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May 22, 2012 12:55 PM I’m Broke! Please Stop Helping Me!

By Ed Kilgore

If Mitt Romney does get elected president and Republicans do win control of the House and Senate this November, it will be in no small part, I believe, because progressives at least partially lost a meta-argument over what government should do to deal with a deep recession. Until very recently, Republicans and Democrats basically agreed that the public sector should respond with stimulative measures, though the former tended to favor monetary policy and the latter fiscal policy as the best approach.

But now the idea that public-sector austerity (and for that matter, restrictive monetary policy) is an appropriate response has made a big comeback on the Right, and a significant segment of the voting public seems to buy it as well, no matter how much Paul Krugman and other mainstream economists rage at the absurdity of it all.

That’s why appeals like the one offered in the latest Crossroads GPS anti-Obama ad aren’t just laughed off the screen. You can view it and read a brief analysis at the New York Times. I urge you to watch it. It features a middle-classy-looking white woman happily watching her kids play basketball in their driveway. Then they morph into young adulthood, she ages, and she talks about how they’ve moved back in with her because they can’t find jobs, and she can’t afford to retire. She voted for Obama for “change,” but instead he spent and spent and spent. And the whole narration shifts into the standard right-wing rap about rising debt and Big Government. The only effort made to connect any of that with the economic pain the fictional family is suffering is the mother’s worry that her kids won’t be able to pay off all that debt if they can’t find a job. You’d think they were going to be presented with individual bills for public debt any old day now.

The ad does not, of course, acknowledge that this or any other family might be the beneficiaries of some of that spending; it is presumably being poured down ratholes or perhaps given to those other people. Nor does the ad indicate that the “New Majority Agenda” of tax and spending cuts it promotes might have a negative impact on the family, even though there is the image of a student loan bill in one shot. Viewers are urged to tell Obama to stop the “job-killing debt;” that is the sum and substance of its economic argument.

I recently read David Corn’s account of the inner workings of the Obama White House in 2011, entitled Showdown, which mainly dealt with the runup to the debt limit agreement that year. On the crucial subject of why Obama fished into a public debate on deficit reduction instead of maintaining a focus on jobs, Corn says the White House was looking at private polling and focus groups that indicated a significant majority of Americans, and particularly independents, were buying the “job-killing debt” argument. In their own minds, at least, they weren’t surrendering the Keynesian high ground; it had already been lost.

I don’t know how much of this assessment of public opinion is accurate; polling on macroeconomic theories is not the most exact science, and there were other factors at play, most obviously the refusal of Republicans to support any actions that did not involve deficit reduction more or less on their terms. Corn also makes it clear that all along Obama was trying to get to the point where sharp comparisons of Democratic and Republican policies could be credibly made—the point at which he seems to have arrived this year.

But as the Crossroads GPS ad shows, the public debate we never really had about Keynesianism left the country in a position where Republicans can claim they are the real friends of the unemployed, even as they fight to cut or kill unemployment benefits, and weaken and then abolish other elements of the social safety net. It’s cold comfort to know that the woman with her basketball-playing kids is not going to be very happy when she finally figures out what the “New Majority Agenda” actually means.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • matt on May 22, 2012 1:07 PM:

    Why would she ever figure it out?

  • jjm on May 22, 2012 1:18 PM:

    You're right about not having the debate. It was not ALLOWED to happen because the MSM preferred the hysterical yowlings of the billionaire tea partiers.

    As for the campaign: it looks exceedingly dull to me: what are they going to say for the next six months? The GOP is just spinning and spinning the same yarn: Obama failed on the economy...Duh. Not THAT much of a failure, dudes!!!

    What else? They've discovered, apparently from their dumb focus groups that the swing voters don't like the really stupid vitriolic ads directed at the Nazi/Communist/Kenyan/ et al. So now they are trying the soft approach: a fictional white middle class woman whose children have had to move back home because they can't find jobs. And that's supposed to do the trick?

    Hmm. This fictional white lady still, after all, HAS a HOME, it's not been foreclosed on.

    But the GOP can't go there, because all it wants to do is to imply that they will do better than Obama for those white Republican families that are now seeing what their GOP presidency for 8 years netted them. Implying, thus, that Obama's only cleaning up the economy for the democratic demographic.

    Won't work. They really CAN'T run on the economy, lest they open the door to powerful ads about the Bush economic crisis and the horrors it has brought on.

