Take President Obama. He campaigned as a different kind of Democrat, one unleashed from the hoary controversies, stale ideas and bitter arguments of yesteryear. His central policy difference with rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards was that their health-care plans included an individual mandate and his didn’t. His great promise was that he would change Washington in ways the others couldn’t.
After becoming president, Obama governed from the center of his party, building an individual mandate into his health-care bill, backing cap-and-trade antipollution legislation developed by House Democrats, and supporting a slew of ideas that had been floating around Democratic Party circles for years — the Lilly Ledbetter Act on equal pay, new tobacco regulations, an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, green energy credits. If you had known only that a Democratic candidate had won the presidency in 2008 without knowing which candidate, you could’ve largely predicted the agenda just the same.
That’s neither criticism nor compliment; it’s simply the reality of our two-party political system, which doesn’t afford presidents or individual legislators much power to take action on their own. Consequently, the quadrennial party platform is a useful document, reflecting the compromises hammered out among relevant players: activists, interest groups and the presidential campaign. After spending weeks haggling over language, they emerge with a political vision that all can live, and govern, with.
That produces some oddities. The 2012 Republican platform warns against “our dependence on foreign imports of fertilizer,” for example, while demanding that “any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to the simultaneous repeal of the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax.” It recommends the formation of a commission to study whether we should return to the gold standard, the last vestige of which was abandoned under President Richard M. Nixon.
Too often, discussion of party platforms begins and ends with such wacky bits. It shouldn’t. The Republican platform takes up a consequential 62 pages. The section on economic recovery, for example, is quite detailed about the party’s reigning philosophy of economic growth and how to achieve it. The main problem it cites is too much government; the solution is to cut spending, cut regulations and unleash the private sector to perform its wonders.
The platform states: “Our vision of an opportunity society stands in stark contrast to the current Administration’s policies that expand entitlements and guarantees, create new public programs, and provide expensive government bailouts. That road has created a culture of dependency, bloated government, and massive debt.”
What’s notable about this is how unrelated it is to our current predicament. Regarding the labor market, for instance, most economists subscribe to one of three theories about what’s gone wrong.
Some think we’ve had a terrible shock to demand, and the way to get the economy moving again is for government to support demand while consumers dig out from under debt and businesses wait to see what direction the economy takes.
Others think the bursting of the credit bubble has exposed a misalignment of skills underlying the American economy, in which workers know too much about construction, a depressed sector, and not enough about high-skills manufacturing, an ascendant one.
Still others think the Federal Reserve is simply doing a shoddy job, that if the Fed were willing to lean hard into unconventional policies and uncork a bit of inflation it would change investor expectations about the future and get the economy moving again. (Some economists think it’s a bit of all three.)
The virtue of these theories is that each addresses what’s actually happening in the labor market — why unemployment is above 8 percent today when it was below 6 percent just a few years ago. The Republican Party’s explanation doesn’t. In fact, long-run projections of the size of government are not very different today than they were before Obama became president, and the economy began tanking well before the Republicans were out of power.
Of course, individual Republicans don’t all share the views of the platform drafters. Among the economic advisers to Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee, Harvard University’s Greg Mankiw has argued for radically more aggressive monetary policy — up to and including permitting more inflation — while Columbia University’s Glenn Hubbard has called for mass refinancing of mortgages. (Among prominent Republican politicians, however, the most popular explanation for the financial crisis seems to be the erroneous belief that the Community Reinvestment Act, enacted in 1977, and other government efforts to promote homeownership in minority communities are responsible.)
Such differences actually underscore the value of a party platform, which takes the cacophonous argument that is a political party and forces its various components to agree on what problems they acknowledge and which solutions they’re willing to propose. So if you want to know what the Republican Party really thinks, as opposed to what the Republican Party believes will win votes, take some time this weekend to read the platform.
To read previous Ezra Klein columns, go to postpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ezraklein.