Policies, Not Political Pablum

With the first debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates only days away, we Americans need to shake off our conditioning and demand better than empty platitudes from our politicians. We have been raised on political pablum. When we ask politicians questions about policy, often they respond, at best, with generic, placating rhetoric designed to sooth, while not ever really offering any actual solutions. They expect us not to notice and move along. We should not.

To some degree, one can expect such political emptiness. For example, we are more than a year away from the 2020 election. Candidates still have time to work out some of their positions and flesh out policy specifics, especially for newer public concerns. However, other problems have been with us for so long, that it is ridiculous at this point to not have given some thought beyond “we all need to work together” as to how the problem is going to be fixed. Access to affordable healthcare has been an ongoing issue well prior to the Obama administration. Growing income inequality, inadequate immigration policies, climate change, prejudice, and rural community decline have hung over the heads of Americans and presidential candidates for decades. We have talked about trade and foreign policy for quite some time. Candidates have no excuse for vague answers on these issues.

And yet, many of the 2020 primary candidates still remain vague on key policy. Joe Biden’s campaign website, for example, describes a vision of rebuilding the middle class, equality for all, and fighting back against abuses of power. Sounds great, but what does it mean and how do we do it? Despite having been in the federal political arena in which these issues have swirled for decades, Biden remains light on many of the details. Joe Biden’s campaign recites a bunch of generic policy mumbo-jumbo to rebuild America’s middle class, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of income inequality, only offers vaguely that we need stronger labor laws and to revise the tax code.

Elsewhere on the same page, Biden’s site talks about restoring the basic bargain in this country where hard work results in a share of the prosperity that hard work creates. The website states, “The American middle class built this country. Yet today, CEOs and Wall Street are putting profits over workers, plain and simple. It’s wrong. There used to be a basic bargain in this country that when you work hard, you were able to share in the prosperity your work helped create. It’s time to restore the dignity of work and give workers back the power to earn what they’re worth.” To paraphrase, we restore the bargain by restoring the bargain. Not very actionable advice, is it?

As Americans feel overwhelmed by numerous crises and crippling political divisiveness, it is not surprising for Democratic candidates such as Seth Moulton or Pete Buttigieg to suggest we need a new approach or direction. However, on many issues America is far past the point of starting a conversation and feeling out a new approach. We’ve known for years that climate change was coming and that it would have a big impact. Now it is here, and we no longer have time to still be trying to hash out a plan. We need solutions now. On some issues, it is fine for the candidate to propose a broad solution and admit that details need to be hammered out. However, having no position other than “we need a new approach” is simply not good enough. Americans deserve better.

Biden’s website proposes vague fixes to Trump’s undermining of American foreign policy by renewing our American values, recommitting to our allies, and using our military power responsibly. At best, Biden’s campaign is offering us the “do the opposite of Trump” solution. When Trump came into office, he did the same. He unwound Obama-era policies and then did the opposite. Merely reversing Trump just takes us back to the 2016 status quo while doing nothing to fill the holes Trump has dug since then. We desperately need to move beyond that to repair what Trump has damaged, address the issues even Obama failed to advance, and respond to the challenges of the present day.

Biden and other candidates’ answers to policy questions need to go beyond “Trump bad”, “We need a new approach,” or “We need to work together.” Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and a few other candidates have offered constructive solutions. As the debate phase of the 2020 election kicks off, the rest need to do so as well.

To quote from the film The American President, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” Serious candidates need to talk about serious solutions. If they can’t, we should feel free to tell them, “Your fifteen minutes are up.”

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