Not Enough To Say No

Jon Huntsman is a possible candidate for President in 2012? I’d not really thought about it, but I have to admit that he’s stepping up to say something in a real leadership capacity today. (People have to start getting his name right, for starters.) Politico calls him the fastest-rising Republican you’ve never heard of, and that’s about right because he seems to have kept a very low profile despite providing what appears to be pretty competent government to his state.

My point today is, he’s the guy who’s saying, “You can’t just say no. You can’t just obstruct or obfuscate.” Republicans need to actually come up with new ideas of their own. They need to show that, if given power back, they will actually do something that could potentially be beneficial with that power. Otherwise, they’ll be reduced to doing what Democrats did for a long time — waiting for the party in power to screw the pooch so badly that the public will grow disgusted with them and hand things off to anyone else on general principles.

In fact, even that’s a halfway unfair characterization of how the Democrats got their mojo back — they did say they were going to change and then end the war in Iraq. But it only worked because the public had grown so disgusted with the way the war was going that they were looking for anything, any strategy, anyone, who would effect a meaningful change.

This is why the Tea Party movement is not proving particularly useful or effective in terms of effecting political change (as many people, including me, predicted). It’s fun to say “no” all the time because it’s easy to criticize and it’s easy to get party unity and strong discipline on opposing someone. And it’s a valid political point to be against something. But when you’re just opposed to something, it sort of ends there. (And your message gets co-opted pretty easily.)

The trick is to channel that energy into being in favor of something. That’s how real change happens. Huntsman is dead on right about that. That’s something that Barack Obama did when he ran for President, and in retrospect it’s amazing how effective he was at it. He managed to advocate a whole constellation of policy ideas, at a very high level of generalization, by talking constantly about “hope” and “change.” Yes, I know it’s not like he only said those words on his campaign but he never really offered much by way of specifics. Really, he did little more than identify a set of problems and indicated that it would be a priority in his White House.

Now is the time when the rubber meets the road. Now is the time for specifics. Obama is still short on actual, substantive policy ideas. You want proof? Take a look at his budget report. I did yesterday and I was astonished. On the surface, it looks great. There’s all sorts of policy statements that sound good; it’s difficult to disagree with much of what’s there. But look closer. It’s about 170 pages long. Twelve pages are a “don’t blame me for the crappy economy” argument, which blithely ignores that as a Senator, Obama was part of the team that created the budgets the country’s been running on for the past two years and he personally did nothing to help. A sin of omission, to be sure.

Then, the next twenty-six pages are a wish list of policy changes that have apparently not been thought through all the way, dressed up as intellectual justifications for optimistic economic projections. After that, you get more policy wish lists, going department by department through the whole Federal government. You don’t get to any real numbers until you hit the appendix. Even then, the numbers are presented in a summary fashion, making it very difficult to figure out exactly what these departments are going to do with all this money. You’re better off using this third-party produced interactive budget toy to break down where money is going to go.

This creates an opportunity for Republicans. Obama needs actual ideas. Once you get past the wish lists, he’s really short on specifics. Repubicans, step up to the plate and plunk your ideas down on the table. Do it now, and argue for them now. Don’t “save” them for a rainy day when the Democrats have flubbed things up so badly you get back in power by default.

If you do this, one of two things will happen. First possibility — Obama and the Democrats will actually adopt the ideas you argue for. If this happens, you get credit as the originator of the idea and as someone who offers “bipartisan” solutions to problems. Second possibility — Obama and the Democrats will reject your ideas. If this happens, you get credit as having offered a solution to a problem, and you get to lambaste the Democrats as the real obstructionists. Either way, you win politically.

But you have to have actual ideas to offer, first. Here, let me help you — I’ve offered ten substantive ideas that are at least defensible from a policy standpoint and not already occupied as Democratic turf. They could make for bright points in a comprehensive Republican policy platform. Some young (that is, in his or her 50’s) Republican holding a Governor’s seat or a Senator’s seat or some other prominent elective office, to fashion that policy platform and combine that with his or her political machinery and charisma. Right now, the closest things to leaders that Republicans have are a talk show host who cheers on defections from the party, a former Congressman who’s been out of office for over ten years, and a floor leader in the House whose policy contributions so far consist of complaints of nausea. So the floor’s wide open, as far as I can see it.

But it’s not enough to look good and criticize the incumbent. You have to have some actual ideas in your head. Ah, but that’s always the hard part, isn’t it?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I am not familiar with Jon Huntsman, I pulled up his site to learn a little more. I think that you may be a little off on the tea parties as there were plenty of people involved actually just protesting the overall size/oppressiveness of the federal government. I can see how this may lend itself to not arguing for a concise alternative to this. In another sense, based on the sense of anger I saw, I think that will come in time. Sometimes a political movement is started by indignation and ‘no saying’. The 60’s counter-culture folks? I’m not quite sure as well that Obama is short on policy ideas – his is a theme (although not overtly expressed to the public), of transcending the historical size and scope of govermental interference into the American system and way of life. BTW I loved your 10 policy points, I will contact you in the future for linking permission to this, when my little blog gets bigger. Also, not listed on your points – decriminalization of drugs? I responded to your comment on my blog, check it out.LCR

  2. You may link here freely, provided that you give me authorship credit and link back.

  3. TL – it will be in the future, on a pertinent topic, I will make sure to credit your authorship and provide a link back.

  4. TL,I disagree that Obama is short on actual, substantive policy ideas. Use of his budget is justifiable yet short-sighted. And the AP article is suspect considering this quote, “It actually was him — and the other Democrats controlling Congress the previous two years — who shaped a budget so out of balance.”Your saying Obama is short on actual policy ideas at this point of his presidency is like the media grading his first 100 days ad nauseam. You really ought to watch The Daily Show more often.As for Huntsman, his health-care reform sounds very similar to McCain’s. And other issues sound similar to Romney’s. If all things remain equal with regard to issues, I would have to say Romney is a better choice if the Republicans ever choose a Mormon (unlikely). And choosing the governor of perhaps the most conservative state in the US doesn’t seem very forward thinking to me. Republicans need to take a look at people like Mark Kirk. They also need to take another look at people like Ron Paul and Charlie Crist if they plan on surviving the new American demographic.

  5. Additionally, Obama appears to be much more of a thinker than Bush. Although it would be very nice to be able to stand by one’s principles indefinitely, Obama appears to be genuinely willing to hear various opinions and perhaps he even critically questions his own political views. This may contribute to a little indecisiveness or what appears to be a temporary lack of “actual, substantive policy ideas. However, I would much rather have that type of thinker in the White House.

  6. Agreed on that last point, Thomas — Obama does seem to really consider points of view other than, and even opposed to, his own. I like that very much whether or not he takes those other points of view into consideration in sculpting his policies; at least we know we’ve been heard.

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