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GOP Offers Advice It Wouldn’t Take

E.J. Dionne nails it.

In 2008, the largest number of voters in American history gave the Democrats their largest share of the presidential vote in 44 years and big majorities in the House and Senate.

How did Republicans react? They held their ideological ground, refused to give an inch to the new president and insisted that persistent opposition would eventually yield them victory. On Nov. 2, it did.

Yet now that Democrats have suffered a setback – in an election, it should be said, involving many fewer voters than the big battle two years ago – they are being counseled to do the opposite of what the Republicans did, especially by Republicans.

Democrats who stand up to say they were right to reform health care and stimulate a staggering economy are told they "don’t get it" and are "in denial." Liberals who refuse to let one election loss alter their commitments are dismissed as "doubling down" on a bad bet.

President Obama made the word "audacity" popular, but conservative Republicans practice it.

Mainstream commentary typically bends to the more audacious side. As a result, there was far less middle-of-the-road advice in 2008 urging Republicans to move to the center than there were warnings to Obama not to read too much into his victory. The United States, we were told, was still a "center-right" country. The actual election result didn’t seem to matter back then.

Funny that when progressives win, they are told to moderate their hopes, but when conservatives win, progressives are told to retreat.

Worse, Democrats tend to internalize the views of their opponents.

This is right in so many ways.  And it’s largely because progressives haven’t fought back against the mainstream media that tends to reward GOP puck by framing issues in the GOP parlance.

But there are other reason.  The principle difference between Republican and Democratic leaders is that Republicans have principles, can articulate them and defend them.  If Democrats have principles, they can’t identify them, and they certainly can’t put them in pithy phrases that pierce the media clutter.  And if they could, I’m not sure they would fight for them.

GOP: We Want Government!

E.J. Dionne has a nice piece today about the GOP’s inconsistency, perhaps hypocrisy.

Many tragic ironies are bubbling to the surface along with the oil. Consider the situation of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican conservative who devoutly opposes the exertions of big government.

"The strength of America is not found in our government," Jindal declared in his response to President Obama’s February 2009 address to Congress. "It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."

But with his state facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions, Jindal is looking for a little strength from Washington. His beef is that the federal government isn’t doing enough to help. "It is clear we don’t have the resources we need to protect our coast," he said this week, expressing his frustrations with "the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late."

You can’t blame Jindal for being mad. But will he ever acknowledge that "compassionate hearts" were not sufficient for coping with this catastrophe? Did he ever ask BP how prepared it was for something like this? Or was he just counting on the company’s "enterprising spirit"?

A few weeks ago, I responded to a commenter on my News Commonsense blog who argued that the oil spill is Obama’s Katrina.  I asked, “Is your complaint that Obama didn’t wait long enough to let market forces work?”  There are plenty of other examples of the GOP’s forked tongue.

One is happening in my neighborhood where I have commented on our listserve about how the same neighbors who complain about local government’s lack of services or laud its quick response to a crisis are sometimes the very same people who make general and often vague criticisms about big government.

Meanwhile, I’m reading The Political Brain by Drew Westen, a 2007 book that argues for a more passionate and articulate defense of progressive principals.  Early in the book he cites the Democrats’ tendency to shy away from emotional arguments in favor of rational ones, which frequently results in their trying to decipher voters’ policy choices and then couching their arguments in those terms.  Which voters then see as pandering and a lack of core principles.  He also argues that if an articulation of core principles doesn’t alienate 30 percent of the population, the message is weak.  A third of the voters will never be with you and trying to appeal to them with a universal message is doomed to failure.

The “government is the problem” started by Ronald Reagan can and should be forcefully countered.  I hope Westen’s book lays out a clear roadmap.  I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, let’s hope more progressives start fighting back as Dionne is doing today.

Why Obama Can’t Sell Democrats in 2010

Karen Tumulty and Shailagh Murray today claim Obama must be the messenger-in-chief for Congressional Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

His ambitious agenda is "why the president was elected," said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist. "We need to make the case as to what we are doing, and why that’s consistent, and why we don’t want to go backward."

It makes sense to many, who view Obama as a gifted speaker who can arouse the electorate as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign.  Moreover, while it’s true that off-year elections have been determined largely by local issues, campaign strategies and the advantages of incumbency, history is not helpful now for two reasons.  Obama himself, while holding moderately favorable ratings, is reviled by his opponents, making this year’s elections more dependent on his own popularity or lack thereof, and alas, a measure of bigotry among a small portion of the electorate.  Secondly, as online communication by the grassroots has become more sophisticated, supporters of both parties have the advantage of determining what’s important in the election.  Candidates find it increasingly hard to maintain control of their campaign’s strategy and positioning.  So Democrats want the president to deliver their message and make this a national campaign.

