reform proposal is now being framed as a defense of the status quo: He claims he’ll protect the program from Obama’s cuts.

President Obama, meanwhile, is running largely on the opposite promise: to defend his own accomplishments. Democrats are painting a potential Romney presidency as a return to the Bush era, scrapping the achievements of the last four years. A second term for Obama, by contrast, would mainly serve to preserve the changes Obama has made. Yes, Obama is also promising to raise top tax rates, and one can imagine a number of other policies that he might pursue in a second term: Immigration reform, an overhaul of the tax code, some sort of carbon-emissions control. But as National Journal’s Major Garrett points out in a smart piece today, the Obama administration is not running on a big, bold policy agenda so much as running against what Romney represents:

All of this limits Obama’s agenda-setting options, and all signs point to a convention message rooted in a minimalist vision and low expectations for new or bold legislative ambitions.

“There’s not going to be a 60-point policy address,” said Obama reelection strategist and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “He will talk about his vision, but it will be in contrast with Romney’s. He will talk also about what needs to be done on foreign policy and how to end the war in Afghanistan, a war unbelievably forgotten by Republicans.” 

“The last thing the president needs to do is launch into a lengthy policy agenda,” said Jim Manley, former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “The policy debate can come at another time. This is not the time for a State of the Union speech.”

Even in cases where the administration claims it has substantive policy plans, it doesn’t always want to highlight them. As The Wall Street Journal reported last month, the administration says it is preparing a deficit-reduction proposal for a second term. But the White House doesn’t want to tell anyone about it now because it sees no political advantage in doing so. You can see the same reticence at the convention. It's filled with appeals to interests groups and identity and promises protect policies Obama has already passed, but little in the way of a detailed agenda for the future. The explicit plan, according to TPM, is to portray Romney as the second coming of George W. Bush. 

The Democratic platform declares that, “This election is not simply a choice between two candidates or two political parties, but between two fundamentally different paths for our country and our families.” In his convention speech last week, the GOP's Vice Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, framed the election similarly, saying "you are entitled to the clearest possible choice." 

But what both campaigns are really doing is attempting to defend the status quo, promising that the nation can solve its deep economic and fiscal problems without changing anything that anyone likes. Which suggests that this election isn’t a choice between two futures so much as a choice between unsustainable visions of the past. 

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  • steve walsh||

    I think the calculation goes something like this: the only voters left that are undecided haven't been and don't really pay attention to the platforms and policy positions of the candidates, they make their choice based on superficial characteristics such as likeability and a general assessment of whether the candidate has done a good job (Obama) or will do a good job (Romney). Obama needs it to be a choice, Romney needs it to be a referendum.

  • Pro Libertate||

    "I'm not Obama" does have an advantage over "I'm not Romney" in that the last four years are not even arguably Romney's fault, given that he wasn't president and stuff.

    Otherwise, sure. A difference that makes no difference is no difference.

  • John Thacker||

    Best argument in favor of Romney:
    1) General opposition to incumbents who have failed. Unfortunately, most people have a pro-incumbent bias.

    Best argument in favor of Obama:
    1) Obama plus Republican House and more Republicans in Senate may be the best governing result we can hope for. I think that the last two years have been preferable to most of the preceding 10.

    Still voting Johnson, since I see no reason to clearly prefer either of these two.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Attempting to appeal to the Suderman demo?

    My god Pete. You've come a long way. Well done.

  • GILMORE||

    I don't think suderman qualifies as Hipster. He wears a tie non-ironically, and is semi-conscious of public-affairs issues, national policy, etc. If you know the names of any Cabinet members in the current administration, you a decisively NOT a hipster.

    You are probably a dork.

  • ||

    Possibly a dweeb.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I was alluding to his use of alt-text.

