Monday, May 28, 2012

A false choice between hope and fear

Media coverage of political strategy is often about framing false choices. Or rather, about framing either/or choices where a delicate balance is required.

For the Obama campaign, the either/or de jour is hope vs. fear.  A couple of days ago, I put forward my own plea that the Obama campaign quite legitimately scare us by spelling out the consequences of the tax cuts and budget cuts Romney has promised.  Seems I needn't have worried -- at least as regards the degree of aggression, if not its focus: I think it should be mainly economic, as Romney's polling lead as the candidate better able to manage the economy is the chief danger sign for the Obama campaign right now.  But John Heilemann has taken a deep dive into the Obama campaign's thinking, and he reports on plans for a full-scale multi-front attack in the offing:

But if the Obama 2012 strategy in this regard is all about the amplification of 2008, in terms of message it will represent a striking deviation. Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”
This prospect leads, perhaps inevitably, to fretting about Obama losing his above-the-fray image:
Thus, to a very real degree, 2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear. For many Democrats, this is just fine and dandy, for they believe that in the Romney-Republican agenda there is plenty to be scared of. For others in the party in both politics and business, however, the new Obama posture is cause for concern. From the gay-­marriage decision to the onslaught on Bain, they see the president and his team as coming across as too divisive, too conventional, and too nakedly political, putting at risk Obama’s greatest asset—his likability—with the voters in the middle of the electorate who will ultimately decide his fate.

Whichever side is right, one thing is undeniable. For anyone still starry-eyed about Obama, the months ahead will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power—in other words, a politician.
While the danger outlined here is real, I still think the framing is a bit false. If you hope for one policy course, you will necessarily fear the opposite  -- particularly when your opposition has swung to such an extreme that, as Obama quite accurately said about the current GOP, Ronald Reagan could not get nominated today.  When it comes to arousing fear, though, it all depends on how you do it.

One way is to make up or tap into myths about your opponent: he does not believe in America maintaining world leadership, he believes in equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, he has enacted a government takeover of the economy, he has destroyed patient choice in healthcare, he has lit a prairie fire of debt.  Then there's this way:
This new House Republican budget, however, breaks our bipartisan agreement and proposes massive new cuts in annual domestic spending. Exactly the area where we’ve already cut the most. And I want to actually go through what it would mean for our country if these cuts were to be spread out evenly. So bear with me. I want to go through this because I don’t think people fully appreciate the nature of this budget.

The year after next, nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each. There would be 1,600 fewer medical grants. Research grants for things likes Alzheimer’s and cancer and AIDS. There would be 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students and teachers.

Investments in clean energy technology that are helping us reduce our dependence on foreign oil would be cut by nearly a fifth. If this budget becomes law, and the cuts were applied evenly starting in 2014, over 200,000 children would lose their chance to get an early education in the Head Start program. Two million mothers and young children would be cut from a program that gives them access to healthy food... [much more in this vein] That’s just a partial sampling of the consequences of this budget. Now, you can anticipate, Republicans may say, well, we’ll avoid some of these cuts since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make. But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas.

This is math. If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research, that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement. The converse is true as well. If they want to protect early childhood education, it will mean further reducing things like financial aid for young people trying to afford college. Perhaps they will never tell us where the knife will fall, but you can be sure that with cuts this deep, there is no secret plan or formula that will be able to protect the investments we need to help our economy grow.

This is not conjecture. I am not exaggerating. These are facts. And these are just the cuts that would happen the year after next. If this budget became law by the middle of the century, funding for the kinds of things I just mentioned would have to be cut by about 95 percent. Let me repeat that. Those categories I just mentioned, we would have to cut by 95 percent. As a practical matter, the federal budget would basically amount to whatever’s left of entitlements, defense spending and interest on the national debt, period.
That's Obama on the Ryan budget this past April.  As Ezra Klein detailed recently, Romney has embraced Ryan's budget principals and particulars (and enormous omissions) as his own.  To arouse fear about such proposals -- laying out explicitly how you fill in the blanks they refuse to specify -- is not just legitimate, and fair, and clean. It's a positive duty.

Also perfectly legitimate -- in fact, pitch-perfect -- is the kind of criticism of Romney's Bain tenure that Obama has delivered in his own voice:
I think it's important to recognize that this issue is not a, quote, "distraction." This is part of the debate that we're going to be having in this election campaign about how do we create an economy where everybody from top to bottom, folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street, have a shot at success.

And if they're working hard and they're acting responsibly that they're able to live out the American dream. Now I think my view of private equity is that it is set up to maximize profits and that's a healthy part of the free market.

That's -- that's part of the role of a lot of business people. That's not unique to private equity and as I think my representatives have said repeatedly and I will say today, I think there are folks who do good work in that area.

And there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs or new industries. But understand that their priority is to maximize profits. And that's not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers.

And the reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Governor Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience. He's not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts.

He's saying, I'm a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business. And when you're president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits.

Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off and how are we paying for their retraining? Your job is to think about how those communities can start creating new clusters so that they can attract new businesses.

Your job as president is to think about how do we set up an equitable tax system so that everybody's paying their fair share and it allows us to invest in science and technology and infrastructure? All of which are going to help us grow. So if you're main argument for how to grow the economy is, I knew how to make a lot of money for investors then you're missing what this job is about. It doesn't -- it doesn't mean you weren't good at private equity, but that's not what my job is as president.

My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure the company is growing not just now, but in 10 years from now and 20 years from now. So to repeat, this is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about.

It's what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed and that means I've got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I'm thinking about folks who have been much more successful. What I would say is that Mr. Romney is responsible for the proposals he's putting forward for how he says he's going to fix the economy.

And if the main basis for him suggesting he can do a better job, is his track record as the head of a private equity firm, and both the upsides and the downsides are worth examining. 
This is vintage Obama -- defining the precise parameters of legitimate attack, bringing everything back to policy. It is not new. The Obama-orchestrated speeches at the Democratic convention in 2008 were all about killing McCain with kindness -- paying tribute to his service as soldier and senator, slamming the assumptions that led him to put forward trickle-down policies  Here's Obama:
Now, I don't believe that Senator McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than one hundred million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own.

Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.
This is not to say that there are not dangers in tipping the campaign's tone too much into the negative. For one thing, the Republican Super Pacs  are going to heap such an unprecedented weight of misinformation on Obama's head that he will need intense attacks just to maintain parity.  That's why the Democrats need Super Pac firepower -- so that when laid-off workers call Romney a bloodsucker, Obama's hands are off. Then too, all we outsiders can fret ad infinitum about focus. I've got a couple of problems with this framing, relayed by Heilemann:
The Obama effort at disqualifying Romney will go beyond painting him as excessively conservative, however. It will aim to cast him as an avatar of revanchism. “He’s the fifties, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward—that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This fucking guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.’ ”
As cast, that really is divisive.  Obama's got to make the case, as he always has, that his economic policies are a formula for broad shared prosperity -- that it's in the interests of the prosperous as well as the precarious to invest in infrastructure, and education, and health insurance for all, and effective regulations that protect the environment and the consumer and the financial system.  At the same time, the fear factor needs to be higher. Romney is promising not to take us back to "the way it always was," but to gut the social safety net and regulatory regime and turbo charge income equality to degrees that take us back to before the Eisenhower era, when core New Deal protections became a matter of bipartisan consensus. 

 So again: scare us, Obama. But do it in your own inimitable, fact-based way.  And tell us what we're voting for, too.

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