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Skirting the Specifics


Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes a speech to Kansas farmers during his 1932 campaign for president.

In the wake of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have scrambled to develop effective responses. Even as they take pot shots at each other, both nominees have weathered criticism from the punditocracy for not advancing specific blueprints for stabilizing Wall Street. Even Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” piled on, mocking the presidential contenders’ bland statements as a “generic off.”

Scurrying to offer a plan, McCain called for the establishment of a high-level bipartisan commission. Obama, meanwhile, ostentatiously met with his top economic advisers in Coral Gables, Fla., while asking voters to review the detailed economic proposals on his campaign website.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

These required displays of seriousness are a familiar, and ludicrous, feature of contemporary U.S. politics. In the American system of government, a new president cannot simply enact his program — even if his party controls both houses of Congress. Consider the fate of President Bill Clinton’s 1993 health-care reform, or President George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security privatization. In fact, campaign plans almost never form the basis for actual policy.

History demonstrates that detailed responses to complex, evolving crises are not only disposable rhetoric — they are also bad politics. Successful campaigns avoid tying themselves down. Specificity only creates targets for the opposition and makes governing after Election Day that much more difficult.

Just look back to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Facing the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, Roosevelt published no plans to combat the Great Depression. Throughout the campaign, FDR remained studiously bland — offering rousing calls for change with little in the way of detail. In a commencement address at Oglethorpe University, Roosevelt criticized incumbent President Herbert Hoover’s inadequacies with an unspecified commitment to “bold, persistent experimentation.”

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention — where Roosevelt initiated the tradition of the candidate accepting his party’s nomination in person — he made an even vaguer promise of a “New Deal for the American people.”

The few times FDR revealed actual plans during the campaign, he made modest, reassuring pledges to restore sound government finances. The most specific he got was a promise, made at a rally in Pittsburgh, to balance the federal budget and cut “government operations” by 25 percent.

Of course, he pursued no such thing as president, taking unprecedented steps to combat the Depression. But when President Roosevelt planned a return trip to western Pennsylvania, his staff remembered that earlier pledge.

In one version of a famous story (sources differ), a young presidential speechwriter, Samuel Rosenman, entered the Oval Office puzzled about how Roosevelt could explain his broken campaign promise, should it come up. Did the president want to say he is misquoted? Did he want to say he had never said that? Roosevelt flashed his trademark smile, and replied, “I will deny I was ever in Pittsburgh.”

Two decades later, Dwight D. Eisenhower trod even more carefully. Indeed, Americans knew so little known about the former World War II commander’s plans for governing the country that even his party affiliation had been in doubt. Four years before he became the Republican nominee for president, many prominent Democrats — including FDR’s own son — had tried to draft him as their party’s standard-bearer.

Much like today, in 1952 the United States found itself with a deeply unpopular president mired in a frustrating foreign war. Resolving the stalemate in Korea was the year’s most important issue. But extricating U.S. troops from Korea presented complex diplomatic, military and political challenges.

Eisenhower wanted to exude confidence that he could resolve the conflict without laying out specific plans that his opposition could criticize, or that the international community might later regard as commitments. Instead, the former five-star general lambasted the idea that he should reveal his plans. Any such pledge, he suggested, “would brand its speaker as a deceiver.” Instead, Eisenhower promised that, if elected, he would go to Korea personally, hinting that he could end the war without indicating when or how.

In 1968, with the help of a story-starved reporter, Richard M. Nixon raised the art of vague promises to a new level. Taking a leaf out of Eisenhower’s book, Ike’s one-time running mate dodged most questions about the continuing conflict in Southeast Asia. “New leadership,” Nixon blandly repeated, “will end the war in Vietnam.”

By neglecting to reveal precise steps to stop the fighting, Nixon simultaneously appealed to “doves” seeking an early end to the war without renouncing the victory staunchly desired by “hawks.” Nixon’s shrewdness, however, did aggravate the traveling press. So much so that one journalist repackaged the candidate’s generic brief for new leadership as a “secret plan to end the war.”

Though Nixon never used those words, the idea stuck. Many voters assumed that Nixon had a quick exit strategy up his sleeve. It turned out that Nixon did have a secret plan of sorts — not to end the war, but to torpedo President Lyndon B. Johnson’s peace negotiations and ensure that no settlement could be reached before Election Day.

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/carter-waving.jpgPresident Jimmy Carter at the 1976 Democratic Convention (Library of Congress)

On the other hand, detailed plans along the lines that today’s pundits are calling for can make it difficult to win an election and even harder to govern after Election Day. In 1976, Jimmy Carter campaigned with an earnestness and specificity that foreshadowed today’s era of Internet-posted briefing papers.

Carter committed himself to a wide range of ambitious plans: tax reform, universal voter registration, “a nationwide comprehensive health program for all our people,” a balanced budget by 1980 and energy independence.This agenda created unreasonable expectations; annoyed his own party’s congressional leaders, and earned him a reputation as a waffler when he shifted gears in response to changing conditions. Above all, it made Carter a sitting duck for opposition attacks.

Monday, the presidential candidates renewed the battle of the plans. Obama mocked McCain’s call for a commission as an empty proposal, while McCain faulted the Illinois senator for playing politics with the financial crisis without offering detailed proposals to stabilize Wall Street.

The winner of this election, and the man likeliest to handle the crisis most effectively as president, might avoid such specificity. The experiences of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Carter suggest that Americans should beware the man with a plan.

  • Bruce J. Schulman holds the Huntington Chair in American History at Boston University. H**is latest book, co-edited with Julian E. Zelizer, is “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.” He is the author of* “The ’70s: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics” and “Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism.” **

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