The seeds of a candidate's demise can often be found in the details of his own policies. As George W. Bush discovered last week, there is no surer way to invite a scathing attack than to spell out in detail what you plan to do. And Bush didn't even do that, really. When he committed himself to partly privatizing Social Security, he blurred the details but committed heresy. Bush's plan, Gore warned grimly, would "put the retirement income of American workers at risk."
By revealing some of his thoughts on Social Security reform, Bush succumbed to the journalists and voters who clamor for specificity. For the Texas Governor, who has been caricatured as an intellectual lightweight, there's a special imperative to provide detail. It's seen as proof of gravitas. But specificity kills. Just ask Bill Bradley. He was running strong until he laid out a detailed health plan. Gore cherry-picked details and used them to paint the former Senator as both a spendthrift crazy and a Medicaid-destroying ogre.
In some ways, Bush's quandary may be even worse: he has said enough about privatizing Social Security to trigger the usual Democratic alarms, but by withholding many details of how he would do it--what amount, for instance, of one's Social Security withholding could be invested in the stock-and-bond markets--he has allowed Gore to make the risible accusation that Bush is keeping his plans a "secret." Whether he's courageous or foolhardy, Bush is bucking a trend. Ever since Bill and Hillary Clinton served up more than 1,000 pages of health-care-reform proposals for their opponents to pick apart in 1993, pols have erred on the side of vagueness (not that this was an entirely undiscovered path to political success). In 1994 Newt Gingrich used poll-tested platitudes to sweep Republicans into power. A year later, when Gingrich got down to the prosaic details of governing, like offering specific Medicare-spending controls, the public--egged on by Clinton--rebelled. The lesson: be vague. There's a corollary: if you must be specific, then be inoffensive. That's partly how Clinton won re-election. He avoided thornbushes like Social Security and instead put forward detailed but uncontroversial notions such as expanding food-safety inspections and providing cell phones to neighborhood-watch groups. No one said these were bad ideas, which was exactly the point. They were without risk.
When platitudes replace precision, it seems, everyone loses. The op-ed crowd, of course, cries foul. Voters are deprived of an informed choice. The real victim, ironically, is the candidate, who is denied a mandate. Ronald Reagan fuzzed many details when he ran for President; and he was a tad optimistic about being able to slash taxes and raise defense spending and balance the budget at the same time. But he did earn a mandate for lowering tax rates. That's one reason he was able to persuade Democrats in Congress to pass his supply-side cuts. Portraying himself as more like Reagan than his father, Bush is after the mandate mantle. That may prove fatal; but if he wins, it will prove empowering.
--By James Carney/Washington