Democratic Message

The false dichotomy between progressive & moderate Democrats

Much of the argument following Jon Ossoff’s loss in the Georgia 6th district Congressional race suggests that Democrats need to be more progressive to win. Being a Bernie wannabe seems to be the prescription for firing up the bases to win such elections in an era when the GOP’s leader is an orange-hair baboon.

Others think it’s enough to be simply anti-baboon but that we need to ramp up get out the vote efforts, especially in off year elections when Dems don’t show up.

Others think we need to remove Nancy Pelosi who regularly appears in GOP ads against whatever Democrat is running.

Certainly, we need candidates with passion, but not the foaming at the mouth type we got from Bernie. We need to get progressives and the disenfranchised out to vote, but that’s not a matter of more phone calls. And getting rid of Pelosi, alas, is an idea whose time has come. She simply is too great a symbol for Democrats to overcome. But more important, her strategies are not working. She’s a lightning rod, but also an ineffective strategist.

But missing most is a reason to vote for Democrats.

Here’s where I think we are as a country, politically:

  • Everyone hates the others side, i.e., hyper-partisanship
  • The GOP holds one clear advantage: They appeal to people’s greed. “Cut taxes” has been a winning argument for 35 years.
  • Yet, progressive ideas are actually shared by a majority of Americans. People want government to spend more money on a host of broad budget areas.
  • The GOP holds significant structure advantages in gerrymandering districts to ensure that though they get fewer votes than Democrats for Congress, they elect more members.
  • Everyone seems to agree that government doesn’t work anymore. That meme seems to be a given, and there is no solution. Government is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse and nothing can change it.

Matthew Yglesias comes closest to a sound prescription for Democrats: Stand for something. This makes sense for one compelling reason: Americans want vision. They want to know you stand for something, even if it is anti-immigrants, poor-people bashing racism. Tell us what you think. Be bold. This is where the GOP has always held an advantage. You know what guides their thinking. They’re not afraid of their beliefs. They make no excuses for them.

Who knows what Democrats envision for Americans, other than whatever you’re identity, we’re with you? Bernie tried to lay down some markers with free college, healthcare for all and bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” But it wasn’t grounded in any philosophy, no foundation of what he wanted for America, other than free stuff. People think Democrats want to please everyone and thus have no core principles other than to spend more money.

So what to do? Not that anyone has asked me or that I have a pedigree in political campaigns. I’ve been in a few, though, and spent a career trying to impact narratives. So why not take a crack at it.

Leading Democrats in the House and Senate need to sit down and hammer out a vision of only a page or two and then figure how to reduce it to a 30-second elevator speech. I’d suggest they bring in not only politicians and political activists but also experts in communications and cognitive behavior—people who understand how people think. If I were among them, here’s what I’d suggest.

First, adhere to the Constitution’s mandate to “promote the General Welfare.” Talk about how we see Americans as “being in this together.” Americans love our Founding Fathers. Ground our principles in theirs—why they got us rolling as a nation.

Second, admit that government isn’t perfect, but talk about making government more efficient to better “protect” (not regulate) Americans. (Already we’re seeing that framing among progressives.) Be an agent of change. Part of the problem is that law making is now done hand in hand with lobbyists with so much detail in our laws that the bureaucrats tasked with implementing them have so many rules they must adhere to the process becomes tedious and inefficient.

Cite how politicians have made government less effective in order to prove their view that it doesn’t work. For example, if you cut the IRS staff to the bare bones, you can’t then complain that it doesn’t do its job of catching tax scofflaws.

Talk about making the economy work for people without a college education and making a college education affordable for more people. Talk about vocational education, teaching the trades where there are a lack of skilled workers. Embrace “free enterprise,” but point out that we don’t have free enterprise anymore. We have corporations that have successfully written the laws that give them all the advantages that protect their profits and hurt consumers and workers. It’s no longer a level playing field. Today, corporations cop out by saying they must provide “shareholder value.” That’s not the only goal they should have, just as a father’s role is not simply to bring home the bacon. They have a responsibility to their workers, the communities they operate in, and the taxpayers who provide the infrastructure they use to move their goods and services. As a simple example, if a businessman takes a prospect to lunch, he gets to claim part of the expense as a tax deduction. Why should taxpayers subsidize his marketing efforts? If it’s a good idea to have lunch, let the shareholders pay for it.