  • GILMORE||

    Peter, why are you being the meanie and trying to deprive people of their quadriennial TEAM HATE? YOU may not like playing, but apparently much of the country does. To them, tie color is indeed a "stark choice between radically different visions". Everyone knows Republicans are all racists and want to destroy the environment so that their multinational corporate puppetmasters can continue to consolidate the wealth of The People.... and Democrats are part of a New World Order conspiracy to turn the United States into a European-Socialist slave to the UN, while transforming the country into a population of athiest homosexual mexican mongrels. If [ENEMY TEAM] ever gets into power, think of the horrors that will befall all Americans! This time its for real!

    I mean fuck, you'd probably piss on people who root for their country during the Olympics, even though they really don't give a shit about Water Polo or Steeplechase; that's not the point! The point is about *hating the other guy*. i wouldn't even recognize this "governing vision"- thing you speak of if I saw it. the last election cycle that passed where I felt an actual choice occurred about a decade before I was born. I still mail in a vote for Barry Goldwater every 4 years just in case he's ressurected.

  • ||

    No, you have to vote for TEAM BE RULED!

    Puff Daddy: Vote or Die.

    Stan: Yeah, I've been meaning to ask you what's that mean anyways?

    Puff Daddy: What the fuck you think it means?

  • GILMORE||

    Typical athiest homosexual mexican mongrel

  • John||

    Since when is running a campaign to repeal things bad in the eyes of Libertarians? Romney's problem is that he doesn't want to repeal enough. This post is so stupid I almost think Mrs Sudderman wrote it.

  • GILMORE||

    YEAH WELL WHY DONT YOU ALL JUST VOTE FOR OBAMA THEN YOU FUCKING TRAITORS!! GNASH! GRRRR! HHRRMMMM!! RED TEAM GOOD!! BLUE TEAM BAD!!!

  • John||

    Or go fuck yourself retard. Again. Screaming TEam is not a substitute for thought. And the criticism of Romney is that he doesn't want to repeal everything and you can't trust him to repeal anything. A negative agenda? In our dreams

    Look Gilmore I know you are not bright. I lower my ex

  • John||

    Expectation of you accordingly. But Jesus you gotta to better than this.

  • GILMORE||

    ??

    Does john become sort of garbled and hard to understand when he's not doing The Grumpy Partisan routine?

    Aw, don't be mad john... I vote republican... and people tell me im 'throwing my vote away' nevertheless! Don tell ME reincarnation is *impossible*... GOLDWATER 2012 is the choice if hope and change! Rumour is he might pick halfeaten peanut butter sandwich as his running mate this year...-

  • The Hammer||

    Mysoginist!

  • A Secret Band of Robbers||

    Can someone explain the Megan McArdle hate to me? And why call her Mrs. Suderman?

  • GILMORE||

    Der? What?

    Megan used to contribute here. I know of no 'hate', per se (nothing like the wrath that the apostate Wiegel engenders).

    I think the reference might be that Peter, despite his dork-smile and aw-shucks demeanor, is actually a mad playah, and gets a bit of player hate from those of us that know that Hot Female Libertarians are a rare and precious breed, and we must necessarily seethe with rage whenever someone other than you or I is shacking up with them. I personally still want to beat the shit out of Will Wilkenson. Yeah, you stay in Iowa, punk! grrrrrrr

  • Tulpa Doom||

    (Romney=Obama) + rinse + repeat = 2012 Reason article

    And I thought having the government not do things was what libertarianism was all about.

  • The Hammer||

    Wow, I came here to warn you about saying that R's and D's are pretty much the same because it might make Tulpa cry, but I see he beat me to it. The one man cult strikes again.

  • John||

    Is not that they shouldn't criticize Romney. It is that they should at least try to make the right criticisms. If Romney only had a negative agenda. A negative agenda is what we need and what Romney isn't giving or can't be trusted to deliver.

  • The Hammer||

    I know where you stand, John, and I mostly agree with you. Tulpa, however, has spent the last 4 months becoming the Right's Tony. It's annoying, and he has finally moved beyond caricature.

  • John||

    I want a candidate with a totally negative agenda. One who says he is going to spnd four years getting the government not to do things. Sadly Romney doesn't have that agenda. But fuck you Suderman for wanting candidates who want to do things rather than stopping doing things.

