Presidential Politics Shouldn’t Be About the Minutiae of Policy

We need fewer policy specifics in Presidential politics, not more.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Some months ago (nearly a year, my God), former South Bend, Ind. Mayor and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg provoked some backlash when he responded to a question about his lack of rigorous policy proposals at a CNN town hall with this:

“We'll continue to roll out specific policy proposals too, but I also think it's important that we not drown people in minutiae before we've vindicated the values that animate our policies. Because as Democrats, this is a habit that we have: we go right to the policy proposals, and we expect people to be able to figure out what our values must be from them.”

The comment was widely taken, probably correctly, as a shot at fellow contender Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose unofficial campaign slogan, “She’s got a plan for that,” was particularly popular among her supporters last spring and summer. To many, Buttigieg’s answer epitomized not only the difference between his platitudinous campaign and her wonky, thorough, and policy-driven campaign, but also the nature of his campaign more broadly: that in a field full of heavily qualified statespeople like Warren, Buttigieg is a two-term mayor from a small town running on empty esoterica and arrogance boosted by white male privilege.

There’s a lot to that criticism, though since that town hall, Buttigieg has made good on his promise to roll out more specifics. When Warren echoed her supporters by saying Buttigieg’s plan is “not a plan. It's a PowerPoint” at the most recent debate in Nevada, it carried less weight than it would have 10 months ago; Buttigieg responded by saying that he was “more of a Microsoft Word guy,” and indeed, his website now sports 101 PDF pages worth of health policy.

But none of that really matters, because Buttigieg was in the right place from the outset: supporting a public option for health insurance in broad strokes. Regardless of your opinion on the public option, that sort of broad-strokes, non-wonky policy vision is not only not worse than thorough wonkiness—in Presidential politics, but also better.

The reasons for this are twofold. One, the President doesn’t actually make domestic policy. The Presidency is an executive, not a legislative role. The President is important, of course—they exercise bully pulpit influence and shape foreign policy—but at the end of the day, it is Congress that writes and votes on legislation. The President only has their signature and a veto, the latter of which isn’t even line-item. This is why we should spend the hours of live television we use for Presidential debates on military and other foreign policy questions and stage other televised debates between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the nitty-gritty of domestic legislation.

Two, the President shouldn’t make domestic policy. The issue extends beyond the “is” side of the is-ought problem. The constitutional system has its flaws, but the separation of legislative authority from executive authority is not one of them. In fact, my own previous paragraph is somewhat undermined by the fact that in modern history, the President has taken on increasing power in the policymaking process. There’s a reason that the Affordable Care Act was nicknamed Obamacare, and it’s not (just) that conservatives wanted to associate it with Obama to hurt its popularity.

One driver of this trend has been a Presidential politics that rewards candidates in proportion to the ambition of their proposals and punishes moderation in scope if not in ideology. Warren made that explicit when she attacked since-departed candidate Md. Congressman John Delaney for his limited platform with: “I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for.” Politicians, contrary to popular canard, do care about their promises and generally at least try to keep them.

The subordination of Congress to the President has resulted in an irresponsible, unaccountable, and impotent Congress, one which recently enjoyed its highest approval rating in a decade at all of 24 percent and in which representatives are considered employees of (or professional resistors to) the President first and legislators second. The main task of Pelosi’s House has been to impeach and otherwise fight President Donald Trump; the main task of McConnell’s Senate has been to defend him. To see how much Congress’s role has come to be defined by the President, look no further than Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s disinvitation to the Conservative Political Action Conference after he voted to remove Trump or Buttigieg’s own condemnation of Presidential candidate Minn. Sen. Amy Klobuchar for daring to vote to confirm just over a third of Trump’s judicial nominees.

I don’t want to come across as suggesting that both sides are equally at fault here. While I disagree strongly with Buttigieg’s snipe at Klobuchar, I think House Democrats have acted correctly since the 2018 midterms, in light of McConnell’s absolute opposition to any of their legislation. Nor do I have any wish to dismiss any individual members of Congress, many of whom are patriots trying to serve their country. Though pieces of it can be attributed to individual actors, the issue is more systemic than anything else. And regardless of to whom the fault for it can be traced back, it is untenable and undesirable.

I’m tempted to make an appeal to the framers of the Constitution, to point out that the framers of the document put Article II, which outlines the President’s duties, after Article I, which outlines Congress’s, for a reason, that they envisioned an executive orders of magnitude less powerful than the one we have today. But in truth, I’m not calling for a return to founding values. I like the expanded Presidency, and I like the fact that the President, one of only two nationally elected officials (the other being the Vice-President) is not only a major player in, but also the protagonist of national politics.

But I don’t want them to define national politics, and that’s where we are now. The President should use their bully pulpit to push for a real policy vision, and it makes sense for them to shape the ideology of their party (though the ideology of a party should not simply be whatever its President thinks. See also: the Republican Party on trade). But the President shouldn’t be the policymaker-in-chief, and that’s where “I have a plan for that” gets you.

Writing this represents, for me, a change of heart. I came out of 2016 deeply disappointed not only by the outcome of the election, but also by the stupidity of the politics that it represented. I hoped that in 2020, we would be able to have a wonky, intelligent policy conversation, at least in the Democratic primary. I spent the first several months of Warren’s campaign incredibly excited about the wonkiness of her policy, even though much of it was to my left.

And her wonkiness still appeals to me strongly (though it is undermined by her tendency to dismiss viewpoints and concerns from her right as empty triangulation and “Republican talking points”). But that I find it personally appealing does not mean it makes for a good and healthy Presidential politics.

The hours of debating healthcare that have characterized this cycle’s Democratic debates are not reflective of the political system we actually live in, and to the extent that they are, they are toxic. Presidential politics should focus on three things: general vision (this can and should express itself in some broad policy proposals. A page on Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It is fine; 101 of them is not.), foreign policy (debating the specifics of this would do a far better job at weeding out non-serious candidates where it really matters), and executive regulation (Warren would do particularly well on this last front; the best parts of her many plans are those that describe what she would direct executive agencies to do).