Fourth, be honest in saying that many jobs are not coming back unless Americans are willing to pay far higher prices for popular necessary goods such as clothing, autos, technology. We need to work together on making the future better for everyone. There will be upheavals as there were during industrialization at the end of the 19th century. People moved from the farm to the cities. They learned new skills. It was hard. It was a change of life style, but in the end it brought financial rewards. People who’ve lost their jobs to globalization need to make a sacrifice to adapt.

And yes, talk about taxes. Say exactly who will pay more in taxes, about how much and what benefits they will get for their higher taxes. As an example, if I said you could reduce your health care costs by $2000 if we raised your taxes by $1,000 is that a deal you’d consider? The conversation doesn’t start with taxes; it’s starts with envisioning what we want as a society and then figuring out a way to pay for it. That’s the way families work. Parents want a better future for their children and try to figure out how to get it by not only watching their spending but  looking for ways to increase their incomes and invest smartly in their children’s future.

When we talk about taxes we need to put it in terms of what will people pay, not the aggregate costs. Years ago, I tried to convince Virginia Democrats who wanted to raise the gas tax that instead of talking about the dollars they needed to raise, talk about how much the tax would increase the average car owner. It was about $126 a year. That’s a number people can understand. $1.5 billion is not.

George Lakoff has long had the right approach. Progressives spend too much time appealing to people’s reason. People don’t vote for reasoned arguments. They vote their values, which is why, for example, a Congressional district in Kentucky where a majority of the people receive food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits of the social safety net continually vote for a Congressman who wants to cut those programs.

Lakoff believes the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter are paternalistic and the former maternalistic. Republicans believe in a strong father who lays down the law, expects obedience and believes in pulling yourself up the bootstraps. Democrats are more nurturing, want to see all boats lifted and empathize with those struggling.

The message of inclusion, both socially and economically, needs to reach not only rural whites, but the top 20 percent of income earners (those making more than $120,000 annually), according to the author of “Dream Hoarders.” The 20 percenters think they’ve got where they are solely through hard work without a bit of privilege, mostly the white kind. Moreover, they don’t think of themselves as rich because they compare themselves to others living in their sequestered neighborhoods. Many really have no idea how the other 80 percent live, where something as simple as a set of new tires can mean they can’t pay their rent.

What are Democratic values? Can we articulate them without worrying about offending someone? Can we say that, yes, many people have succeeded due to hard work (but with good luck, too), but not everyone can find that good luck that allows them to work hard to succeed? Can we return to those days when we saw all ourselves as being Americans who were “in this together?”

Graphically Speaking, Income Inequality Trends

Nice graphs, but which have the sub-hed:

Eleven charts that explain everything that’s wrong with America.

Why must progressives fall into conservative’s trap? When you say “what’s wrong with America” what people hear is what’s “wrong with Americans.” And thus, the “Un-American” charge. All the good that these graphs might do with independents is destroyed by the unfortunate frame.

Boehner’s Calculated ‘So Be It’

The Washington Post buried the story about Speaker Boehner’s remarks on the possible loss of federal jobs resulting from reduced spending. The story is inside the Metro section, probably because he was talking about government jobs, of which many are local. It’s a stretch but that’s the only reason I can see for its placement.

But Dana Milbank writes about the comment on the op-ed page and in it states a truth that should be part of this debate but this is the only time I’ve seen it stated.

Let’s assume that Boehner is not as heartless as his words sound. Let’s accept that he really believes, as he put it, that "if we reduce spending we’ll create a better environment for job creation in America." A more balanced budget would indeed improve the jobs market – in the long run.

But in the short run, the cuts Boehner and his caucus propose would cause a shock to the economy that would slow, if not reverse, the recovery. And however pure Boehner’s motives may be, the dirty truth is that a stall in the recovery would bring political benefits to the Republicans in the 2012 elections. It is in their political interests for unemployment to remain higher for the next two years. "So be it" is callous but rational.