  • John Thacker||

    I do agree with this.

    The bigger problem is that Romney's actually not going to repeal tons of things. But I agree, what's wrong with an agenda of repeal?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Let’s start with the GOP. Part of what was remarkable about last week’s Republican Convention was the lack of any substantive governing vision.

    This election isn't about Romney. It isn't about the GOP. If Romney makes this election about him, he'll lose.

    This election is about Obama. The question on the table is whether we should reelect Obama.

    Everything else is beside the point.

    If Romney wins, the next election will be about whether we should reelect Romney.

    If Obama wins, then the next election after that will be about who has a better plan going forward--the Republican candidate or the Democrat.

    Until then, it isn't about Romney. The election is about Obama.

  • Ken Shultz||

    By the way...

    The Let's Kick Obama to the Curb vote?

    It's ahead by four percentage points.

    #winning

    Don't change a thing, Romney.

    P.S. I'd vote for a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich rather than Obama, and the sandwich doesn't have a legitimate plan to turn the economy around either.

  • The Hammer||

    The sandwich also didn't sign Obamacare's predecessor into law.

  • GILMORE||

    If peanut butter sandwich picks grape jelly as its running mate, they'll have me vote

  • Ken Shultz||

    The sandwich also didn't nationalize two-thirds of the American auto industry--and isn't trumpeting doing that as a wonderful achievement.

    I'm not saying Romney's a great guy. Go ahead, look at what I wrote up top again...

    I'm willing to go farther than what I wrote up top. Far as I can tell? Romney's not about to be a good president.

    But Obama? Is a rotten president.

    I'm probably not voting for anybody because I won't lend whatever legitimacy my vote bestows to crown any emperor over me. I won't even vote for a libertarian emperor!

    That having been said, some emperors are worse than others, and Barack Obama is an especially bad emperor. If Romney kicks him to the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue, I'll party down for a night or two.

    And as soon as the hangover wears off, I'll jump on Romney's case just like I was on Bush's. I'm a libertarian, and the appropriate place for me is always in opposition to the emperor. But some emperors are worse than others!

    For reals. Obama is one shitty emperor.

  • califernian||

    "For reals. Obama is one shitty emperor."

    He has been a perfect continuation of nearly every Bush policy. yes even Obamacare isn't that far away from Bush-esque legislation. Medicare Part D anyone? Biggest expansion of social program giveaways since Johnson anyway? NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ? good god it goes on and on. Don't kid yourself. Obamney sucks.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Yeah, I despised Bush, too.

    Bush was also an especially bad emperor.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    The first thousand years were the worst. The second thousand years, they were the worst too. Then I went into a bit of a decline.

  • califernian||

    Until then, it isn't about Romney. The election is about Obama.

    First, this election is not just a vote on whether we like Obama. Framing it that way helps you feel better about voting FOR Romney but in the end, you do have to evaluate which of the candidates is best. It's easy enough to say but reality is different.

    Secondly, there are MORE THAN TWO FUCKING CHOICES on the ballot.

    You vote for President, not the not-President.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Did you read what I wrote?

    I said I probably wouldn't even vote for a libertarian.

    On the other hand, since some emperors are worse than others? I will encourage my fellow Americans to get rid of a really bad emperor.

    It's like Milton Friedman saying that he doesn't think we should have a Fed--but if we're gonna have one anyway? Then here's what he thinks we should do...

    I don't think anybody should vote for emperors, but if they're going to shirk their patriotic duty not to vote for emperors? Then I think they should vote against this especially bad one.

  • Joe R.||

    I like your argument. The best counter-argument was made by John Thacker above:

    Obama plus Republican House and more Republicans in Senate may be the best governing result we can hope for. I think that the last two years have been preferable to most of the preceding 10.

    What a couple of shitty options.

  • Russell||

    What you mean we?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Americans.

  • Ska||

    Forward? Fuck, I thought this was Jedward!

