October 24, 2011 One cheer (or maybe two) for “issues”
Not long ago, someone I know said something like this to me: “Why can’t people just vote on the issues?” At first glance, this sounds pretty persuasive.
But at the Presidential level, I think this is somewhat less true than for other offices (especially legislative ones). The idea that we should “vote on issues” presupposes that:
1. The major “issues” over the next four years will be the major issues today.
2. You have clear opinions about the issues.
3. So do the Presidential candidates.
4. You won’t change your mind.
5. Neither will the candidates.
Certainly, there are some elections in which these propositions turn out to be valid: perhaps the election of 1860 (about slavery/secession). But quite often, at least one of the propositions (especially the first) turns out to be wrong.
For example, the major issue over the past four years has been an economic crisis that barely existed in early 2008 (when most voters, I think, were focused on foreign policy- since I can’t imagine why they would have nominated Obama and McCain otherwise).* So proposition 1 was wrong in early 2008.** Ditto in 2004 (when the economy was fine, so voters weren’t focused on preventing a major recession, which I think was more important than the major issues of the 2004 election) and 2000 (when I suspect no American voter saw 9/11 coming).
The other propositions also are questionable. I’m not sure President Obama or John McCain had fully thought through their economic policies as of November 2008, simply because the crisis was so new. And it does seem to me that Presidents are often different in office than during the election. For example, George W. Bush ran as an opponent of “nation-building” in 2000, but was much more hawkish in office.
So what can we do? I’m not denying issues matter (especially in a general election where the differences between candidates are at least somewhat greater).
But it seems to me that (especially in a primary) an equally important question might be: if an issue emerges after January 20, 2013 that you don’t see coming, who do you trust more to deal with that issue?
*Given McCain’s self-professed lack of expertise in economic policy, I simply can’t imagine why any rational person would have voted for him in a Republican primary knowing what we know in 2011. I think Romney (for more moderate voters) or Paul (for more conservative ones) might have been preferable. On the Democratic side, I think Obama would have been less attractive had voters known about the economic problems facing them (given that the major ideological attraction of Obama for liberals was his early opposition to the Iraq war).
**Though maybe not for the general election. On the other hand, it was not clear in late 2008 that the economic crisis was going to last throughout the next President’s term, so voters might have been more focused on foreign policy than was appropriate in retrospect.