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.