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“The Insurgent Strategy”: It’s Going To Be Hard To Convince Voters Of Republicans’ Compassion On The Economy

In recent months, Republicans have been searching for ways to talk about the economy that go beyond their traditional supply-side focus on growth, which says that if we do a few key things (cut taxes, reduce regulations), the economy will grow and everyone will benefit. Since the conversation about economics has shifted to things like inequality and wage stagnation, potential 2016 candidates want to show that they’re concerned about more than growth; this need is particularly acute in the wake of 2012, when Mitt Romney was caricatured as a ruthless plutocrat crushing the dreams of regular people in order to amass his vast fortune, all while heaping contempt on the “47 percent.”

Many Republicans believe that this entirely explains Romney’s loss, and if they can convince voters that they understand their struggles and have ideas to help them, then victory in 2016 is possible. But that would require them to counter some powerful and deeply ingrained stereotypes about their party. As Brendan Nyhan explains today, there is some political science research into the question of whether it can be done, under the heading of “issue ownership” and “issue trespassing”:

The Republican focus on inequality could address this vulnerability by helping the party look more caring, reducing the G.O.P.’s “damaging reputation for caring only about the economic interests of the rich,” as National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru put it.

But there is risk in issue-trespassing of the sort that the Republicans are attempting. One political science study found that the strategy is rarely successful and that voters tend to rely on party stereotypes instead — a conclusion that is reinforced by miscues like the infamous Dukakis tank ride. Democrats are already likening Jeb Bush to Mr. Romney in an attempt to buttress the stereotype of the G.O.P. as the party of the rich.

And even if the move to address inequality lessens Republican image problems, it will be only a stopgap. Assuming the economy continues to improve, Republicans will be forced to pursue what Lynn Vavreck, an Upshot contributor, calls an “insurgent” strategy in 2016, trying to focus the election on another issue in which its presidential candidate has an inherent advantage.

Unfortunately, good insurgent issues are hard to find. Inequality doesn’t look like a winner for Republicans in this election. That’s why Mr. Bush, like Mr. Dukakis, has struck some analysts as sounding like a technocrat — he can’t run on the economy and doesn’t have a good alternative issue or trait to emphasize (unlike his brother George, who successfully ran as the Not Clinton candidate in 2000).

The Dukakis example is an interesting and revealing one. In 1988, at the end of a huge military build-up, Dukakis tried to argue that the question wasn’t whether our military was big, but whether we were making smart decisions about what weapons we purchased and what we did with them. Then somebody thought it would be good for him to take a ride in a tank, just to show that he liked big things that go boom just as much as any Republican, ignoring the fact that it would violate the most important rule of presidential campaigning, which is “No hats.” Your candidate should never, ever put on a hat. The Republicans made an ad mocking him for riding in a tank, and suddenly the discussion on defense was back on the strong/weak axis, not on the smart/dumb axis Dukakis wanted.

In 2016, all it’s going to take is one thing to undo months of careful attempts by the Republican candidate to show he’s compassionate and understands people’s economic needs. Maybe it’ll be an infelicitous remark the candidate makes, or it might even be something someone else says. But the Democrats will be waiting to show the voters that the nominee is just like every other Republican, and when it happens they’ll be on it like white on rice.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum, Line, The Washington Post, February 13, 2015

February 15, 2015 Posted by | Compassionate Conservatism, Economic Inequality, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Times Are A Changin”: Once Upon A Time, Everybody Wanted To Be “Tough on Crime”

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent’s opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, “Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?”

As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one. In many cases, we’d make ten or so different mail pieces for a client, and eight of them would be about crime. In other words, in every last race we worked on, every candidate was accusing every other candidate of being soft on crime. The highlight of my consulting career was when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could trace around my body with chalk for a murder aftermath scene we staged.

Of course, it was all tinged with the inescapable whiff of race—the most famous soft-on-crime attack from the era was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 assault on Michael Dukakis over the “Willie Horton” case.  These days we look at the elder Bush as a kindly old man who does things like wear silly socks and shave his head in solidarity with a young cancer patient, and his place in history has been immeasurably aided by the fact that his presidency was nothing like the spectacular disaster of his son’s. But we shouldn’t forget that in order to reach the White House, H.W. enthusiastically led one of the most despicable campaigns of racist fear-mongering in the history of American politics. It isn’t that crime wasn’t genuinely high in those days, because it was. But the media took people’s real concerns and whipped them into a frenzy of fear, talking about crack babies condemned to lifetimes of mental retardation (which turned out to be completely bogus) and terrifying young black male “superpredators” (ditto), turning individual horror stories into lightning-fast policy changes, like the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass, which produced a local-media frenzy the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before or since and led directly to California’s “three strikes” law.

At the time, the question was never, “Is this proposed measure to increase prison sentences a good idea?” The only question, asked by politicians from both parties, was whether it couldn’t be made much tougher. If you suggested that “tough” might not be the best standard by which a policy should be judged, you were risking your political career. Republicans embraced this zeitgeist with glee, and Democrats embraced it out of abject fear.

Fortunately, times have changed, and it’s now possible to have a rational discussion about crime. That simple fact—that politicians can support a variety of proposals on crime and punishment without worrying that their careers will be over as soon as somebody utters the phrase “soft on crime”—is something for which we should be enormously thankful, as much work remains to be done. As Greg Sargent pointed out, “this is an issue around which Dems concerned about racial justice, and conservative libertarians (such as Senator Paul) who share race-based concerns in their better moments, and conservatives who see the issue more through the prism of their opposition to government overreach and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, should theoretically be able to find common ground.”

The most important change in the last 20 years is that crime has fallen so dramatically (see here for instance), and in response we’ve seen a real cultural shift. I’m sure there are still politicians who’d love to tar their opponents as soft on crime. But they know it probably wouldn’t work. And that means there’s at least a chance we can make real policy change.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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