Help Wanted: Evaluating Economic Recovery Plans

Why we need to vet the policies of presidential candidates before it's too late

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First, a personal confession. I have watched each of the GOP debates so far (even tried to make my children do it, but only the three-year-old, who is slower to escape the room, stayed long enough to see what was on the television). I have loved them all, and I think they have been usually revealing in the way of these things: often inadvertently, but unmistakably. Debates are essential to understanding those who would be president.

Here’s what we know so far. Mitt Romney likes rules. Michele Bachmann depends too much on one-liners that must sound better in the green room than they do on stage. Jon Huntsman thinks he’s above the whole process, which he probably is, but which is not the way to win the presidency. Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry — a thorough Texan who is getting clobbered for doing some humane things: declining to punish the children of illegal immigrants by denying them an education. So Perry finds himself fully enveloped in the absurdity of presidential politics: he is suddenly too liberal for the Republican base.

(MORE: Rick Perry’s Mission)

Given the state of the economy and real fears of a broader American decline, I have a modest proposal, one that is as likely to come about as Swift’s original such proposal, but one which may help us think a beat beyond the debates. Let’s get some philanthropic dollars together (or perhaps news organizations could do it) to fund a Congressional Budget Office-like nonpartisan outfit to score the sundry economic plans on which different candidates are running. Lord knows we have plenty of data on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, which is great but kind of beside the point since Herman Cain is not going to be president. Romney’s plan is relevant; so is Perry’s, once he finishes the Long Laying Out.

I’m not suggesting this for the usual good-government, “we-must-look-at-substance” reasons. Campaigns are about character, because the character of a leader determines the fates of nations and of peoples just as much if not more than clinical policy decisions. What we learned in 2009, however, leads me to believe that we no longer have the luxury of allowing a president to be elected on essentially vague promises of action, give him nearly three months before the inauguration and then let the legislative process kick in.

We have little time; ask the jobless whether they’re interested in the ordinary timetable of the political class. Let’s get the serious plans evaluated now, weigh them as we would a First 100 Days proposal, and vote as much on policy as personality. Look at it this way: we could do worse, often have, and probably will again.