“How Specific is Specific?” Or “Do Campaign Promises Matter?”

Senator John McCain and Senator Hillary Clinton have launched a non-coordinated attack on Senator Barack Obama. Both Senators McCain and Clinton attack Senator Obama for being eloquent. This is, apparently, a grave  weakness in a candidate. Fortunately, the flaw was overlooked in the 1940s and 1960s when FDR and JFK were in office. In the new millennium, however, being able to motivate and inspire voters is something politicians are expected to avoid. Instead, candidates must offer specific solutions to as many problems as possible.The more dully, the better.

The attacks on Senator Obama aren’t subtle. Senator McCain, while declaring victory in Republican Wisconsin primary proclaimed,  “I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change.” I’d rather he fight every moment of every day for justice or the defeat of terrorists, but at least he’s proving he’s a fighter. His target, the individual of deceiving eloquence, although unnamed is obviously Senator Obama. There were few, even in Senator Clinton’s own campaign, who thought Senator McCain might be referring to her.

At nearly the same time, Senator Clinton, while not declaring victory in the Democratic Wisconsin primary (actually, while pretending there was no such thing as Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers, or cheese), warned voters that this election is “… about picking a president who relies not just on words, but on work, hard work, to get America back to work. Someone who’s not just in the speeches business.” No one in the audience thought the target of her ire was Senator McCain. There were, however, several motivational speakers listening — including former members of the Clinton Administration — who were slightly miffed at her denigrating the “speeches business.”

In addition to being excessively motivation, the criticism of Senator Obama is that he’s insufficiently specific about his solutions for the challenges facing the United States. For Senator Clinton, this fault has become central to her new campaign theme: he’s for change; she’s for solutions. Yet, his web site is just as wonky as hers. OK, nearly as wonky. He’s got specifics on health care, job creation, education, Iraq and a raft of other issues. How specific does he have to be to satisfy Senators Clinton and McCain? What is the specific standard for specificity?

Maybe someone at Fox or CNN could add up how many points there are in each of the candidate’s multi-point plans — the most points win. Or, they could print out and stack each candidate’s policy papers — the tallest pile gets a gold star.

The attacks on Senator Obama are not only silly, they’re meaningless. Yes, there are issues we know the new president will face on Senator Clinton’s oft cited “day one” in the Oval Office. But what really tests a president are the unanticipated issues. For President Kennedy it was the Bay of Pigs and the October Missile Crisis. For President Johnson it was the unexpected developments in Viet Nam. For President Nixon it was the opportunity to visit China. For President Carter it was the taking of hostages in Iran while for President Reagan it was the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. For the first President Bush is was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and for the first, and maybe only, President Carter it was the Republican takeover of Congress. For the second President Bush it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

These weren’t campaign issues. These weren’t debated by the candidates. There were no election year policy papers for the presidents to rely on. What makes a president’s legacy is the stuff that just happens. How they deal with it is based, in part, on their prior experience. How successfully they deal with it depends, in part, on their ability to rally people behind a common cause.

What’s especially ironic about all this focus on substance is the stated willingness of all three presidential candidats to compromise on specifics. Each talks about reaching across party lines to create important public policy. That means they’re willing to trade away some items (let’s call them specifics) in their own plans. That, after all, is what happens when you compromise: everyone gets something; everyone gives up something. Consensus doesn’t mean “my way or the highway” it means finding “our way.”

And that, in turn, means the specifics of which Senator Clinton is so proud and Senator McCain is so demanding (and Senator Obama actually has), don’t matter all that much. They’re more bargaining chips than campaign promises.

Voters seem to get this. Senator Clinton has spent time, money and surrogates attacking Senator Obama for lacking specifics and being too eloquent. Yet he keeps winning primaries. Senator McCain is now jumping on the anti-eloquence bandwagon. I doubt if it will work much better for him.

If they don’t find something else to talk about soon, they’re both going to wind up just listening to what promises to be a very eloquent inauguration address come January 20, 2009.

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