Barack, Can We Talk?

It’s me. I’m here in the Democratic base. It’s been a little testy between your people and my people lately, and I’m concerned that things might get out of hand. Worse, I worry that you don’t understand why.

It’s not that we don’t understand how government works, or that democracy runs on compromise. And it’s not that we thought you were some kind of messiah, who could turn the country around just by pointing in a new direction. (That slam on us was originally a Republican talking point, remember?)

Let me try to explain how it looks from our point of view.

You know I wouldn’t use George W. Bush as an example unless I were desperate, right? Well, in 2005 Bush went all out promoting his Social Security privatization plan. Bankruptcy, personal accounts, blah, blah, blah.

The country hated it. So what did Bush do next? He could have decided that (having put so much effort into raising the issue) he had to “get something done”. That would require Democratic support, so he could have adopted a Democratic idea, like extending Social Security taxes to all wages rather than just the first $100K or so.

And then he could have sold the “compromise” package to the public by adopting Democratic rhetoric — maybe by pointing out how well the wealthiest Americans had done over the past 20 years, and how this bill was just asking them to “give something back” for all the benefits the American economy had given them.

Can’t picture it, can you? Me either — and that’s the point. Dumb as he was, President Bush understood two important things:

  • The Republican Party stands for something. You can’t take any old idea and call it “Republican” without screwing up the brand.
  • The political struggle isn’t just about writing laws, it’s about defining reality. Republican success rests on a collection of public misconceptions and faulty frames. As long as the public believes that stuff, they win.

Brands. Every Republican candidate starts every campaign with an advantage: All he has to do is say “Joe Shmoe, conservative Republican” and everybody knows who he is and what he stands for. Low taxes, less regulation, militarism, traditional social values — love that image or hate it, we all recognize it.

Democrats, on the other hand, have to establish themselves. That takes time and money, and it makes us vulnerable to mud-slinging and swift-boating.

Branding has to start at the top, and Democratic leaders haven’t been up to the job for decades now. Every time a Democratic president sounds like he’s making up his mind on the fly, we’re that much further away from having an effective Democratic brand.

Reality. Listen to the Republican presidential candidates: Global warming isn’t real. Spending cuts create jobs. Rich people are job creators. The unemployed are lazy. Unions hurt working people. Government can’t create jobs. All government spending is waste. The minimum wage is too high. The stimulus failed. Protecting the environment is a luxury we can’t afford. Roads, schools, and parks are luxuries we can’t afford. Medical care for the old and poor is a luxury we can’t afford.

That’s the sound of reality being defined. When we take on issues one at a time, we fight on a terrain Republicans have been shaping for decades. That’s why Bush never adopted Democratic rhetoric, and why it kills us when Republican rhetoric comes out of your mouth.

What we need from our Democratic president isn’t just a few more dollars for infrastructure or the unemployed, we need a defense of reality.

Compromising without fighting. Sure, Congress needs to pass budgets, and you have to compromise with Republicans to do that. But again and again, the Republicans remain faithful to their vision and you come out of the compromise owning the package. If the result turns out to be inadequate in some way, the public thinks the alternative is to do what the Republicans wanted.

Look at health care: Every real Democrat knows that the right answer is single-payer. It works in Europe. It’s cheaper and delivers better care. Sure, you couldn’t have gotten that through Congress. I know. I understand. But because you never proposed it, Democrats had no platform for talking about it. The compromise that came out of Congress is now ObamaCare (even though it’s based on the Mitt Romney/Heritage Foundation plan in Massachusetts), and the only alternative the public knows about is the Republican do-nothing plan.

Look at the stimulus. Liberal economists said it needed to be bigger and have less tax cuts. But because you never proposed that, the compromise that came out of Congress is the Obama stimulus. Here’s what Paul Krugman predicted in March, 2009:

It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

The problem is not that you compromise, it’s that you compromise without fighting. The public never sees the liberal alternative, so whatever passes becomes the leftmost edge of the possible.

Repeating false rhetoric. The reality-battlefield that we’re losing worst on is economics.

To you and me, it’s obvious that the economy has a demand problem: Businesses aren’t hiring because they have no customers. Give them a tax break, let them endanger their workers or dump more chemicals in the groundwater — and they still won’t have any customers, so they still won’t hire.

In these situations, government needs to create demand by spending. We have unemployed people, work that needs doing (bridges to rebuild, an electric grid that badly needs an upgrade), and investors willing to lend the government money at interest rates lower than inflation. It’s a no-brainer: Borrow the money to hire the people to do the work.

You know why we can’t mobilize public support behind that program? Because conservatives have convinced large chunks of the public to frame the problem wrong. The worst frame out there is the government/family analogy: Families have to cut back in hard times, so government should have to cut back too.

You know that’s nutty. Just like Joseph told Pharaoh, government has to save when everyone else is spending and spend when everyone else is saving. So why do you say things like this?

Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.

And why did you frame the debt-ceiling negotiations purely in deficit-reduction terms, as if job-creation wasn’t an issue?

Another false Republican frame is that businesses aren’t hiring because they lack “confidence”. They then link doubt to debt, and so justify the crazy idea that we can create jobs by cutting spending. This kind of nonsense needs to be called out at every turn.

Instead, a White House spokesman

repeatedly said that deficit-reduction was crucial in generating economic confidence. Confidence—he repeated this word many times.

What Democrats need from you. We need you to be a reality warrior. We need you and your whole administration to resist false Republican frames and never to lose sight of Democratic ideals, even when there is no clear path to implementing them.

If you have to compromise for the good of the country, compromise. But Republicans can’t make you adopt their rhetoric, no matter how many seats they have in Congress. Hold them responsible for their part of every compromise — by refusing to stop talking about what you would do if they would let you.

Don’t embrace the compromises, because that lets Republicans make their trade-offs for free: Every bit of deficit reduction costs jobs. Make them own that.

Talk about this: Full employment. Single-payer health care. Clean energy. Racial justice. Carbon reduction. Smart electric grid. Efficient mass transit. Education and opportunity for everyone.

Maybe we don’t see how to implement it all right now, but we should never lose sight of it. If not this year, next year. If not this decade, next decade. Don’t tell us we can’t.

Yes we can.

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  • macduff  On August 29, 2011 at 11:59 am

    What we need from our Democratic president isn’t just a few more dollars for infrastructure or the unemployed, we need a defense of reality.


  • Bob Hurst  On August 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    The Democratic Congressional Campaign called me Saturday, and I unloaded a lot of my frustrations. We might as well have the Republicans in charge for all that Obama has done. At least I could save my campaign contributions. The Republicans had dug themselves into a deep hole over the debt ceiling issue, and we sent down a ladder. I am ready for a challenger to emerge. Our President is woefully short on leadership.

  • Dave Kay  On August 29, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    So what do we do with Doug’s immensely valuable observations?
    How do these thoughts get to the people that can get them to Obama?
    I feel like we’re constantly preaching to the choir, when it’s the minister leading us astray.

  • James C  On September 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I agree the government/family analogy is wrong. Is there another model that works? The closest I can think of is barn raising.

    • weeklysift  On September 2, 2011 at 7:40 am

      It’s not a perfect replacement, but I’d justify infrastructure spending like this: When you can’t find a job, that’s the time to do projects around the house.

  • Dave  On September 2, 2011 at 10:47 am

    “When you can’t find a job, that’s the time to do projects around the house.”

    PERFECT! (Now if only people understood metaphors any more.)

  • weeklysift  On September 4, 2011 at 8:38 am

    You might want to check out the 800-comment discussion “Barack, Can We Talk?” touched off when I reposted it to Daily Kos.

  • Muncy  On September 4, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Hm, My interpretation of what Joseph told Pharaoh is “buy low, sell high.” And when you say “government has to save when everyone else is spending and spend when everyone else is saving”, I think, “counter cyclical fiscal policy”. Yes, this is what we need.
    The trouble is how do you get the Democrats or the Republicans to push away from the trough during the good time?
    So my thinking is that we need a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced budget over time.


  • By Truth Among Friends « The Weekly Sift on August 29, 2011 at 9:53 am

    […] Barack, Can We Talk? I can live with the budget compromises, even if I don’t like them. But we need you to build a Democratic brand and defend a progressive view of reality. When you start repeating deceptive Republican rhetoric — that’s just wrong. […]

  • By Strategies « The Weekly Sift on September 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

    […] them they’re still accounting for more than half the blog’s traffic.) Last week’s Barack, Can We Talk? got a more typical 450 views. However, it took off when I reposted it to Daily Kos, where it went […]

  • […] President Obama made a good speech, and (by most nonpartisan accounts) proposed a good program. But I think this is yet another example of the bad political tactics I talked about two weeks ago. […]

  • By Your 2012 Deep Background Briefing « The Weekly Sift on December 12, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    […] Gene McCarthy in 1968. But not this year. The Left hasn’t been happy with Obama (see my own Barack, Can We Talk?), but after seeing the Tea Party governors like Scott Walker, few liberals are willing to risk […]

  • By The State of the Sift « The Weekly Sift on December 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    […] lead post on Daily Kos. Some of them drop like stones, while others do better there than here. (Barack, Can We Talk? got a better-than-average 611 page views on the Sift, but went crazy on Kos, drawing 806 comments […]

  • […] (compromising with people who don’t want to compromise) into the fantasy conversation Barack, Can We Talk?. This was also part of the Bizarro World theme: “What we need from our Democratic president […]

  • […] let the deadline for changing my registration pass. With reservations that I’ve outlined here and here, I’ll vote for […]

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