Candidates need big ideas

Baseball teams choose how they play the game. Some play “small ball,” trying to win with scattered singles, stolen bases, and tight defense behind power pitching. Others go for the “long ball,” running up the score with homers. While true baseball aficionados may hold dear the “small ball” approach, most Americans want lots of runs.

Right now, most Republicans running for president are playing small ball, and therefore few Americans are paying much attention. Too many candidates seem satisfied to make marginal proposals. The candidates should instead be swinging for the fences with a few well-chosen “big idea” proposals that capture the public’s imagination.

Big ideas are viewed with suspicion, of course, by most political candidates and their handlers. They sense the danger. Home-run hitters, on average, strike out often. Most politicians are therefore satisfied to garner a few singles and walks to avoid the risks of swinging for the fences. But if the candidates continue to trundle along, how will they separate themselves from the pack? How will they capture the public’s attention?

During the 1988 campaign, candidate George H.W. Bush mocked “the vision thing.” Eventually, his failure to grasp the importance of big ideas contributed to his loss of the presidency. This lesson wasn’t lost on his son, who ran successfully on big notions including a total reformation of America’s education establishment to require more accountability for results.

In looking for big ideas for campaigns, there are a few rules to follow. First, an idea needs to have some grounding in personal experience. As an example, Bush could chart a national vision for school reform because he had experienced and tested some strategies in Texas. This is where governors have a leg up on senators and representatives in devising grand plans. They’ve actually done things.

A second characteristic of a useful big idea is that it causes some controversy. This is where many politicians get nervous. But controversy is what makes the idea work. Here’s an example. In a conversation with others this week, say that you believe all young Americans should be required to do one year of service to country in the armed services, Peace Corps, or some other authorized program. Everyone has an opinion about this sort of topic and will talk forever. If you are the candidate who stimulates this sort of national conversation, then you are central to the debate. There are dozens of big topics like this that Americans would love to debate.

A third trait of a desirable big idea is that it’s contrarian. Any time a Republican politician proposes something that’s “out of character,” he or she gets more attention. It’s the “man bites dog” story, to use a journalism analogy. So any Republican who proposes anything that’s “green” gets more political mileage than a Democrat would get out of the same proposal. If a congressman proposed term limits on future Congresses, he’d get more ink. If a governor proposed more federal mandates for local schools, it would be a bigger story.

Another trait of the best big ideas is that they are essentially positive. Too many Republicans think of “abolishing the IRS” or “cutting taxes by 10 percent” as grand schemes. A vast majority of voters prefers the romance of positive messages: hope, growth, opportunity, self-reliance and morning-in-America. Here’s where Reagan was masterful. He could turn something like angst for the income tax into a positive theme. We need that skill today.

We’re only in the third or fourth inning of this presidential contest, but we’ve batted through the entire order and I don’t sense that we’re winning. Unless a pinch hitter like Fred Thompson comes off the bench, someone already on the field is going to need to swing harder to hit the long ball.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.