In “The No Agenda Myth” Mr. Keller says we should ignore the jaded pundits. If you don’t know what to expect from the presidential candidates, you haven’t been paying attention. Or maybe just aggressively, willfully ignorant… Prof. Krugman, in “Medicaid on the Ballot,” says this much is clear about a Romney presidency: Medicaid, an important and successful piece of the health care system, would face savage cuts. Of course it will. We’ve got to get those people to stop being dependent… Here’s Mr. Keller:
I feel a rising tide of ennui. America is in the last, numbing days of an excruciating slog to Election Day and some of my tribe — the jaded scribes, the blogging sages and caffeinated cable chatterers — have run out of patience, poor babies. Searching for the source of their malaise, beyond the dubious science of the polls and the mean spirits of the campaigns and the emptiness of the slogans and our own limited attention spans, those of my ilk have come up with this high-minded diagnosis: the candidates have No Agenda.
They say: “It’s a good time to follow the candidates if you like elections about nothing.” And: “Obama’s greatest weakness is that his proposals for the future are nonexistent.” And: “The president did not lay out a second-term agenda … And that is where he is the weakest.” And: “People say, I want to vote for him, but he hasn’t told me what he’s going to do.” And, by the way: “You don’t get that from Mitt Romney, either.” I’ve heard it countless times and, truth be told, probably said it myself once or twice. No Agenda!
When President Obama’s campaign last week issued a 20-page booklet of its intentions, it was dismissed in my own newspaper for containing “no new proposals,” and in The Wall Street Journal as a “glossy” pitch to critics who say “Mr. Obama hasn’t fully explained what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.” Romney has made the ostensible lack of an Obama agenda the heart of his closing argument. That’s shrewd politics. The No Agenda meme works nicely for Romney. If Obama has no agenda then he is, by default, the candidate of the status quo, and the status quo is a painfully slow recovery, a hovering debt crisis and a worrisome world. Obama’s retort is that Romney is trying to hide his agenda — dressing a pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But Romney, with or without an agenda, is the candidate who has not presided over a time of national anxiety, and therefore he is the de facto candidate of change. Or as the new slogan has it, “Big Change.”
Let us breathe deeply and clear our minds.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons voters (and the media) should be disenchanted by the candidates and the campaign, but the idea that we’ll be voting in the dark is not one of them. Yes, the candidates have been reluctant to publish some unpleasant details of their policies. [See footnote 1] Most presidential candidates in modern times don’t, for the understandable reason that details can be cherry-picked for attack ads. Yes, identifying Romney’s plan requires some guesswork, because he has been at various times all things to all voters. And yes, Obama has been short on grand man-to-the-moon promises and on the pulse-quickening oratory our weary commentariat requires. He sometimes seems to have misread Mario Cuomo’s famous guidance: he governs in prose and campaigns in prose.
And yet, can we really say we don’t know what to expect from these two men?
With Obama, we can anticipate that the unfinished business of universal health care and the re-regulation of the Wall Street casino will be finished. We can expect investments in education, infrastructure and innovation, followed by a gradual, balanced attack on deficits that includes higher taxes on the wealthiest. (And this time he will have a hefty stick to apply to a recalcitrant Congress: the fiscal cliff, which forces Congress to compromise or share the blame for the ensuing havoc.) We can expect the Pentagon, after winding down two wars, to bank a peace dividend. If Obama is re-elected, especially if he is elected with substantial Latino support, we can expect that he will try to deliver on his postponed promise of comprehensive immigration reform. The fact that these objectives represent a continuation of his first term does not mean he is aiming low. These are ambitious goals.
If Romney is elected, there will be tension between his inner pragmatist and the stubborn extremists in his own party, but we can fairly expect a rollback of universal health care in favor of the rough marketplace, and at least a partial dismantling of regulations on banks, extractive industries and whatever other industries squeal about job-killing red tape. We can expect a lowering of the safety net, especially a retrenchment of Medicaid and a marketization of Medicare. His deficit plan will rely on draconian spending cuts and on the supply-side superstition that tax cuts automatically produce growth. Romney will be somewhat more enthusiastic about oil and coal, and will put less faith in renewables. The military will not want. You can expect another Scalia or two on the Supreme Court, the defunding of Planned Parenthood and a social agenda aimed at appeasing the evangelical base, mainly by letting the states decide. On foreign policy Romney has gravitated toward Obama’s caution, and I tend to believe him, if only because whoever is president will have his hands too full at home to embark on a war in Iran or Syria as long as it is avoidable. [See footnote 2]
There’s more, but you get the idea. Two agendas; compare and contrast.
The second thing to say is that an “agenda” is at best a rough guide to what a president will do, given the constraints imposed by Congress, curveballs pitched by fate, and what presidents learn on the job. Presidents surprise you, and surprise themselves. Obama really meant to close Guantánamo; he lost that one. I think he intended to reform immigration until other priorities took his energy. Libya was certainly not high on his 2008 agenda.
And that is why — third point — we don’t elect agendas, we don’t elect platforms, we don’t even elect parties to the presidency. This is not a referendum or a ballot initiative. Indeed, we are skeptical of agendas. If either candidate had announced in his final weeks some grandiose initiative of the kind the pundits prescribe, we’d have mocked it as October-surprise gimmickry, a sign of desperation. We elect the human being we trust to have our best interests in mind. We choose a direction, a disposition, a set of instincts and convictions and competencies.
When voters tell pundits, and pundits tell us, that they are frustrated that the candidates lack an agenda, they are just saying they wish we could foretell the future. If we could do that, a lot of pundits would be out of business.