  • TCinLA on May 22, 2012 1:24 PM:

    Given that most Americans don't have a clue how government works and can barely make proper change when they shop at the supermarket if the clerk doesn't have a cash register that tells them what the correct amount is, this lack of economic understanding is unsurprising. Remember, 40% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth and 50% think the earth is only 10,000 years old and that Fred Flintstone really did live with dinosaurs. This country, which was founded on the necessity of an informed and intelligent population is literally dying of ignorance.

  • gdb on May 22, 2012 1:30 PM:

    So how, exactly, are voters to be informed about Keynesian economics and the need for stimulus in a liquidity trap/recession if it is never advocated? I suspect never--- until Dems advocate effective Keynesian economic policies. Until then, the electorate will move further and further anti-Keynesian.
    Ironically, the best result for Dems and the country may be a Repub win in November, probably due to an economic downturn between now and November. Mittens and Repub policies once they are in undisputed control will then be fully held responsible for the continued Great Recession that will not end, barring a large, old-fashioned non-nuclear war stumulus. In such an instance, you can bet your booties the Dems will finally run politicaian who strngly advocate Keynesian policies.
    Consider the alternative-- a BHO win. BHO has no policicies to effectivlely end the Great Recession... and if he did, he won't get them though a Repub dominated House and/or Senate (The probabilities are near-zilch of Dems controlling both H&S with the large majorities BHO assumes he needs to govern). That's a recipe for Repubs campaigning against Dems for a generation for the continuation of the Great Recession. BHO becomnes the Hoover of the 21st Century.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 22, 2012 1:31 PM:

    I want a Republican to explain how exactly government debt kills jobs. It doesn't make any sense, on any level. Is it supposed to be that big debt means future tax hikes, which means businesses and rich people reluctant to hire? What's the mechanism? Why is it convincing?

  • c u n d gulag on May 22, 2012 1:32 PM:

    The "New Majority Agenda?"

    Conservatives LOVE that word, agenda.
    Me?
    I hear that word "agenda" from Conservatives, I know something bad's gonna happen.

    -Nixon gave us "The Silent Majority" - dog whistle for w-h-i-t-e. And the quiet people who don't protest Civil, or other rights, or wars, either.

    -Reagan gave us "The Moral Majority" - for "moral" people. You know, religious people who don't feck like bunnies like the Welfare Queens.

    And now this.

    The real genius of Conservative/Republican messaging on this is tying in the nations budget with a families budget - which is like comparing an aircraft carrier to a dingy. Or a banker with a loan-shark.

    But people know every family has to budget.
    And they saw what happened when they took out too many credit cards and 2nd mortgages, like they had to do when a Republican was in charge!
    And now, a lot of them are in debt, with a house worth less than what they paid for it.

    And they listen to the messages from the R's who got them in their won messes in the first place, and think that the word "stimulus" is synonymous with "credit card."
    And never mind that the one will borrow money at an almost historical low interest rate, and give a needed boost to the economy, with their Visa or Mastercard, which had a 12-18% rate that spiked on them a few years ago.

    This has been explained as wrong-headed thinking by most economists.
    But it hits on a more local, visceral, level.
    While the Democratic message involved numbers, and history, and having to think.
    The family is a "gut" thing.
    The nation is a "visceral" thing.
    And "gut" wins every time.

    Frank Luntz is the (evil) genius behind messaging like this. He is a master word-manipulator.

    Why can't Democrats find someone like him, to counter-message?

    Because we keep waiting for people to use their heads, so we present facts and figures.
    R's use the KISS method, and use simple things to scare the living crap out of naive, trusting, stupid, or ignorant people. Now, throw in some racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homo-phobia, and you stand a good chance of winning an election.

    OY!
    We are too stupid and gullible a people to survive as a nation much longer.

  • Diane Rodriguez on May 22, 2012 1:34 PM:

    The census report last week that indicated minority births overtook white births should be a huge clue to the Obama campaign. Granted those babies aren't voting age, but their parents are. I would like to see an effort to engage minorities of all ethnic groups in a messaging campaign about "this is your country too - vote". I see plenty of business ad billboards in Mexican American neighborhoods in Spanish and in our (Sacramento) Little Saigon neighborhood there is great opportunity. We have a large Indian and Pakistani population too. I know California is not in danger of going red, but I'm suggesting a model.

    As demographics continue to change, the older, white, poorly educated as well as the top economic % of white earners will kick and scream louder and more viciously, while attempting to repress people who arenít them by any means necessary. Letís help demographics along and push thought forward instead of embracing backward ideas.

