Where Are the Big Ideas?
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.
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?