Footnote 1: The most familiar example of withholding details, of course, is Romney’s refusal to identify which tax breaks he would eliminate to offset the revenues lost by reducing income tax rates. He knows perfectly well that tax deductions for things like home mortgages and charitable donations are popular and well defended by lobbyists. But lost in that whole discussion was one of the more interesting ideas of the campaign season.
Romney said that rather than abolish popular tax breaks, he would cap deductions at a fixed amount; at various times he tossed out $17,000, $25,000 and $50,000 as possible limits.
The inescapable problem with Romney’s plan, as the impartial Tax Policy Center calculated, is that the math doesn’t work. Even if you eliminate all personal deductions, you recoup less than half of the $4 trillion to $5 trillion cost of his plan to lower income tax rates by 20 percent. Capping deductions recoups even less.
But that doesn’t mean capping deductions is a bad idea. It is a lot easier than taking on the constituencies and lobbyists defending each specific tax break. It’s simple, politically doable and highly progressive. In short, as the Tax Policy Center’s Roberton Williams and Howard Gleckman have explained on the center’s blog, while it doesn’t raise the amount Romney needs to make his math work, it’s an excellent way to raise revenues. Obama should think about grabbing it.
Footnote 2: If I had to bet which candidate was more likely to launch airstrikes against Iran or to up the military ante in Syria, I’d be inclined to give a slight edge to Obama. He has already crossed the daunting psychological threshold of dispensing death: surge troops, drone strikes, the Bin Laden raid. Romney talks tough, but has never had to make the hard decision to use force, which is easier said than done.
I think he’s wrong in footnote 2. Republicans love them some war. Here’s Prof. Krugman:
There’s a lot we don’t know about what Mitt Romney would do if he won. He refuses to say which tax loopholes he would close to make up for $5 trillion in tax cuts; his economic “plan” is an empty shell.
But one thing is clear: If he wins, Medicaid — which now covers more than 50 million Americans, and which President Obama would expand further as part of his health reform — will face savage cuts. Estimates suggest that a Romney victory would deny health insurance to about 45 million people who would have coverage if he lost, with two-thirds of that difference due to the assault on Medicaid.
So this election is, to an important degree, really about Medicaid. And this, in turn, means that you need to know something more about the program.
For while Medicaid is generally viewed as health care for the nonelderly poor, that’s only part of the story. And focusing solely on who Medicaid covers can obscure an equally important fact: Medicaid has been more successful at controlling costs than any other major part of the nation’s health care system.
So, about coverage: most Medicaid beneficiaries are indeed relatively young (because older people are covered by Medicare) and relatively poor (because eligibility for Medicaid, unlike Medicare, is determined by need). But more than nine million Americans benefit from both Medicare and Medicaid, and elderly or disabled beneficiaries account for the majority of Medicaid’s costs. And contrary to what you may have heard, the great majority of Medicaid beneficiaries are in working families.
For those who get coverage through the program, Medicaid is a much-needed form of financial aid. It is also, quite literally, a lifesaver. Mr. Romney has said that a lack of health insurance doesn’t kill people in America; oh yes, it does, and states that expand Medicaid coverage show striking drops in mortality.
So Medicaid does a vast amount of good. But at what cost? There’s a widespread perception, gleefully fed by right-wing politicians and propagandists, that Medicaid has “runaway” costs. But the truth is just the opposite. While costs grew rapidly in 2009-10, as a depressed economy made more Americans eligible for the program, the longer-term reality is that Medicaid is significantly better at controlling costs than the rest of our health care system.
How much better? According to the best available estimates, the average cost of health care for adult Medicaid recipients is about 20 percent less than it would be if they had private insurance. The gap for children is even larger.
And the gap has been widening over time: Medicaid costs have consistently risen a bit less rapidly than Medicare costs, and much less rapidly than premiums on private insurance.
How does Medicaid achieve these lower costs? Partly by having much lower administrative costs than private insurers. It’s always worth remembering that when it comes to health care, it’s the private sector, not government programs, that suffers from stifling, costly bureaucracy.
Also, Medicaid is much more effective at bargaining with the medical-industrial complex.
Consider, for example, drug prices. Last year a government study compared the prices that Medicaid paid for brand-name drugs with those paid by Medicare Part D — also a government program, but one run through private insurance companies, and explicitly forbidden from using its power in the market to bargain for lower prices. The conclusion: Medicaid pays almost a third less on average. That’s a lot of money.
Is Medicaid perfect? Of course not. Most notably, the hard bargain it drives with health providers means that quite a few doctors are reluctant to see Medicaid patients. Yet given the problems facing American health care — sharply rising costs and declining private-sector coverage — Medicaid has to be regarded as a highly successful program. It provides good if not great coverage to tens of millions of people who would otherwise be left out in the cold, and as I said, it does much right to keep costs down.
By any reasonable standard, this is a program that should be expanded, not slashed — and a major expansion of Medicaid is part of the Affordable Care Act.
Why, then, are Republicans so determined to do the reverse, and kill this success story? You know the answers. Partly it’s their general hostility to anything that helps the 47 percent — those Americans whom they consider moochers who need to be taught self-reliance. Partly it’s the fact that Medicaid’s success is a reproach to their antigovernment ideology.
The question — and it’s a question the American people will answer very soon — is whether they’ll get to indulge these prejudices at the expense of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.
I fear that Prof. Krugman has neglected to factor in the IGMFY quotient.