  • ||

    He will talk also about what needs to be done on foreign policy and how to end the war in Afghanistan

    Ummm ... you end the war by ending the war. You call your FN Chiefs of Staff into a room and tell them you want all the troops out in a month, or sooner, or you will find some replacement who can get that done.

  • ||

    I don't think anybody should vote for emperors, but if they're going to shirk their patriotic duty not to vote for emperors? Then I think they should vote against this especially bad one.

    "I don't think anybody should vote for baby-eating sociopathic lizards, but if they're going to shirk their patriotic duty not to vote for baby-eating sociopathic lizards? Then I think they should vote against this especially bad one."

  • Ken Shultz||

    Romney isn't a baby-eating sociopathic lizard--no matter what David Icke says!

    In fact, I kinda admire the man for what he did at Bain. I've been trying to get a gig like that all my life!

    I have a smaller version of that, I guess. But dude went about as big as you can go--and rocked it.

    I hope he's serious about trying to repeal ObamaCare. ...but I wouldn't expect him to eat any babies.

    And he's not a lizard! That's just a...rumor.

  • GILMORE||

    I've been trying to get a gig like that all my life!

    You clearly chose the wrong parentage.

    But for real... is it the private equity thing, or their consulting stuff? I worked *with* that world (the Bain, Mercer, Booz Allen, BCG, McKinsey types).... and frankly, its way oversold. Its a lot like the Ivy League schools - people overvalued as "big thinkers" who are in fact just well connected. Everyone is a genius by default.

    I'm much more impressed by successful investors who risk their own money rather than deal-makers who squeeze as much fee yield as possible.

  • Ken Shultz||

    In the years that Romney ran Bain, the company earned more than a 50 percent return on investment on average each year.

    http://www.standard.net/storie.....t-benefits

    I'm not about to make any claims in public about my own returns for investors or the returns of the companies I've worked for. Suffice it to say, when average returns were higher than that, the projects were on a smaller scale.

    It is incredibly difficult to get average returns like that on projects the size of the projects Romney was doing.

    The man's performance is impressive. He didn't average over a 50% return on investment--just by charging fees.

  • GILMORE||

    Fair enough. I am aware of the margin on private equity deal makin' and consulting, and 50% is actually of the norm, but for the whole firm to maintain a solid overall return (and control of costs) in such an uncertain kind of work.... yeah, ok, you sold me.

    That said - I'd still argue that 80% of what the powerhouse consulting/private equity guys do is simply skim on deals. Gladhanding mfkrs. Excuse me for having a touch of hate/envy for being their subcontractor for years.

  • Tulpa Doom||

    Because the wrong lizard might get in.

  • jcp370||

    How cool is it to be a Reason writer? Offering disdain snark to both the 2 major parties, knowing you'll never have to commit to any actual governing party/policies while still managing to earn a good living, hang with the trendsetters feel good about yourself because you're not "corrupted".

  • Tulpa Doom||

    To be fair the bipartisan partisans work the same way. How Thomas Friedman and David Brooks still have jobs is beyond me.

  • Sevo||

    jcp370| 9.4.12 @ 10:00PM |#
    "How cool is it to be a Reason writer? Offering disdain snark to both the 2 major parties, knowing you'll never have to commit to any actual governing party/policies while still managing to earn a good living, hang with the trendsetters feel good about yourself because you're not "corrupted"."

    Ah, yes, those libertarian 'trendsetters'.
    If you're trying to excuse your preference for red or blue, it didn't quite come off. Sort of sounded like sour grapes.

  • GILMORE||

    Offering disdain snark to both the 2 major parties, knowing you'll never have to commit to any actual governing party/policies while still managing to earn a good living,...

    LOL

    You clearly missed the decades of actually committing to many specific policies, and the shitty pay of these poor bastards. But please, whinge away, its amusing.

  • Hestonfan||

    When the GOP wins, the Left says the Repubs will turn back the clock. When the Dems win, the Left brags about how progressive the nation is.
    Problem is both parties take our freedoms away.

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