Voters Don’t Want Specifics

Bold ideas move people. Big ideas seduce them. And nothing crushes passion like a decimal point.

Few things get politicians into more trouble than offering voters too many details. Yet every election cycle, pundits of all denominations join to lament the fact that candidates (mostly Mitt Romney) aren’t putting enough meat on their platitudes. Let’s be honest; in politics, details can equal disaster.

Whereas wonks and columnists might eat up charts and white papers, the electorate has better things to do — most notably any activity not entailing looking at a chart or reading a white paper. That is why we function under a representative democracy rather than under a 300 million-person bull session. Voters, busy with real life, operate under the assumption that the people they send to Washington own calculators, watched enough “Schoolhouse Rock” to know how a bill becomes a law and, in some broad sense, share their worldview.

Sometimes political parties forget that fact. House Speaker John Boehner recently quipped that the GOP platform (now more than 32,000 words) should be housed on a single page. He didn’t go far enough. The Republican platform should be distilled into its purest form, which, someone once noted, would read: “Get off my lawn.”

Apparently, there is an impression in Washington that the longer a document is the more it says. Major political parties should also understand that some things are simply assumed by voters. For instance, everyone probably would concede that both parties are profoundly opposed to the trafficking of children. No need to write it down!

Take the Ten Commandments, the gold standard of political platforms. God commands: Thou shalt not commit adultery. He doesn’t instruct the Israelites to break out into subcommittees to haggle over the definition of a “neighbor’s wife” before the law is carved into stone. They get the gist.

But brevity is not the soul of Mitt. Example: The Declaration of Independence is a one-pager, and it covers the aspirations of freedom for all of mankind. Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America” economic plan has 59 policy proposals and 156 endnotes. Trust me; no one’s ever grabbed a musket to defend an endnote.

But people do erect Styrofoam columns for platitudes. I’d venture to guess (rather generously) that 90 percent of Barack Obama’s conventioneers in 2008 could not have detailed any of the future president’s policy proposals with any specificity. And guess what. America has never experienced a more exciting convention.

It should be added, as well, that most pundits who pine for details look forward to synthesizing this vital information and offer it to a curious public with their own biases attached. Whether they’re “fact checkers,” reporters or pundits, no one trusts anyone anyway. For good reason. A perceptive reader could, no doubt, predict exactly what will be said about a candidate’s policy before journalists have even had time to download the PDF.

It can also be noted that whereas elsewhere in society a plan is typically a starting point for negotiations or discussions, in politics your plan is going to be pored over by an army of opposition researchers so they can produce slick ads blasting your pitiful stupidity and crypto-radicalism. You can look forward to every bright idea you’ve ever hatched being transformed into a “gotcha” or another example of your rank hypocrisy.

Perceptions trump details. Sloganeering works. Do voters really want details? If they did, would our televisions be polluted with ads that have less to do with reality than the sitcoms that they interrupt?

Policy? That comes later. This is an election.

David Harsanyi is a columnist and senior reporter at Human Events. Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.

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