Jon Cohn on well-designed policy proposals in primaries: "At this point four years ago, John Edwards and Barack Obama had put out detailed health care plans that had realistic assumptions, vetted by economists and health care experts, and actually looked pretty similar to what eventually became the Affordable Care act. Hillary Clinton would soon do the same. By the time the primary season was over, all three had also put out detailed plans on the economy and foreign policy ...overall I think it reflects well on the Democrats who ran for president then -- and poorly on the Republicans running now."
Yglesias: "I wouldn’t get too nostalgic about Democratic plan-mania. To me, the main consequence of that business was to raise unrealistic expectations and lay the groundwork for unfair backlash when it turned out that in the United States of America laws are written by congress."
Democratic plan-mania deserves Cohn's nostalgia. It wasn't to blame for unrealistic expectations. The fact that laws are written by Congress, as Yglesias says -- and especially the Senate, where Lieberman and Nelson were needed swing votes -- was going to make any plan fall short of initial expectations, primary-era plan-mania or no. If all the candidates just gave us vague generalities in the primary and our first happy encounter with a specific plan was in February 2009, whatever passed a year later would be missing some of our favorite parts of the Feburary 2009 plan (public option) and disfigured in some way (Stupak). And there would be the same disenchantment and backlash.
There's one way in which the detailed plans really helped. Democrats taught themselves about the least intuitive aspect of health care reform -- individual mandates -- during the primary rather than during the legislative fight. Politically, I can see why Obama introduced a plan without a mandate during the primary. Mandates are weird and scare people. But once we'd managed to talk it out amongst ourselves and the pro-mandate side won the argument by explaining adverse selection, it was harder to scare Democrats away from their own proposal by telling them about the mandates.
If primary candidates are willing to lead by introduce policy detail into the conversation -- as Edwards did by introducing a good, detailed plan first, and Obama and Hillary did when they shut up the moderators' lame questions and kept arguing about mandates during the Texas debate -- you'll end up a with more knowledgeable party. I'm generally skeptical about the ability of the election process to really educate voters. But I've seen it once, and that was when the detailed plans of the 2008 primary made it happen. If you want educated partisans, you want an intelligent debate, and hashing out detailed plans is a good way to get that.