But no one else has the president’s power to make the case for his party’s agenda and, conversely, against the opposition. Democrats on Capitol Hill have made no secret of their desire to see Obama get more seriously into the fray. While it’s an easy applause line to decry that Washington is broken, they complain that the president has not been forceful enough in laying the blame on the Republicans. In part, they suggest, that is because Obama and his advisers are too protective of the post-partisan brand of politics that got him elected — but that has lost some of its sheen as his major initiatives have passed on largely party-line votes.

"I’m all for drawing contrasts," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using a phrase that politicians often employ as a euphemism for going negative. The president’s challenge, he said, is the same as that faced by Democrats who are on the ballot this year: "You must define yourself, you must define your opponent before they do, and you must frame the choice."

The problem is Obama was very effective communicating an emotion in the 2008 campaign, but now he has specific policies to promote and has clearly failed to explain the principles and moral foundations of them.  While I agree that he needs to paint the GOP as the party of no, he doesn’t seem capable of rallying support for his agenda.  Why?  He is too intellectual.  As do many Democrats, he wants to explain why his policies are good but does so in the language of a policy wonk, not as an inspirational leader.  He makes no appeal to the “common good.”  He does not frame his choices as between right and wrong.  And if he should, he comes off unconvincingly, as if he has condescended to connect with the hoi pilloi. Rather, he sticks to the issues in the conventional framing and language, which doesn’t serve Democrats well.

Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who’ve lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."

That’s the advice of one of the party’s newest and more unusual gurus, Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who, unlike most political advisers, has never worked full time on Capitol Hill or for a political campaign.

To some, Westen is another George Lakoff who has argued for different framing for progressives but has not been able to gain traction with Congressional Democrats.  In fact, it seems clear that the Dems have no Frank Luntz, whose language advice seems to resonate with Congressional Republicans.  But Westen has a point.

"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people’s core values and concerns."

While calling the GOP “the party of no” is a good tactic, Dems also need to make the case for an activist government in terms people understand.  The Gulf oil spill is a good place to start.  In fact, Tom Friedman has argued that Obama and Democratic congressmen have missed an opportunity.  But seizing an opportunity with ineffective language can do more harm than good.  The oil spill is not about globs of oil appearing on Gulf beaches or dead birds.  It’s about “people who are losing their jobs while their property is destroyed because of businesses driven solely by profits and their exorbitant executive salaries.” 

The language used in the financial reform effort has been better but still has room for improvement.  “Moving money between Wall St. firms doesn’t create jobs for anyone, only million-dollar pay days for traders and their bosses.” It’s a battle not just between “Wall St. and Main St.”  but “between American who create and do the jobs that make us great as a country and those who care only about themselves.”  We need to use capital “to build a future, not a mansion.”

Dems need to push back against the Republicans demonization of government workers, or in GOP parlance, “bureaucrats.”  “The government is us.  Good, democratic government is the principle the nation was founded upon.  Government is your neighbor.  The police officer, the teacher, the fireman, the people who deliver the services we all cherish.  If it weren’t for government we wouldn’t have interstate highways, social security, Medicare and civil rights.  Government is what provides a check when you lose your job.  Government is the worker who ensures food for children of parents who’ve lost their livelihood.  Government is what keeps our skies safe, are bridges sound and our energy abundant.  What Americans care about is not the size of government but the effectiveness of government. 

We need talk about how “we’re all in this together.”  Even the “common good” can be better positioned as “looking out for each other, caring about our neighbors.  What makes American great is our capacity to work for the greater good, a good that makes our communities safe and friendly.  Our liberty is not a selfish one, but one we want for every American.  We’ve learned over the past 235 years that when we have opportunities we accept responsibilities.

“What has happened to us in the firs
t decade of this century is that incomes have declined for the first time since the Great Depression.  We have seen the middle class decimated by greedy bankers, regulators who care about business profits instead of us, and politicians who care more about their own election than the future of America.  A campaign worth having is a campaign that’s worth winning—or losing—on principle. Our principles are equal opportunity and a level playing field for all, especially the people who work to make America great.”

I question whether Obama, who is disciplined on messages but sometimes lacks passion that seems real, can pull off this message.  Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, maybe.  But not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.  So who can speak for Democrats?

Maybe Obama has it in him.  The Republicans clearly fear it.

