vision 2020

Intelligencer Chat: Does Beto’s Policy Vision Matter?

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Photo: Stephen Maturen/AFP/Getty Images

Since his entry into the presidential race, Beto O’Rourke has been criticized for being long on inspirational rhetoric and short on granular policy detail. (Though he did endorse a health-care plan yesterday.) Meanwhile, some candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, have been very clear on exactly what they want to do in office. How important is it for a candidate to present a full-bore policy platform at this point in the race — or, really, ever? Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Jonathan Chait, and Ed Kilgore discuss.

Jon: I think it’s important to display a command of the issues, or enough command to be able to make important decisions. I tend to believe policy outcomes will be determined by Congress, at least domestically, more than the president anyway.

Ed: Candidates differ in how much they need to do to demonstrate that command. Nobody much doubts Warren’s command of substance. Beto O’Rourke has more to prove.

With someone like Biden, fans trust him enough that they don’t need to see a detailed platform. But as rivals and journalists question his past positions, he may need to rebut doubts with new positions — as on criminal-justice reform, for example.

Jon: I agree that command of policy is in part a proxy for the question of whether he is qualified for the job given his thin résumé.

Ed: I don’t necessarily agree with Jon on the relative importance of presidents and legislators on policy. Presidential agendas often matter a great deal, depending on the president’s own approach to politics.

Ben: A president’s first priority tends to be the first priority of Congress.

Jon: That’s true, though Congress discarded Bill Clinton’s first priority (an economic stimulus).

Ed: In any event, at this particular moment in Democratic politics, taking positions on policy issues is also a way for activists and journalists to identify candidates ideologically. It’s not in the interest of a potential unity candidate like Beto to cater to that need.

Obama was strategically imprecise about certain policy issues in 2008, though again, few doubted his policy chops.

Jon: I actually think people did question Obama’s policy chops, and he had to overcome that.

Ed: I thought that was mostly later, when Republicans claimed he was a slave to the teleprompter.

Jon: He faced a lot of the same questions as O’Rourke — too young, vacuous cipher, inspirational but empty.

Ed: Either way, Obama definitely chose to present a trans-ideological appeal, running both to the left and right of HRC. I’m guessing Beto wants to do the same thing with his more ideologically distinct rivals.

Jon: Warren might attract voters who like the idea of policy specificity. That is a real Democratic constituency.

Ben: I fall into that category.

Jon: I certainly like it too.

Ed: I would also guess that Warren’s famously weak general-election numbers owe a lot to low-information voters, whose votes count just as much as those of folks like us. As they should.

Ben: Given the constraints of Congress, foreign policy is probably the area where the president has the most executive leeway. Isn’t it a little weird that we haven’t heard much about the Paris Climate Accord, or the Iran Deal? Instead, it’s all insanely difficult to pass health-care legislation, expanding the Supreme Court, and so forth.

Ed: Unless there’s a big and hot war going on, Americans always care more about domestic issues.

Jon: On Paris they all agree. Iran is more interesting — why haven’t they brought it up? I can’t remember hearing it a single time.

Ben: I know most care more about domestic stuff, but the complete absence of these issues is still notable.

Ed: I think it’s assumed any Democrat will be less reckless than Trump internationally. But the size and variety of the field could make specifics begin to matter. Bernie seems to want to do that. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where Beto or Kamala Harris is on foreign policy, other than Not With Trump.

Ben: Does the unification of the Democratic coalition on almost every issue make it easier than before for candidates to skate by without offering their own vision?

Ed: Maybe, though it also means there’s a market for specifics on the issues where they are less united, like health care, SCOTUS-packing, and the filibuster.

Jon: Great question!

Ben: Finally, someone appreciates my work.

Jon: I was just looking for a way to avoid answering it, but sure. No, actually, it is a really interesting question and it’s hard to say. I think the answer might be yes.

Ed: It was amazing how many crazy Republican positions didn’t get aired in the 2016 primaries because they all agreed on them, despite the huge field.

Jon: And then didn’t get aired because Trump was saying wild stuff every day.

Ed: Yeah. In addition, Trump was able to keep his intentions toward entitlement programs vague, because all the other Republicans wanted to hammer them. But nobody wanted to talk about it publicly. So Medicare/Medicaid became the Entitlements We Do Not Speak Of.

Ben: In conclusion, policy is a land of contrasts.

Ed: Haha. With high vistas and low valleys.

Intelligencer Chat: Does Beto’s Policy Vision Matter?