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Pure Onsense

It's the Details, Stupid

Scott Zuke

(10/2012) October is a time of changing colors. Around here that means waiting for the autumn hues to appear while walking through the park at Colorfest. For the Presidential campaigns it means trying to get those last few undecided voters to swing either Red or Blue. The upcoming debates offer the last, best opportunity for the candidates to show the American voters their cards after a long campaign season in which both sides have been playing close to the chest on specific policy details. Neither was dealt a great starting hand. When the game is over, we just have to hope the winner didn't steal the game with a bluff.

For President Obama, the conventional wisdom has been that his greatest obstacle to winning reelection is the sluggishness of the recovery after the Great Recession. This may have historical precedent, but it rests on the assumptions that voters blame the current president for those conditions, and that they think the opponent has a better plan. Neither can be said with confidence in this election.

A June 2012 Gallup poll found that 68% of Americans assign moderate or significant blame to former President George W. Bush for the poor state of the economy, versus only 52% for President Obama. A poll published by The Hill in July reported only 34% of Americans placing primary blame on Obama, with the rest being attributed to Congress (23%), Wall Street (20%), and George W. Bush (18%). Obama is being blamed, but so is everyone else who holds privilege and power. Mitt Romney personifies both more than any of his GOP Primary opponents (Except, perhaps, Newt Gingrich), and he has had a steady stream of gaffes--from his $10,000 bet with Rick Perry to the leaked video in which he wrote off 47% of voters as being dependent on the government because they don't pay federal income tax--that have continually made him appear out of touch with average Americans.

As for who has the better plan for setting the economy back on track, right now it seems to be a toss-up. According to campaign rhetoric and media pundits, this election is fundamentally about deciding between two visions of the scale and scope of government: Big versus small. Most voters are probably planning to mark their ballots on those grounds. As partial as I am to pondering political philosophy, though, I feel that in this case, there has been a failure by both campaigns to make their cases on grounds of solid policy.

First, President Obama needs to explain what he will do differently in a second term to break the legislative logjam of the latter half of his first term. He will likely still be battling a Republican majority in at least the House of Representatives, and win or lose, the next major showdown over fiscal policy is only a few months away (the ball in Times Square will have a long way to drop as 2013 brings us to the "Fiscal Cliff"). The Tea Party caucus and Grover Norquist will still be tying the hands of the Republican establishment as it tries to negotiate fair deficit reduction. Previous attempts to build a bipartisan compromise on deficit and debt reduction came tantalizingly close to completion, but failed because of a tragic mix of bad timing, careless mistakes, bruised egos, and irrational politics based on extreme ideologies. President Obama needs to acknowledge these obstacles aren't going to disappear, and produce a game plan for how to better navigate around them in the next four years. The question here is not "Big government versus small," but whether Mr. Obama has the management skills and political acumen to forge a new and effective negotiation strategy where the old one has failed.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has to show that he has a coherent economic plan, and so far, it's not there. His tax policy promises were declared "mathematically impossible" by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which concluded that his plan would decrease taxes on the wealthy and increase them for the middle-class, while also cutting entitlements benefitting the poor. Subsequent studies have relied on dubious assumptions to try to make the numbers work, but have still come up short. As Ezra Klein wrote for The Washington Post: "Romney has clearly calculated that there arenÕt many people who read these analyses. If he just keeps saying his tax plan can cut taxes on the rich while cutting taxes on the middle class while not cutting taxes on the rich while not costing a dime, eventually, his version of this will come to be seen as the truth. And perhaps heÕs right. But the numbers show what they show." Following our analogy, this sure sounds like a risky bluff.

On the budget side, a significant part of Romney's plan that's breaking the bank is his outdated call to expand defense spending. Bizarrely, despite the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Romney wants to increase troop levels by 100,000, at a cost of up to $200 billion over the next decade. He also proposes a sharp increase in US Navy shipbuilding and a return to production of the over-budget F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, which was ended in 2009 in favor of more cost-efficient alternatives.

If Obama's bad hand is the economy, Mr. Romney's is his base. The Economist's Democracy in America blog argued recently that the campaign's flailing and untenable policy promises are due to "splits between three of the party's constituencies: the wealthy, the defence establishment, and the elderly," forcing him to implausibly promise massive tax cuts, no cuts to Medicare and increases in defense spending, all while cutting the deficit. He has played his hand so far by withholding the specifics of how he'll pay for his plans, or by blatantly misrepresenting them. Whether through this strategy or by falling back on the simpler Big Government vs. Little Government philosophical divide, he may ultimately win the presidency, but whether he'll have any cards left to play after the election is anyone's guess.

Follow Scott on Twitter at @smzuke.

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