Monday, August 6

The Substance Thing

The New York Times

Two presidential elections ago, the conventional wisdom said that George W. Bush was a likable, honest fellow. But those of us who actually analyzed what he was saying about policy came to a different conclusion — namely, that he was irresponsible and deeply dishonest. His numbers didn’t add up, and in his speeches he simply lied about the content of his own proposals.

In the fifth year of the disastrous war Mr. Bush started on false pretenses, it’s clear who was right. What a candidate says about policy, not the supposedly revealing personal anecdotes political reporters love to dwell on, is the best way to judge his or her character.

So what are the current presidential candidates saying about policy, and what does it tell us about them?

Well, none of the leading Republican candidates have said anything substantive about policy. Go through their speeches and campaign materials and you’ll see a lot of posturing, especially about how tough they are on terrorists — but nothing at all about what they actually plan to do.

In fact, I suspect that the real reason most of the Republicans are ducking a YouTube debate is that they’re afraid they would be asked questions about policy, rather than being invited to compare themselves to Ronald Reagan.

But didn’t Rudy Giuliani just announce a health care plan? No, he vaguely described a tax cut proposal that he says would do something good for health care. (Most experts disagree.) But he offered no specifics about how the plan would work, how much it would cost or how he would pay for it.

As Ezra Klein of The American Prospect has pointed out, in the speech announcing his “plan” — and since no policy document has been released, the speech is all we have to go on — Mr. Giuliani never uttered the word “uninsured.” He did, however, repeatedly denounce “socialized medicine” or some variant thereof.

The entire G.O.P. field, then, fails the substance test.

There is, by contrast, a lot of substance on the Democratic side, with John Edwards forcing the pace. Most notably, in February, Mr. Edwards transformed the whole health care debate with a plan that offers a politically and fiscally plausible path to universal health insurance.

Whatever the fate of the Edwards candidacy, Mr. Edwards will deserve a lot of the credit if and when we do get universal care in this country.

Mr. Edwards has also offered a detailed, sensible plan for tax reform, and some serious antipoverty initiatives.

Four months after the Edwards health care plan was announced, Barack Obama followed with a broadly similar but somewhat less comprehensive plan. Like Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama has also announced a serious plan to fight poverty.

Hillary Clinton, however, has been evasive. She conveys the impression that there’s not much difference between her policy positions and those of the other candidates — but she’s offered few specifics. In particular, unlike Mr. Edwards or Mr. Obama, she hasn’t announced a specific universal care plan, or explicitly committed herself to paying for health reform by letting some of the Bush tax cuts expire.

For those who believe that the time for universal care has come, this lack of specifics is disturbing. In fact, what Mrs. Clinton said about health care in February’s Democratic debate suggested a notable lack of urgency: “Well, I want to have universal health care coverage by the end of my second term.”

On Saturday, at the YearlyKos Convention in Chicago, she sounded more forceful: “Universal health care will be my highest domestic priority as president.” But does this represent a real change in position? It’s hard to know, since she has said nothing about how she would cover the uninsured.

And even if you believe Mrs. Clinton’s contention that her positions could never be influenced by lobbyists’ money — a remark that drew boos and hisses from the Chicago crowd — there’s reason to worry about the big contributions she receives from the insurance and drug industries. Are they simply betting on the front-runner, or are they also backing the Democratic candidate least likely to hurt their profits?

All of the leading Democratic candidates are articulate and impressive. It’s easy to imagine any of them as president. But after what happened in 2000, it worries me that Mrs. Clinton is showing an almost Republican aversion to talking about substance.