  • c u n d gulag on May 22, 2012 1:35 PM:

    Aaaargh!
    That early line should read like this:

    'Me?
    I hear that word "MAJORITY" from Conservatives, I know something bad's gonna happen.'

    Kent oui evah getz "Edit" pleeze?

  • smartalek on May 22, 2012 1:35 PM:

    "Corn also makes it clear that all along Obama was trying to get to the point where sharp comparisons of Democratic and Republican policies could be credibly madeóthe point at which he seems to have arrived this year."

    Really.
    Huh ----- I'm glad you explained that to us, since (silly me), when Obama said ----- was it a year or two ago? ----- that , "government, like families, has to tighten its belt in hard times," he was doing the exact opposite, and instead supporting the same conservatoid/Publican BS that got us into the mess from which we're still trying to dig our way out. And, of course, leaving Jane & Joe Sixpak with literally no countervailing public voice (unless they just happen to follow Krugman in the NYT).
    Thanks for setting me straight on that.


    Captcha: taistra crypts
    Mmmmm... tasty crypts? Nummers!

  • stormskies on May 22, 2012 1:36 PM:

    And that ignorance is willful: willful stupidity. It's the same population that voted back in the Repiglicans in 2010 just two years after their polices lead to the almost total economic collapse of our country, and the worlds. Just two years after.

    And, of course, these are the Repiglicans who not only created the policies that lead to the collapse, but are the very same now who want to return to those very policies. And they are the same Repiglicans who have tried to block every effort by Obama to fix the total fucking mess they created in the first place: purposefully. And doing so that they can then blame Obama and the Democrats for the very problem that they are responsible for creating.

    And, of course, this 'narrative' created by them has total complicity with the corporate media who reinforce that narrative as much as they possible can.

    Which then lead right back to the underlying purposeful stupidity of a large amount of our population who needs to 'believe' in this narrative to the point of purposefully ignoring the actual facts that defeat that narrative: purposeful stupidity. In essence, it is more psychologically important to these imbecilic Americans to believe in their delusive narratives than factual reality because the factual reality would then make them admit that they are in fact fucking wrong.

    If they had to admit that they are wrong then their entire life would be wrong: how they have put it together. So then what ? So of course the corporate media knows then and thus reinforces the delusive narratives so that they cretins can the pretend that what they 'believe' is true.

    This is why are country is in such deep trouble, and also why much of our corporate media are in fact criminals because they know that they are lying.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 22, 2012 1:36 PM:

    @gdb, at least arguing against Keynesian stimulus has a structure that passes for logical if you don't think too hard about it: to wit, if you owe money, you shouldn't borrow more to spend more. There are counter-argument to that, of course, and good ones, but that at least has a kind of (illusory) coherence about it. But "job-killing debt" makes no sense at all. There's no reason for it to be convincing or for it to resemble a household-level situation.

  • advocatethis on May 22, 2012 1:36 PM:

    The thing is, I'm not convince that we did lose the meta-argument, because I'm not convinced that the next time the Republicans hold the White House and Congress and a recession or depression hits, they won't do the right thing. They'll become Keynsians again, and the Democrats will support them. The difference is that the Democrats will do it because they think it's the right thing to do, regardless of who is in the White House. The Republicans will do it because they think it's the right thing to do, as well, but they will do only do it if they get credit for it. If an Democrat is in the White House they will let the nation suffer for strictly partisan gain.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 22, 2012 1:42 PM:

    Both parties believe in stimulating the economy, sure. But Republicans believe as an article of faith that the only way this ought to be done is to cut taxes. And they want to do that in good times and in bad times. And they have no desire to see the government borrow money cheaply to build lasting projects.

  • smartalek on May 22, 2012 1:43 PM:

    Gah.
    Sorry, that should've read, "I THOUGHT he was doing the exact opposite," etc.

  • boatboy_srq on May 22, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Humph. Another ad campaign aimed at the "get gubmint hands off my Medicare" set.

