David Brooks recently wrote a pro-Marco Rubio column in The New York Times, and in passing said this: “At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities.”
It won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree deeply. My experience is that the best way to figure out a presidential candidate’s true priorities – and get a sense of his or her character – is to take a hard look at policy proposals. My view here is strongly influenced by the story of George W. Bush. Younger readers may not know or remember what things were like back in 2000, but in those days the universal view of the commentariat was that Mr. Bush was a moderate, amiable and honest guy. What I saw was a level of dishonesty, irresponsibility and radicalism that was unprecedented in a presidential candidate from a major party. So I was out there warning that no matter how amiable he seemed, Mr. Bush was a dangerous guy.
And how did that work out?
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Now we have candidates who are proposing “wildly unaffordable” tax cuts.
Can we start by noting that this isn’t a bipartisan phenomenon – that it’s not true that everyone does it? Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton isn’t recommending wildly unaffordable policies. Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t offered details about how he’d pay for single-payer health care, but you can be sure that he will propose something. And proposing wildly unaffordable policies is itself a declaration of priorities: Mr. Rubio is saying that keeping the Hair Club for Growth happy is more important to him than even a pretense of fiscal responsibility. Or if you like, what we’re seeing is a willingness to pander without constraint or embarrassment.
Also, Mr. Rubio’s insistence that the magic of supply-side economics will somehow pay for the cuts is a further demonstration of priorities: Allegiance to voodoo trumps all.
At a more general level, I’d argue that it’s a really bad mistake to wave away policy silliness with a boys-will-be-boys attitude. Policy proposals tell us a lot about character – and the past 15 years have made it clear that journalists who imagine that they can judge character from the way people come across on television or in personal interviews are kidding themselves, and misleading everyone else.