Political Hay

The Zebra’s Focus Group

Barack Obama can change his rhetorical stripes, but not reality.

By 8.5.11

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Contra the mewling hordes of Democratic strategists and liberal columnists currently wailing and gnashing their way across op-ed pages and cable television panels, Barack Obama is not the first leader in history to find his legacy-baiting megalomania frustrated by limited resources and popular discontent.

"Formerly it was faith which was the chief supporter of the throne; nowadays it is credit," the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed long ago. "If in times past it was the guilty debt of the world which was lamented, now it is the financial debts of the world which arouse dismay."

I'll let readers determine for themselves what the famous stoic who declared, "It is easy to see how dull and stupid are the philosophasters who in pompous phrases represent that the State is the supreme end and flower of human existence," would think of President Yes We Can. For now let us merely note how unoriginal and pedantic this desire for one's subjects to be malleable and credulous truly is then move on to Stanley Greenberg's recent New York Times piece, "Why Voters Tune Out Democrats."

"A crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism," Greenberg writes. "It doesn't hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?"

This underestimates, I think, how far the libertarian reed within the GOP thicket is forced to bend when Republicans are ascendant. The desire to punish political foes subsumes ideological alliances with depressing frequency -- just ask whatever Liberaltarian Jackalopes managed to survive the 2008 culling.

Yet the more fundamental issue here is that Greenberg's formulation sets up the "crisis of government legitimacy" as a strictly partisan problem -- that is, illegitimacy reaches a crisis point only when the electorate doubts "Democrats who aim to use the government," not when voters look askance at the unrelenting expansion of the regulatory state and its accompanying fetid, amoral governing bureaucracy, which, often as not, appears bound and determined to prove Albert Jay Nock's maxim that "whatever power you give the State to do things for you carries with it the equivalent power to do things to you."

A political party as sure of the soundness of its policies as it is of its noble intentions might welcome skepticism as an opportunity to decisively win a given policy debate.

But, no, the political class in this country wants faith to be the chief supporter of the throne and blind partisan trust is more valuable to them than any professed ideal.

IF GREENBERG WOULD REALLY like to know why voters are tuning out Democrats he should, ironically enough, take a gander the most recent memo from his own polling firm, Democracy Corps. Bluntly entitled "Winning on a Losing Economy," the report may not be a blueprint for substantive philosophical engagement, but it does promise a framework that will enable Democrats to "dominate conservatives and Republicans," virtually guaranteeing it a wide audience.

I have two initial responses to this: The first is, Ooooh, tough boys say, Grrrr! The second is a sort of deep sigh that says in a respectful, nonverbal way, Framing, Mr. Greenberg? 2003 called -- it wants its manias back! What's next? A Fahrenheit 9/11 viewing party hosted by George Lakoff?

Whatever criticisms one may lodge regarding the framing frame, however, its fresh rhetorical approach cannot be denied. That musty old framework of blaming George W. Bush for every ill and promising quantifiable progress at some point in the near future? James Carville kicked that to the curb with last week's garbage, friend! The new framework "rejects the battle over who is to blame for the economic crisis as old politics" and "at no point does it say we are making progress or moving in the right direction but instead says we have immense economic problems that will take years to solve," which, conveniently, "makes the crisis and recovery the work of the first term and it makes the task of changing the economy the work of the second."

"By putting the crisis into the first term," Democracy Corps assures Democrats, "Obama is freed to acknowledge the pain of the real economy and make it his passion."

Quick question: If the "pain of the real economy" really were Obama's passion, wouldn't he be able to figure it out without an extensive series of polls testing "frameworks"?

Never mind. All of this, Democracy Corps contends, is a necessary reaction to a "Republican message framework centered on spending and deficits, the failed recovery and continued spending and tax cuts is quite powerful, though not stronger than the Democrats' strongest messages." (I presume here Greenburg is referring to arguments other than the ones he hears across the dinner table from his wife, Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.)

You cannot blame hacks of whatever stripe for encouraging distillation and clarity, of course. But this so-called "Republican message framework" did not spring sui generis from the RNC's underground Evil Corporatist Lab for Language Manipulation. The stimulus, for example, did not fail spectacularly by Republican benchmarks, it failed against the wildly off-base estimates the Obama Administration brazenly touted in the lead up to the vote. It failed according to the standards of Vice President Joe Biden, who loudly brayed at the outset of Recovery Summer 2010 the doubters would soon see the economy creating "500,000 jobs a month." It failed by the lights of Nancy Pelosi, who insisted a vastly unpopular healthcare reform bill would create "400,000 jobs almost immediately." It failed because, according to Obama himself, "shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected."

Had the stimulus lived up to its hype, Republicans would have taken the political hit no matter how many experts they brought into massage the message and we'd all still be listening to the president yammer on about how he put the car in "D" and pushed it out of the ditch while Republicans drank their slurpees.

I'm quite sure Stanley Greenberg would have had the time of his life drafting polling questions under that scenario. Alas, what the poor man has been left to work with is something a stable-hand might call truly shovel-ready.

"Barack Obama can't catch a break from the American public on the economy," Greenburg writes, "even though he prevented a depression and saved global capitalism."

I guess we could charitably deem that assertion questionable. For the sake of argument, though, let's say Greenberg hit the nail on the head. Well, then, a shame the president didn't set the barometer accordingly rather than tell us "generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."

Call me a cynic, but nowhere in that (in)famous speech does Obama say, "Also, just to keep expectations in check, let me add that we will make no progress or move in the right direction until the second term, but if it makes you feel any better I can promise my presidential robot will sign a full extension of the Patriot Act into law."

I suspect this is why one of Greenberg's remedies for Democrats' current flailing is to "detoxify" politics by passing laws to "severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions" and impose a forced regime of public campaign financing.

It's much easier to build frameworks, I imagine, when there is a regulator in your corner rearing to chop down the ones erected by the other side.

HERE'S THE THING: Barack Obama is doubtless a compassionate, caring man -- in fact, it is probably self-awareness of his own virtuous intentions that allows the president to behave so churlish and imperious while maintaining a clear conscience. This is why we have a constraining Constitution -- to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, whatever Obama's most ardent fans or Woody "Make Obama Dictator for a Few Years" Allen believe, we have not found angels in the form of kings to govern us.

Whatever the intent of its designer -- or perhaps in this case, figurehead -- you cannot instill reason or a soul into technocracy.

Peggy Noonan stirred up a lot of mud tossing the "loser" epithet at the president last week, but I was more struck by this remarkable paragraph:

The secret of Mr. Obama is that he isn't really very good at politics, and he isn't good at politics because he doesn't really get people. The other day a Republican political veteran forwarded me a hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. It read like politics as done by Martians. The "Analytics Department" is looking for "predictive Modeling/Data Mining" specialists to join the campaign's "multi-disciplinary team of statisticians," which will use "predictive modeling" to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. "We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions."

I ask you, dear reader, does that sound like a campaign simply searching for the best way to honestly project its candidate's innate passions? Or does it sound like a political machine determined to say and do whatever it takes to get to the next zero-sum round where the framework will consist of fiat rule by executive orders and rule-making delegation? For our own good, of course.

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