  • mudwall jackson on May 22, 2012 1:50 PM:

    Flip,

    i'm not a republican but ...

    the theory goes that high government debt will drive up interest rates as the government itself demands more and more cash to keep itself going. that makes it more difficult and expense for private borrowers as well.

    the flaw in the argument is reality. the cost of borrowing right now is dirt cheap. the yield on the 10-year treasury bond was something below 1.8 percent last time i looked. a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage could be had for less than 3.8 percent assuming of course you can qualify.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 22, 2012 1:55 PM:

    @mudwall, OK, fair enough, but does the person who says he or she agrees with the idea of "job killing debt" understand it that way? My guess would be, not bloody likely. I'm just hung up on the notion that there's an idea here that has gained traction, that is, that debt kills jobs, but I'd guess at least 90% of the people who would say they agreed would not be able to articulate why. And, like you said, if the argument is "higher interest rates," well, pointing to the actual interest rates seems like sufficient rebuttal.

  • Gandalf on May 22, 2012 1:58 PM:

    There's a saying in golf. If your not making putts get closer to the hole until you do make putts.The analogy is that the democrats need to dial in to what people want. The republicans can never do that because the masters that they serve are a really a small minority. So saying ,play by the same rules the republians play by or get out of the game. I'm always all for taking the high road but to qoute another saying "Don't take just a knife to gunufight".

  • T-Rex on May 22, 2012 2:12 PM:

    Am I the only one who remembers the Reagan years deficit? One thing we were all sure of was that future generations would be paying off that debt long after our lifetimes. Uh, not exactly. After Bush 41 and Clinton raised taxes, it evaporated. The kids who were supposed to inherit the debt back in the 80's weren't even in college yet.

  • Kathryn on May 22, 2012 2:30 PM:

    Does anybody think it would be persuasive to start, at some point, using the name of George W. Bush as in, If you liked the George W. Bush approach to the economy, you're going to love Romney, it's identical? Also, if you liked the war in Iraq, you're going to love war with Iran, Romney advisers same as Bush, they haven't learned.

    One slight bright spot, the Tea Party has lost some power and it's not being shoved down the public's face every waking moment.

  • Peter C on May 22, 2012 2:32 PM:

    Part of being a responsible leader is doing what is right even when focus groups of stupid people think it is wrong.

    Disgustingly, we have one party which is doing their best to do the right thing and another party which is exploiting the fear and ignorance of the American people for their own personal gain.

  • Ron Byers on May 22, 2012 2:51 PM:

    Cato the Elder usually finished his speeches on any subject in the Roman Senate by saying ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, which means "Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed."

    Similarly members of the insane right finish every discussion on any problem by saying "furthermore, it is our opinion taxes for the rich must be slashed."

    We should all be afraid because ultimately Carthage was destroyed.

  • Peter C on May 22, 2012 3:07 PM:

    Of course, I agree with @CUND; all the Republican's messages are emotional/visceral ones, carefully crafted to swindle the ignorant. When someone has to say, "I am not a crook!", you can bet they probably are.

    We cannot only use cerebrial messasges; we need to use visceral ones too.

    Here's our best visceral message for the general public: Romney is a rich Wall Street guy who wants to screw us and lower his own taxes. He's the 1%. (side benefit: this is powerfully self-evident about everything except perhaps the screwing bit. Given the Ryan-coupons-for-Grandma-budget, the screwing bit isn't a hard intellectual case to win, though.)

    Here's our best visceral message for the Evangelicals: Romney's a Mormon who thinks you are going to hell unless you convert. (dangerous pitfall: while doctrinally irrefutable, this sounds intolerant to the general public. I suggest saying these sorts of things while impersonating an Evangelical. With luck, Republcians will accuse you of not being a 'real' Evangelical and begin to distrust anyone who also sounds like an Evangelical.)

    Here's our best visceral message for the Paulites:
    Romney thinks you are all nuts. (This is only PROBABLY true; who really knows what Romney thinks. It's a fair assumption, though; they are nuts.)

    Many of these visceral messages work when combined with 'guilt by association' (as in, "Romney and only want to help the 1%".)

    We want the campaign to be about real issues, but they will not go there, because if they do, they lose. But, we cannot surrender the visceral, because it is POWERFUL and may win if we refuse to engage on that level.

  • Old Uncle Dave on May 22, 2012 3:41 PM:

    Romney = Bush with better hair.

  • Jasper on May 22, 2012 4:44 PM:

    Vast swathes of the public are economically illiterate. News at 11.

  • pjcamp on May 22, 2012 11:12 PM:

    Yeah.

    Of course, Obama *claims* to respect the science, however inconvenient it may be to him so caving on science in favor of polls seems a little odd.

    To have lost, one must have lost to someone else. In this case, the person fighting on the other side appears to have been Obama.