The strategy is canny. First focus on discretionary spending where you can cut ideologically. Republicans are hoping to kill programs they don’t like before they tackle the real problem, entitlements. I’m sure their strategy then will be to cut entitlements for the poor and middle class while preserving them for the truly entitled.

A proven communications strategy is to accuse your opponent of something you think they will hit you with, so when they do, it seems calculated by your opponent and becomes easy to fight back against. Obama and Democrats ought now to start charging the GOP with killing jobs by cutting spending, so when it happens, you can say, “I told you so.” Because killing jobs is just what the GOP wants.

“The American People Want…”

How many times since the November election—and really before that—have you heard a Republican say that “the American people want” everything from smaller government, less spending, lower taxes, a reduced deficit?  They say it at press conference, at congressional hearings, on the cable talk shows, and the phrase makes it into plenty of print stories.

It reinforces that Republican reputation for message discipline. They all say it. Members of the House and Senate, governors, state legislators, think tankers. They are better trained than monkeys. And if you say it often enough, American start to believe it.

Well, Democrats, at the very least learn from the best. Start saying it, but with a different ending. The fact is Americans don’t necessarily want smaller government, less spending, etc. Yes, they want smaller deficits, but you can get at that, of course, in two ways—cut spending or raise taxes.

And the fact is, Americans don’t want to cut much spending when you get down to specifics, as the Pew Research Center poll of last week revealed, not that it was much of a secret. Americans are always wanting a free lunch. (More on the Pew survey in a future post.)

But the phrase is effective because it positions the speaker as a servant of the public.

I can understand why, given the contradictory polling on this issue, some journalists don’t challenge a GOPer for saying that “the American people want.” After all, most of them are simply stenographers.

But last night,I heard a newly elected GOP senator repeat the line several times—on The Last Word on MSNBC. Why wasn’t Lawrence O’Donnell challenging him on his contention that 70 percent of American want to cut spending? It would have been easy to counter what he said by using the Pew data that shows not a single category of spending garners a majority of Americans saying they want to cut it.

So MSNBC, do your job. And Dems, do your job and repeat after me (again using the Pew survey as your source):

The American people don’t want us to cut spending on education, veterans benefits, healthcare, Medicare, crime fighting, energy and a lot more programs. They want us to keep spending the same or more in an overwhelming number of areas. It’s only the Republicans who want us to go backward with inferior schools, clog roads and expensive energy. The American people want a strong, vital America to pass down to their children. That’s what the American people want.

Finally, Obama Adopts Family Responsibility Theme

I’ve argued to anyone who’ll listen that the meme Republicans have used about government having to tighten its belt “just like families do” was not only flawed, but ripe for adopting as a Democratic theme. Now, President Obama did it with his Saturday radio address.

When faced with financial challenges, families do several things. Yes, they cut back spending.  But they also look to increase income. They know not everything can or should be cut across the board. Some things you can do without; others are necessary to succeed in the long run. So, like the family alluded to in Obama’s speech where the mother is looking for a second job because they want their child to finish college, families do what’s necessary to pay for the things they think are important. The president uses this narrative to turn the tables on the disingenuous GOP narrative and argues the federal government shouldn’t cut everything. Some investments must be made because if we don’t, we’ll put our kids at a disadvantage to compete in the future. They won’t have the education or the infrastructure to compete. They’ll be more dependent on foreign oil than ever before with an antiquated transportation system that will choke economic growth. All because we want to cut taxes and slice not only muscle but bone from the our governments.

Text of speech is here. Video below.

Shared Sacrifice

If you relied on The Washington Post’s coverage of President Obama’s speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, you would have missed some interesting messaging that approaches a narrative that could be very successful for the president come 2012.

Conventional wisdom is that the Chamber and the GOP with its relentless “creating jobs at all costs” has a winning message. But we can’t forget that many Americans, including Tea Partiers, are mighty upset with business and the damage Wall St. has done to the economy. Voters would need to be living in a cave if they didn’t realize that the gulf between rich and poor is widening and that CEOs are not held accountable for their failures, instead receiving golden parachutes.

