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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Those Wonky Democrats

In joining the widespread mockery towards Tim Pawlenty’s Big Economic Speech in Chicago yesterday, TNR’s Jonathan Cohn makes an interesting comparative point.

The contrast to the environment for Democrats seeking the presidency is fairly stunning. At this point four years ago, John Edwards and Barack Obama had put out detailed health care plans that had realistic assumptions, vetted by economists and health care experts, and actually looked pretty similar to what eventually became the Affordable Care act. Hillary Clinton would soon do the same. By the time the primary season was over, all three had also put out detailed plans on the economy and foreign policy.
They were running for president and so, no, they didn’t tell every “hard truth.” Their numbers didn’t always add up and some of their boasts turned out not be true. But, by and large, Democratic domestic policy proposals were both more detailed and more realistic than anything we’re seeing from the Republicans, partly because Democrats knew analysts would demand rigor and partly because they understood these plans could become templates for actual governing.

The notable wonkery of the 2008 Democratic candidates was quickly forgotten. In 2009, many Beltway pundits quickly joined conservative complaints that Barack Obama was “overreaching” on grounds that he was elected on a platform that didn’t extend much beyond a pledge to work with Republicans. He surely didn’t have any mandate to pursue health care reform, a subject on which even relatively small differences between the Democratic contenders were endlessly aired in debates, press releases, and even in paid campaign ads. Perhaps T-Paw is counting on a similar amnesia to afflict the commentariat if he is elected president.
But the threshold for being taken seriously on policy issues is definitely a lot lower for Republicans, if only because there are only so many ways you can say you want to cut high-end taxes and ravage the social safety net. Even the title Pawlenty is giving his economic program–“The Better Deal”–sounds like it was pulled out of the air ten minutes before he made his speech. By contrast, Democratic wonkiness seems almost quaint in its concern for facts and details.

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