Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Primaries Should Be About Big Issues, Not Stopping Nonexistent Plots

I'm quite proud of the way that the 2008 Democratic presidential primary went. My guy didn't win (thank goodness?) but the whole party got into a debate about lots of important issues of policy and strategy, most importantly how to set up health care reform. Democratic candidates were pushed to come out with serious proposals, and engaged activists educated themselves about the issues. I'm still impressed that so many people spent so much time learning and arguing about the wonky issue of mandates. A party consensus developed around a health care plan that eventually became law, minus one or two parts that we had to break off to fit it through the Senate. Overall, it was a triumph of democratic engagement and public deliberation.

Things obviously aren't going so well in this year's GOP primary. I liked Jonathan Bernstein's comments on the way that candidates spend a lot of time running against proposals that Democrats aren't actually making (Obama's going to take away your guns and fly around the world apologizing to all leaders for America being evil, etc):
Strawman attacks on the other party are seriously unhealthy during the nomination fight, at least if they dominate to the extent that policy fights are all about who is best able to stop nonexistent plots. After all, nomination fights are when parties really have a chance to determine what they want to do. Republicans have some serious questions they could be fighting over, beginning with whether they want to return to George W. Bush's first term foreign policy, and what they actually believe should be done about the economy in the short and long term. If they don't deal with those things now, they're going to wind up (should they win) with someone in the White House who won't really be constrained by actual party preferences on the issues
I'd seriously like to hear Republicans talk about general approaches to foreign policy, and argue amongst themselves about those issues more. There isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm in the party for continuing the war in Iraq. This would be a good time for that to become part of the overall GOP approach to foreign policy. But if they spend all their time arguing against nonexistent plots and coming up with insane proposals like a twenty foot electric border fence to kill immigrants, the opportunity will be wasted.
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