Where Are the Big Ideas?

Washington Matters

Where Are the Big Ideas?

For an election ostensibly about change, there is a surprising paucity of bold and controversial ideas. Barack Obama may be an electrifying figure to many, but his platform is style and leadership, not groundshifting proposals. His agenda -- and that of Hillary Clinton and likely GOP nominee John McCain -- is predictable. Moreover all the candidates, at least so far, are more interested in accommodating than challenging voters.

Obama's and Clinton's plans for health care, for instance, are reforms of an existing system, not some dramatic shakeup of a system many feel is broken. Their prescriptions for the economy are similarly mild, tinged with a streak of protectionism that appeals to voters nervous about disappearing jobs. They are not about to offend anyone in their base.

McCain may have made his name for sticking to principle and telling voters hard truths, but that McCain is rarely seen these days. Yes, he embraced controversial immigration reform, but now he says he's gotten the message that America won't accept those reforms until "we secure the borders first." And everyone knows by now that he wants to extend the huge tax cuts he opposed in 2001. But most have forgotten that McCain also opposed the second round of tax cuts in 2003, even after he and other senators succeeded in slashing it by half to $350 billion, and a round of business tax cuts in 2004 -- arguing that the country should be paying for the Iraq war as it goes along, not adding to the deficit. The war is still going on -- and McCain still supports it fervently -- but where is the talk about sacrifice to pay for it now instead of passing the cost on to future generations? When was the last time he spoke of national sacrifice?

Big ideas, principled ideas almost by definition cost politicians support. The right hated FDR for his New Deal proposals. The left despised Reagan's vision of smaller government. Leadership involves taking chances -- seeing and spelling out challenges and their consequences and offering remedies. But the candidates appear satisfied to tell voters about what they will do for them, how they will serve them and solve their problems. There is little talk about the sacrifices and costs required to truly solve problems.

If the candidates want to challenge voters (and themselves), they could do worse than to give serious thought to ideas proposed recently by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks packages his ideas under the rubric a "fresh start for conservatism," but his approach is far from doctrinaire ideology.  He says flatly that America is losing its competitive edge and calls for a "new human capital revolution" that invests heavily in education and training but also in helping restore and stabilize the two-parent family. Seniors should give up some benefits to help pay for these. Young people should be required to spend some time in national service mentoring younger students -- not just to help the country, but to instill in them a sense of engagement.

Sure, Brooks risks only nasty letters to the editor. Candidates making bold proposals risk alienating large blocs of voters and losing an election. But if voters are going to demand change and politicians are going to promise it, shouldn't that entail risk-taking that actual change requires?