Moreover, a wide swath of Americans have been harmed by the recession. It’s not just the unemployed. It is those who are working art-time when they want a full-time job or those working in jobs that pay a fraction of what those folks made before the recession. It is those who can’t see how they can send their kids to college, let alone retire, except in poverty. In short, there’s no shortage of people who are pissed and who are making a lot of sacrifices.

Asking Americans to sacrifice, while not in fashion since Ronald Reagan made greed an admirable trait, has in the past be fruitful. Americans are willing to sacrifice, especially for the benefit of their children.

Which brings me to these lines from Obama’s Chamber speech, from the AP’s telling of it.

"I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America," Obama said.

"As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

Yes, it sounds almost Kennedy-esque: “Ask not what your country can do for you….”

He needs to take the narrative a little further:

Americans have made tremendous sacrifices to help this economy recover. They’ve taken jobs that pay less than they used to get paid or part-time work. Some of course, can’t find jobs at all. College seems out of reach. Retirement is a mirage.

What sacrifices are America’s businesses prepared to make? What can CEOs and company directors sacrifice?

I’ve heard business people say [this is an actual quote from a businessman after Obama’s speech] ‘Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses and more people lose their jobs.’

That’s a cop-out. Sure a company needs to stay in business, but this notion that the only thing a company needs to do is maximize shareholder value is wrong-headed and unpatriotic. American business has a moral responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. After all, if the Supreme Court says corporations are citizens, they need to act like citizens. They need to remember they have a responsibility not just to profits, but to the communities they are in, the workers who make them successful. Continually cutting wages and benefits while CEO salaries go through the roof doesn’t sound very American to a lot of American people.

So let’s get back to the idea that we’re all in this together, and that Americans—all Americans including the titans of commerce—must, as the Constitutions exhorts us, “promote the general welfare.”

Profits are good. Capitalism is the basis for the greatest economy in the world. But capitalists have responsibilities just like everyday Americans.

So the next time your board of directors meet ask, “What sacrifices are we willing to make?”

Strong Statement and Weak Words

No more stark contrast in messaging styles can we have than these few paragraphs from The Washington Post’s online report today about the employment statistics. The stats, which come from two different sources, paint a contradictory and completely opposite picture of what experts expected. Most thought we’d actually see a bump up in the unemployment rate as more workers, encouraged by improving economic signs, re-enter the job market, while the number of jobs created would increase by nearly 150,000.

Instead, the unemployment rate dropped but few jobs were created, although “the number of people who described themselves as employed rose by 589,000.” The Post’s Neil Irwin does a good job of explaining why this surprise may have occurred.

But, this being Washington, he needs a quote from both sides on the significance of these numbers.

The White House called the the decline in the jobless rate a "welcome development" but generally refrained from celebrating the numbers, given the uneven picture they paint.

"The overall trajectory of the economy has improved dramatically over the past two years, but there will surely be bumps in the road ahead," White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee said in a statement. "The monthly employment and unemployment numbers are volatile, and . . . estimates are subject to substantial revision. . . . It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said the weak job creation shows that the Obama administration’s push to speed the economic recovery isn’t working.

"The spending binge is hurting job creation," Boehner said in a statement, "eroding confidence, draining funds away from private investment and spreading uncertainty among job creators."  [emphasis added]

Note the White House, inhabited by Democrats who clearly don’t understand the 24-hour news cycle, hedge their bets, afraid that they will have egg on their faces if the trend isn’t a straight line.  As if anyone will remember.

Boehner, however, isn’t worried about what will happen next month and ignores the good news in the reports. You know he already had his talking points before the report came out. “Spending binge hurting job creation,” even though there is no economic connection between the two. In fact, most economists, both conservatives and progressives, will say government spending is critical to creating jobs in a soft economy. But we’ve left that conventional wisdom in the dust. And we can’t expect journalists to point out the contradiction. That’s not their job. “Truth is relative. We’ve only got our steno pads.” 

“Eroding confidence, draining away funds…spreading uncertainty.” All are strong images, even though it is unclear how the government spending less will cause “private investment” to increase.

Meanwhile, the Dems focus on “bumps in the road ahead,” volatile numbers “subject to substantial revision.”

No wonder we lose the message wars.

So, Why Are the Rich Getting Richer?

