The Economist’s MS gapes in awe at the detailed policy programs put forth by Dutch political parties as they head into election mode:
When a Dutch political party says it wants lower deficits, it actually outlines an electoral programme with details about how it plans to cut spending and/or raise taxes. For example, the most economically laissez-faire Dutch party, the VVD or “Liberals”, wants to slash 34 billion euros out of the budget by 2015, and it lays out how it will do this: limiting unemployment insurance to 12 months, raising the retirement age to 67, freezing educational spending on special-needs children, and all kinds of unpopular stuff. The Labour Party wants to cut the budget by 15 billion euros, including raising the retirement age to 66 and cutting defence spending by 1.6 billion, and raise business and environmental taxes while cutting taxes in a progressive fashion on individuals, ultimately coming out with 500m euros more in revenues. The Christian Democrats want to cut spending by 21.4 billion euros and cut taxes by 2 billion euros. Most importantly, all these details I’m providing come from the Dutch Central Planning Bureau, which evaluates all the parties’ electoral programmes and assesses how much they would save compared to baseline assumptions. It would be like American parties and candidates submitting their full programmes to the CBO for an assessment before the elections, so you could decide who to vote for.
There’s a lot to admire about this. That said, it really wouldn’t make sense for American politicians to act in this way. Indeed, if anything we spend too much time debating policy specifics of this nature during our presidential campaigns. I wrote blog posts comparing the details of the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards “plans” on health care and climate change and it turns out this was all totally irrelevant. Presidents can’t compel congress to act, and generally don’t do the detail-work of policy-design. It would make much more sense for candidates to talk less about this sort of thing and instead address what presidents actually do—help set the legislative agenda, fill federal appointments, use discretionary regulatory authority, conduct foreign and national security policy, etc.
In a parliamentary system with strong party discipline, you can try to hold people to their policy commitments. In the US sense, any president or member of congress or senator, who adhered rigidly to the details of his or her policy platform would necessarily be totally ineffective.
If anything my real question is why do Dutch parties bother to do this given that the Netherlands’ political system makes coalition governments inevitable? If I were a Dutch voter, the questions I would want party leaders to answer would be about potential coalition partners, not the details of policy platforms. Maybe there’s a sense that having a detailed agenda written out in advance makes it easier to formulate a coalition agenda post-election because you can pick and choose between specific agenda items that have already been written down and evaluated.