Republicans said they, too, have taken notice of Obama’s tougher language, and they warn of potential long-term consequences. "I think at some point he risks undermining his own credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People expect the president of the United States to rise above the back-and-forth of election-year politics, but I guess that’s the risk he’s taking."

As if to say, leave the dirty work to us.

As I, uh, was, uh, saying

Sunday’s Washington Post front page had an article about Charlie Crist’s troubles in his GOP primary for the Senate race there.  In it was a lesson for all candidates—or for that matter anyone in any arena who wants to be taken seriously.

But there were plenty of onlookers like Bob Gammon, who, as he sipped his beer, tried to put his frustration with Crist into words. "He’s like a lot of weak Republicans now," said Gammon. "He’s like the great compromiser: He doesn’t stand strong; he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority. Rubio is going to win easy. Crist’s kind of Republican is over. Crist can’t even take a stand."

Not taking a stand in politics, though important, is not what I’m talking about.  It’s the “he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority.

People who talk with authority, who avoid “uh,” “you know” and the now ubiquitous “it’s like,” I think are more credible, especially in politics.  Obama has a lot of ‘uhs” in his extemporaneous speaking.  I think it’s one of the reasons some people don’t trust him.  He sounds as if he’s trying to parse his words so carefully one wonders if he’s trying to pull something over on the listener.

Republicans are much better at such speaking.  For the life of me I don’t know why, although I’m sure many GOP supporters would say it’s because they have confidence in what they’re saying.  Why don’t Democrats?  Maybe it’s because being liberals, they’re always afraid of offending someone.  I’ve noticed this phenomenon on the cable talk shows.  The next time I see such a segment I’ll post it. Take a listen yourself and tell me if you don’t hear what I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, I think Bob Gammon, a voter in Florida, hit on a universal truth.  If you sound hesitant, you sound unsure of yourself.  If you are using a lot of “uhs” people are less likely to believe you or be inspired by you.

GOP Bait and Switch

Just a brief addendum to my post the other day about the disingenuous lie that 47% pay no income tax.  As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic points out, poor people owe taxes, but they are offset by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

When Republicans rail against the 47% figure, they’re railing against features like the EITC. What is the EITC? It’s a refundable tax credit that rewards work and offsets the burden of payroll taxes for low-income payers by returning a fixed percent of income up to a maximum credit based on factors like number of children. But the EITC is a Republican creation. It was enacted in 1975 under President Ford (a Republican), and expanded numerous times over the last 35 years by Republicans. President Reagan (Republican) expanded it in 1984 and 1986. President Bush (Republican) expanded it against in 1990 and added supplemental credit for families with more than one child. President Clinton expanded it for childless claimants in 1993. President Bush (Republican) expanded it again in 2001.

So what we have is a program developed by Republicans to encourage welfare recipients to work instead.  When it succeeds, the GOP then pivots in its arguments and claims these very same people are cheating the government and are prime examples of “socialism.”  If it weren’t so cynical, it would be brilliant.

Obama and the Stock Market: A Year Later

Actually it’s more than  a year, but let’s look back.  You’ll recall that, after the inauguration ball balloons deflated, the Republicans started to blame the stock market collapse on Obama, or at the very least, they pointed to the stock market as proof that American business did not believe in Obama’s politics.  They pointed to the Dow, as of March 3 of last year, being down 30% since Obama’s election and 15% since Obama’s inauguration.

So where are we today, 17 months after the president’s election and not quite 15 months after his inauguration:

Since his election, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 14%.

Since his inauguration, the DJIA is up 38%.

So why isn’t the GOP giving him credit now?

(Thanks to the “Ed Show” on MSNBC for reminding me of this.)

A Big Idea

Congressional Republicans achieved a goal during yesterday’s healthcare summit. They shed their “party of no” label. They had ideas.

But Obama saw them and raised them one. He framed them as the party of small ideas while Democrats have a big idea. As in, we’re planning to fix healthcare instead of, as Sen. Tom Harkin said of the GOP plan, throw 10 feet of rope to a man drowning 50 feet from the boat—with a promise that at some later point, we’ll throw him a 20 foot rope.

The GOP did their homework well. As is usual the case, they were, in large part, more articulate than many of the Democrats, the president included. They had fire in their bellies and a list of facts and ideological bon mots. Even when they threw hanging curve balls, the Dems took called strikes. When I commented on that in a contemporaneous post yesterday, a friend also in my line of work called incredulous himself. The response to that oft charge of letting the government makes decisions instead of “the American people and their doctors” is, “Oh, if it were only so. Now it’s the insurance exec making millions of dollars a year who now gets to make that decision.”

