Let’s Get Specific

Get specific.

That’s what voters say they want in politics. Explain how your idea works. How will this impact my business? Politicians of both parties chide the other when they contend their counterparts’ plan “lacks details.”

But the public struggles with specifics in politics. Economic issues are arcane. Budgets are obtuse. Tax policies are almost incomprehensible.

That’s why policymakers and the media distill these issues into themes. 47 percent. Tax and spend. Obamacare. Big government.

“Nobody in Dubuque cares about tax reform or Medicare reform,” said former Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin in a recent interview. “They care about economic growth.”

In other words, if people feel they are doing well or have a chance at a good future, they’ll take it.

Most of the nation’s political debates rage over opaque economic forecasts predicated on complex numerical formulas. So forget the specifics – unless someone gives everyone something concrete they can wrap their heads around.

Republican Vice Presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeared on Fox News Sunday last week. Host Chris Wallace launched a segment on tax policy like this: “You’re the budget master, so briefly, let’s go through the plan.”

Wallace then quizzed Ryan about how the Obama campaign argues Mitt Romney’s tax cut proposal “costs $5 trillion over ten years.”

Ryan responded that “if you torture statistics enough, they’ll confess to what you want them to confess to.”

Wallace pressed Ryan on how much the tax cut program would cost.

“You haven’t given me all of the math,” Wallace groused.

It’s yet to be seen what the true cost of the Romney-Ryan plan is or if it’s as good as they say it is. But Wallace’s vexation is what forced the Congressman to say something that was completely true.

“It would take me too long to go through all of the math,” Ryan replied.

The critics pounced. They characterized Ryan’s response as evasive. They pointed to his remark as evidence that the numbers didn’t add up. They suggested Ryan was trying to hide something and that the figures were all smoke and mirrors.

But Ryan’s right. There isn’t enough time to “go through all of the math” on a Sunday show. And even if  Ryan laid out the proposal in explicit detail, most viewers would be bored to the point that they abandon their TV’s or be confounded as to what the Congressman was talking about.

Here’s the problem for Ryan: when you deal with “green eyeshade” issues, most people aren’t going to be able to grasp all of the facts and figures which make a plan feasible or not. Ryan’s faced accusations before that his figures don’t add up.

Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice derided the Congressman’s latest budget proposal back in March. McIntyre told the Washington Post that the Congressman is “a phony” and has “always been a phony.”

The CBO does not evaluate budget plans, per se. But Ryan did ask CBO to assess parts of his budget plan based on his own series of rules. Upon running the numbers on Ryan’s plan, CBO stated that the “calculations do not represent a cost estimate for legislation or an analysis of the effects of any given policies.”

In August, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blasted Ryan and said he “games the system.” Krugman asserted that Ryan “got CBO to produce a report which looks to those who don’t actually read it like a validation of his numbers when in fact he prevented any actual scoring of his proposals. If you think otherwise, you’ve been snookered.”

Douglas Holtz-Eakin defends Ryan. As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan doesn’t get his entire budget studied by the CBO. However, the CBO generally scores other bills crafted by what Congress calls “authorizing committees.” Those panels, whether it be Ways and Means, which deals with taxation, or Energy and Commerce, must get their pieces of legislation scored by the CBO so they have a price tag. But Holtz-Eakin says Ryan “gets a lot of grief because he operates off the CBO baseline.” And Holtz-Eakin suggests that Ryan “put out far more detail than by any other (Budget Committee) chairman.”

In other words, Holtz-Eakin is saying Ryan doesn’t “hide” the numbers. But that doesn’t stop many from perceiving that he does or that the numbers are skewed. Regardless, it’s very, very hard to understand.

This is why the public and journalists like to latch onto something concrete they can understand. And this is precisely what happened at Wednesday’s debate between Romney and President Obama.

There’s a general consensus that Romney “won” the debate and that Mr. Obama’s performance was devoid of passion. That’s why viewers distilled the polemic into a single soundbyte.

“I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too,” Romney said to debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS’s NewsHour. “But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

People may not understand the public-private budget formula which funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Which in turns partially funds PBS. Which in turn partially funds Sesame Street and the NewsHour. And they might not understand how NPR gets a fraction of federal money while the government partially funds scores of public radio and television stations across the country.

There are two easily understood specifics in Romney’s comment which translates to voters and journalists alike. A day before the New Hampshire primary, Romney told an audience in Nashua that “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

In other words on Wednesday, Romney told the moderator of the debate in which he was participating that he’d favor pink-slipping him from his employer. Right or not, this aligns with the narrative that Democrats have crafted for Romney. They try to portray him as a rich, powerful guy who doesn’t care about the little guy – and who relishes terminations.

Secondly, the GOP has long propounded a mantra about cutting spending. There weren’t a lot of memorable specifics about reducing spending in that debate. But Romney did hone in on something tangible: public broadcasting. He was even more concrete by invoking all eight feet and two inches of Big Bird.

The tax reform plan may be hard to digest and it may “take me too long to go through all of the math.” But for good or ill, people do get Big Bird.

Big Bird is a political meme for the Democratic and Republican parties. A totem as to what is good and what is bad. To some, Big Bird represents unnecessary government spending. To others, Big Bird is a beacon of what government does right.

The CPB received approximately $445 million from the government in fiscal year 2012. That translates to about than one-ten-thousandth of one percent. But cutting money for public broadcasting has long been a goal of most Republicans.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) tried to do it in 1995 when the GOP controlled of both chambers of Congress. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) prepped a bill in 2010 which would expressly bar federal money for National Public Radio. A specific comment like Romney’s is good red meat for the base. Lamborn applauded the efforts of the Republican nominee.

“Like Mitt Romney, I like Big Bird. That is not the issue,” said Lamborn. “If we have to borrow money from China to keep Big Bird in his nest, it’s time for him to go!”

But Big Bird has his defenders. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and was one of the most ardent fighters against defunding public broadcasting 17 years ago. She took the battle to Romney and Lamborn Thursday morning.

“The notion that its possible to make a dent in the debt by eliminating already modest funding for educational public broadcasting is dishonest to the point of absurdity. This warmed over idea is no better now than it was in 1995,” declared Lowey.

It’s hard to grasp the complex budget and tax proposals. But people do understand Big Bird.

Popular culture evaporates big events to singular icons. Friday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals will forever be known as the “The Infield Fly Rule Game.” One doesn’t have to be a die-hard baseball fan to decode the game’s other ciphers when someone mentions “The Pine Tar Incident” or invokes “Bucky Dent.”

People remember specifics in sports – and politics. The Lloyd Bentsen/Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Debate in 1988 is memorable for the Texas senator’s crack that Quayle was “no Jack Kennedy.” Ronald Reagan’s second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984 was reduced to the president’ remark about his “opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

So people want specifics. They can sure get it in a budget plan. But they’ll better understand specifics if it’s something they can relate to.

Like Big Bird.