Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Principles First, Plans Second

crossposted at MyDD

Obama did exactly the right thing in proposing principles for a plan to bail out the financial industry rather than a plan, both politically and Presidentially. Presidents set agendas and principles and have staffs to draw up the nuts and bolts (or: you don’t think FDR crafted all that legislation personally, do you?). Obama’s not going to take the lead on crafting a plan in the Senate, can’t, and shouldn’t. That’s a job that’s going to require the full attention of the people involved. It’s also not what you expect a president to do either. Presidents set principles, goals, objectives, criteria, agendas, that sort of thing. Presidents should be overseers, not wonks (a bit of wonkiness, good; too much, bad). Presidents are not Senators. Acting as a Senator now is a necessary but not sufficient part of Obama’s campaign for the Presidency; being Presidential is much more valuable.

I don’t think that voters want a specific plan from Obama right now. They don’t want to (and won’t) read through legislation. Voters want leadership. This is step one of leadership (step two is standing by it and using his position to promote his principles and hold Congress, or at minimum Democrats, to them). McCain (and anyone else Obama didn’t mention, in laying out the principles) is now in the “follower” position, unless they start from a different set of principles and win the fight over whose principles are better (and even in that case, Obama’s still taken the leadership position by switching the debate from plans to principles).

Had Obama just proposed a concrete, specific, here’s-the-nuts-and-bolts plan, voters would tune out or listen to a soundbite analysis of the plan. But they’ll look carefully at a set of principles. They want whatever plan is proposed to conform to a set of principles that protects them and works for them. That’s what Obama’s proposed. Voters want to know what the plan will do for them*. They don’t want to know the nuts and bolts of how it will do it for them. They do want to know that there are nuts and bolts and that those nuts and bolts are the right ones (i.e. there needs to be credibility in the resulting plan). This is the framework for deciding if the nuts and bolts are the right ones.

Each principle is concise and easily explained and defended. Together they provide an enormous amount of justification to Democrats (and Republicans too) who want to oppose the current bailout plan, and tools with which to attack those who do not oppose the current plan. I’m just waiting for Obama, for instance, to respond to an attack by saying “so, you’re opposed to protecting the American taxpayer?”, “so, you want to kick taxpayers out of their homes even after we’ve spent government money covering their mortgage?”, “so, you’re still opposed to regulation, even after the lack of regulation has brought us to this point”, etc.

These are very hard principles to attack openly. A plan can be attacked; any detailed plan is going to contain one or two things you can attack on. It’s inevitable; no one writes perfect laws and there really is no bailout that will be universally accepted. But it’s very hard to attack the principles Obama’s proposing; they’re all intuitively the right thing to do even for conservatives. If you propose plan first and back-fill your principles you look weak. Proposing principles first is a position of strength.

What Obama’s proposed lays out a framework: what will the plan do for people? What will it not do? Without that, you wind up with “Obama’s Wonky Plan” vs “McCain’s Wonky Plan” and voters go to sleep or decide based on soundbite analysis of the plan. There’s no context for making a decision. The details of this stuff is way, way over the heads of most voters — heck, it’s way over the heads of most National Merit Scholars. On the other hand, everyone gets “protect the taxpayers”. It’s obvious. It gives Obama grounds to attack the current plan and any bad McCain plan. It puts McCain in the position where he either has to attack Obama’s principles or look like a complete follower.

If you’re worried about the “indecisiveness” ploy (which I think is going nowhere fast, despite Palin harping on it), pretty much what Obama needs to do to counter that is to say firmly that YES we need a bailout but YES it must follow these principles. That’s not indecisiveness and it’s not voting ‘present’. It also allows Obama to hit back: do you support the administration plan? If not, what’s your plan? Does it meet the Obama principles? If not, why not? Proposing a plan doesn’t allow you to criticize their plan directly — you’d have to go to a wonky point-by-point comparison.

If any of the principles is going to be attacked, my money is on the one about keeping taxpayers in their homes. But I think opposing that is a losing position — I just can’t see the American public as a whole saying “hell yeah, corporations deserve billions but taxpayers should get nothing even though the government has covered their bad debt” in such a transparently obvious manner.

Plus there’s an enormous economic plus to letting homeowners stay in their homes. If you take the home and sell it in foreclosure, you drive prices down. That creates a continuing spiral of collapses and (possibly) leads to the everyone-moves-one-house-over effect (where people who were bottom-up on a $500,000 house can now afford to buy the $200,000 house that used to be the same $500,000 house). You can make the counterargument that it lets people with means buy houses at fire-sale prices and clean up, but that’s saying it rewards the rich — it’s a non-starter. In fact, if you oppose that principle, that’s one of the pivots — that you’re directly hurting people who are already hurting and rewarding the rich.

Principles set the ground rules for discussion. They’re extremely powerful. McCain’s immediately in a box; he either needs to oppose Obama’s principles (each of which is fairly hard to oppose) or he has to look like he’s following Obama’s leadership on the issue. It’s a no-win situation unless he can build traction around one of Obama’s principles being wrong.

What he has proposed is infinitely more valuable than a plan. He’s used his position — his leadership — to frame the debate in a way that will tend to force a good plan or force the other side to be honest about pushing a bad plan. It’s hard (not impossible, give the bad guys credit, but really hard) to craft a bad plan that conforms to all of Obama’s principles. It’s also hard to craft a good plan that violates any of them. And articulating principles first gives Congressional Democrats a very straightforward touchstone to reject the administration plan, even prior to proposing their own, and not look like a bunch of obstructionists.

Politically it’s brilliant, and it’s also the right thing to do for a President.


  1. and it sure as hell isn’t being done by anyone else.

    All the current “president” understands is Power.  Unfortunately, you cannot force people to follow you, you can only force them to obey.  That’s all well and good as long as all it takes is force, but sometimes you have to actually lead.

    Very well said.


    • Texas Gray Wolf

      Obama’s been putting himself (carefully) into that role for months now. There’s an obvious leadership gap in this country and he’s doing a good job of filling it. I’ve yet to see McCain do much of anything that actually looks Presidential, to my eyes — unless of course you just look at GWB and forget what Presidential should actually look like (and, heck, even GWB had his moments, back when).

  2. Really helps us to see beyond the avalanche of opinions and news. For the last year Obama has been showing great leadership skills. And that he impresses and inspires people like you Texas Grey Wolf, is just another confirmation he is the right person at the right time

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