The Year Of The Know-Nothing Candidates

Especially on the GOP side, vague is good; ignorance is better.

WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who earned degrees from Oxford and Brown, previewed his presidential candidacy last year by unveiling a 47-page booklet of granular (if controversial) details about his record and proposals for balancing energy production and environmental protection.

Go to his website, and you will see that paper, plus other detailed position papers on education, defense and health care, and links to op-eds on those and other topics.

If you are curious about a candidate with actual policies, though, you'd better hurry. Jindal, currently running at zero percent in the polls for the 2016 Republican nomination, is headed for oblivion. 

Dr. Ben Carson, by contrast, is surging ahead. He's now at second in the GOP race even though -- or precisely because -- he has said next to nothing specific.

A neurosurgeon with degrees from Yale and Michigan, Carson doesn't bother with policy details. For example, he says he wants to reform the monstrously complex federal tax system, in part by rewriting or eliminating 74,000 pages of the Internal Revenue Code.

How? Go to his website and see! Carson explains it all in a mere 74 words, including five old standbys: "fairer, simpler and more equitable."

How about Carson on health care? You'd expect some specificity there and some nuance. He is, after all, a doctor -- one who practiced at Johns Hopkins. Carson offers a 98-word disquisition, mostly a vow to get rid of Obamacare.

To be fair, the good doctor becomes positively verbose on the topic of education. He uses 124 words to decry the state of American schools.

The discussion of substantive issues by U.S. politicians has never been mistaken for the Dialogues of Plato, or even the College Bowl. Candidates rarely are eager to spell out proposals in detail. "Why give your opponents ammo to attack?" said Larry Sabato, longtime political observer and professor at the University of Virginia. "That's been true for a long time."

But the 2016 campaign, especially on the GOP side, is setting a modern record for vacuity and even pride in ignorance about government. The widespread lack of civic education, the failure of media interest and growing public cynicism have made not knowing any details a perverse qualification for the highest office.

"There has been an anti-intellectual strain in American politics forever," said Sabato, "but now it's almost purely the person, not the positions on any issues."

On the GOP side, the candidates with the most momentum in the last month are those with the least amount of specificity in their campaigns and, it would seem, the least amount of specific policy knowledge and experience: Carson, real estate mogul Donald Trump and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

The Democrats are more substantive, befitting their belief in the positive role of government. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley are duking it out, policy speech by policy speech.

But even on the Democratic side, the man with the mo' at the moment is Joe Biden, racing upward in the polls by virtue of his avuncular smile, non-Hillaryness and zen-like status as a "candidate" who is not yet, and may never be, a candidate. The vice president obviously knows whereof he speaks, but in terms of a substantive 2016 campaign of his own, if there is one, he is saying nothing.

No one explained the new state of things better than Fiorina on Sunday's "Face the Nation." One should know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, she said, but common sense and nongovernment experience are what counts now.

"We have a professional political class," she said, "and 80 percent of the American people now think we have a professional political class that is either unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo of Washington and get anything done."

"I understand how the economy works," she went on. "I understand how the world works and who is in it, who are our friends and who are our enemies. I understand how big bureaucracies work, which is what Washington, D.C., has become. I understand technology and I understand leadership."

There you have it -- and don't look for any specifics on her website because there are none.

In a concession to … it's not quite clear whom … Trump recently posted his first and only detailed position paper, on immigration.

But the main action on Trump’s site is elsewhere, over at the campaign store. The offerings are robust: 24 kinds of T-shirts and other apparel for men, women and children; 12 versions of “Make America Great Again” caps, just like the ones The Donald Himself wears when he steps off his jet; and “signage,” including chrome-ish plastic license plate holders. The site will process your order with Amazon-like efficiency.

There’s only one detail that matters: your credit card number.