E. J. Dionne

Are Nuts and Bolts the Only Things Needed to Build a Coalition?

E.J. Dionne makes the argument that Republicans are too abstract.

Their rhetoric is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems – how to improve our health care, education and transportation systems, or how to create more middle-class jobs.

Instead, we hear about things we can’t touch or see or feel, and about highly general principles divorced from their impact on everyday life.

Their passion is not for what government should or shouldn’t do but for "smaller government" as a moral imperative. During the campaign, they put out a nice round $100 billion in spending cuts from which they’re now backing away. It is far easier to float a big number than to describe reductions for student loans, bridges, national parks or medical research.

The problem is that Democrats too often ignore principles and instead get wonkish. Such an approach assumes voters make rational decisions based on specific policies. They don’t. Why else would lower middle class people, especially men, vote for the party that is set on destroying it? Instead those hurt most by Republican economic policies vote for GOPers because they like their principles.

Of course, they may like Democratic principles, too, but Democrats spend little time articulating them and instead let the Republicans define those principles for them. The same is true for overall messages. During the time I worked with Virginia politicians, I found far too many unconcerned with delivering overarching messages and much more concerned with budgets for direct mail.

Dionne also errs when he suggests that “men aren’t angels, but the professors in Congress seem to believe that another great abstraction, ‘the free market,’ can obviate the need for messy and complicated statutes.” The Democrats problem is that they have constantly offered “messy and complicated statues” that are seen by voters as examples of Congressional mischief and malfeasance. Laws, as Philip Howard has argued, are far too complicated. They should be more concise and set out principles and overarching goals and leave the details to those carrying them out. That, of course, are the hate “government bureaucrats.,” who are left to follow arcane and specific rules embodied in laws and necessarily eschew commonsense.

Dionne, however, has one thing right, as he continues his assault on the media.

If journalism in a democracy is about anything, it is about bringing the expansive rhetoric of politicians down to earth and holding them accountable for how their ideas translate into policies that affect actual human beings.

It may be easier to report windy speeches about "liberty" and "entrepreneurship" than to do the grubby work of examining budgets, regulations, programs and economic consequences. But journalists surely want to be more than stenographers.

One wonders if they really do.