But the Dems warmed up a little by the late innings, both rhetorically and passionately. The best I heard all day was by Sen. Dick Durbin. After the two Republican doctors lorded their experience over the crowd, Durbin gave them the view from the street. He’s been a good old fashioned—and as the GOP would characterize, “ambulance chasing”—trial lawyer. He’s defended victims of medical malpractice and the doctors that perform it. And showing his summation skills, he spoke in smooth paragraphs.

As any good lawyer would, he eviscerated the “common knowledge.” Both the number and award amounts of medical malpractice have dropped precipitously over the years, not increased, he said. The number of paid malpractice claims decreased 50 percent in the last 20 years, and the amount of awards have dropped the same 50 percent in the last five years. Then, he played the jury’s heart strings by telling the story of a woman who went in to have a mole surgically removed only to have the oxygen ignite, scarring her face for life and submitting her to repeated operations.

“Her life will never be the same. And you are saying that this innocent woman is only entitled to $250,000 in pain and suffering. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Certainly, GOP Chairman Michael Steele could understand that, he who thinks one million dollars, after taxes, “is not a lot of money.” Two hundred fifty thousand isn’t even walking around money for the chairman.

CNN, probably taking a cue from, I believe it was, GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell that Republicans weren’t getting enough hot air time, tracked the minutes party representatives talked.

Democrats spoke for a total of 135 minutes while President Obama spoke for 122 minutes, for a total of 257 minutes. Republicans, meanwhile, spoke for just 111 minutes, about 30 percent of the total speaking time.

The president spent too many of his minutes hemming and hawing as he is wont to do in extemporaneous situations. He often starts off searching for words in bursts of disconnected phrases. But when he warms, he can cut you with a butter knife.

His summation, which started in that same hesitant fashion, got legs. He cut through the GOP apocalyptic rhetoric.

“I know that there’s been a discussion about whether a government should intrude in the insurance market. But it turns out, on things like capping out-of-pocket expenses or making sure that people are able to purchase insurance even if they’ve got a preexisting condition, overwhelmingly, people say the insurance market should be regulated.

And so one thing that I’d ask from my Republican friends is to look at the list of insurance reforms and make sure that those that you have not included in your plans, right now, are ones, in fact, that you don’t think the American people should get.”

He reminded our representatives that they should be willing to let the American people have the same insurance coverage they have. He deftly framed his solutions as market driven as Sam Walton. His comparison of a wide open insurance market left to the states with what happened in the credit card market was one people could easily understand. He cited new statistics demonstrating how Americans already have chosen the government as their main source of insurance because companies can’t offer it anymore. And he used a little humor to undercut GOP criticism of the bill’s length and make the point that small ideas won’t work.

“I did not propose and I don’t think any of the Democrats proposed something complicated just for the sake of being complicated. We’d love to have a five-page bill. It would save an awful lot of work.

The reason we didn’t do it is because it turns out that baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go. They need help right now. And so a step-by-step approach sounds good in theory, but the problem is, for example, we can’t solve the preexisting problem if we don’t do something about coverage.”

By this time, Obama has found his voice. He’s talking smoothly and minimizing the “hums” and “uhs.”

He then made the observation that I would have put a little differently, though his way sufficed. The Republicans think compromise is first, Dems put their ideas out there. Then Republicans put theirs. And then we all accept the GOP plan—lock, stock and barrel. Voila, bi-partisanship!

Finally, in music to the ears of those who thought he has no soul or fight in him,

“We cannot have another year-long debate about this. So the question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something?

And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about — about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?”

Yes, Mr. President, that’s all right.

Healthcare Summit: Who Controls Costs?

I haven’t heard the basic response to the Republicans’ argument that we don’t want the government making decisions instead of the patients and their doctors.  The response is simply:  People don’t have control; insurance executives do.  Why the Dems don’t say that is beyond me.  Even when Sen. Kyl made the charge again before the lunch break, Obama said “everybody’s angry at Washington,” instead of pointing out that insurance companies now decide.

White House Caves…Again!

What chance is there for a public option – or even significant healthcare reform, if the White House caves in to GOP pressure on such a small matter as this.

Following a furor over how the data would be used, the White House has shut down an electronic tip box — — that was set up to receive information on “fishy” claims about President Barack Obama’s health plan.

…Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote a letter to Obama raising privacy concerns about what the senator called an “Obama monitoring program.”