The income chasm between middle class America and the richest Americans has grown enormously over the past 50 years. Few would dispute that. Harold Meyerson lays out the stats.

From 1947 through 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America report, released this week, the incomes of the poorest 20 percent of Americans rose 117 percent, while the middle 20 percent saw a rise of 104 percent and the wealthiest 20 percent a rise of 89 percent. From 1973 through 2000, however, the income of the bottom fifth increased by a scant 9 percent, the middle fifth by 23 percent and the richest fifth by 62 percent. Since 2000, the concentration of income gains at the very top has grown only more pronounced. The share of income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, which was less than 10 percent in the early ’70s, reached 23.5 percent in 2007 – the highest level on record save for 1928. (Note: Both years preceded epic crashes.)

No doubt conservatives don’t think this is a problem. And they are given a pass by progressives, who decry the income gap but don’t put the question to conservatives—Why? Meyerson and others have offered some reasons—the demise of labor unions, globalization and financial schemes that add nothing to the economy but line the pockets of the few. All perhaps true, but why don’t progressives keep hammering the GOP with actually two questions:

Why do you think this is happening? Give them a chance to explain the phenomenon. By forcing a explanation, there’s a good chance progressives will get fodder for a strong counter-narrative to the second question:

Do conservatives think this income gap is a good thing?

One book I’m almost finished relates.  It’s The Soul of Capitalism by William Greider. But rather than explain the gap, the book is really more about the book’s subtitle, “Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.” I’ll have more on it in another post.

Another waiting to be read promises to offer another reason. It’s Perfectly Legal: The Convert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else by David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times tax reporter. This has always intuitively made sense to me. The folks who love to hail free enterprise ignore the fact the problem is not free enterprise versus a planned economy. It’s whether our free enterprise is really fair enterprise. Or are the rules, including tax rules, slanted to favor the wealthy?

Still, if progressives would demand answers from conservatives re why our economy increasingly seems to help only the few, they could set the foundation for the “free and fair narrative” that I think Americans would respond to.

Mark Herring’s Wishy-Washy Stance

The GOP has made a market in the deficit this past year. Borrowing is simply bad business that passes the buck to our children, and they won’t have anything of it. Except of course, when they do like borrowing. Such as Gov. McDonnell’s plan for transportation.  He borrows money that gets us some of what we need for the next three years but saddles taxpayers with debt for the next 20. Debt that will come from funds that would have gone to education and social services. McDonnell looks like he solved the problem. He forecloses any other transportation funding for years to come because the GOP will say we’ve already dealt with it. In the election this year, the GOP will appear to be heroes and likely consolidate further its hold on the House and probably take over the Senate.

And we have legislators like Mark Herring saying on the one hand he doesn’t like borrowing, but on the other hand transportation needs are great, so he lays the groundwork in this video to capitulate to the GOP view of things, proving once again Dems don’t know how to play politics and that they have absolutely no principles that ground them. Voters will see them as weak and again ignore them at the polls.

 

Investments = Spending, So?

Political Wire has this quote of the day:

"When the President talks in his speech about investment, the American people need to understand that translates into spending."
— Sen. John Thune (R-SD), quoted by KFSY-TV.

And I hope his answer is an emphatic:

Yes, it means spending. The deficit is a problem and I’m proposing ways to reduce it. But a much greater problem in America is jobs—good jobs now and in the future. We need to invest in infrastructure that puts people to work right away.  It’s not make work; it’s much needed work as we’re falling behind the rest of the world in the sophistication and reliability of our roads, bridges, electrical grids and water and sewer systems. We need to invest in education so that the next generation is trained for jobs of the 21st century.

Mr. Thune’s Republican solution is to cut spending and depend on the private sector. Is the private sector going to build roads and bridges? Of course not. For the last 30 years, we’ve seen nothing but trickle down schemes by Republicans that have left us less competitive in the world with declining incomes and disappearing futures for the middle class. The American people aren’t buying Republicans’ slight of hand that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the wealthiest 1% in this country.

But my guess is that at best we’ll only get the first part of this answer. After all, he wants a “civil” tone. To Obama and the rest of the country that translates to meek.