The Democratic grassroots by and large approved of the Obama messaging over the summer leading up to the convention. They were delighted that Obama finally took the offensive, pre-defining Romney as one of the greedy, unfeeling, and out-of-touch one percent. The base, however, was not the principal target of the message; it was the “undecideds,” and one part of it was intended to convince the swing-voters that this election offers a crucial, clear choice for Americans, that the election is about much more than “the economy.” So far, based in part on meeting voters in the field, I believe that message about the nature of the choice is not completely hitting its mark. That is not to say that it does not sound good, or that it does not resonate with the base, which, from its point of view, finds it convincing and therefore on target—- but that is preaching to the choir.
The real target, the non-base “undecideds,” are not quite getting it, the real nature of the choice. Most of them are bumbling along, uneasy about the economy, thinking (even if they voted for Obama in ’08) “where’s the change?” and “Obama’s had his chance, maybe it’s time to let the other guys have a turn.” The message of “we’re on the right track, we need more time,” and claims that the Republican agenda is not only socially extreme, but also a re-hash of the very policies that caused the recession, is not sticking in any significant way; it sounds weak. The idea that, in this election, we will be making a crucial social-political choice is not on their radar, much less that democracy itself is on trial.
That message, so clear to the already-convinced base, is missing the target undecideds due, I believe, to parallax. Parallax is defined as “the apparent displacement in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object.” That problem used to arise with old-fashioned cameras when the photographer would, for example, peer at a person through the view-finder (not through the actual lens), snap the photo, and find out later that the camera had cut off the subject’s head. The photographer captured part of his target, but not the important part, because of parallax between the view finder and the camera’s lens. This is exactly how the Democratic message is working. Democrats see what they think are the undecided or swing-voters in their view-finder, craft their message, and believe they have aimed it at the target, but somehow part of their message is not getting through, not enough, so far, to “move the needle.”
Only an emotional bull’s eye will move the needle.That is something the Republicans, with their reliance on Karl Rove, Frank Lutz, Grover Norquist, using Madison Avenue advertising psychology, have done so well in peddling their brand. The Conventional Wisdom is that this election is all about the economy—-you hear it from the pundits constantly, as in the question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Even if the crucial choice is somehow mentioned, even by Democrats, it is usually in economic terms, not political. As usual, the Republicans have picked the issue for the campaign, and Democrats acquiesce by responding in kind and, worse, within the Republican framing. If you listen critically to the Republican rhetoric, it goes beyond simply the economy; according to bearwoody’s article in DailyKos, the GOP’s actual meta-message is: America is in decline due, of course, to the policies of Obama and the Democrats, and only successful businessmen like Romney can save us. The Repubbase is so convinced of this that they believe Republicans are justified in doing absolutely anything to defeat Obama: lie, suppress votes, cheat, flip-flop, anything. Pointing out the hypocrisy, lies, flip-flops, etc., has little effect; even though some one has to try to keep up with the debunking, but it cannot be the main game. Answering the “Are you better” question is also a double trap because doing so not only reinforces the Republican meme, but continues to let the Republicans choose the issue. It sets up a false choice, and Democrats are fighting on ground of the opponent’s choosing. It is a zero sum game.
The Democratic response should be a flank attack, moving around, up, and out of the Republican box on the economy by making the nature of the choice much more explicit than they have so far. They cannot depend on the swing-voter to reach the correct conclusion on their own, they have to connect the dots and say it openly. First, they must make the Republican meta-message explicit: Republicans are negative on America full of doom and gloom, peddling fear by magnifying our deficit-debt burden in order to distract from their true objective, which is to enable Wall Street to suck up the remaining assets of the American middle class into the hands of the global financial elite. Do we want to give power of the government to this greedy, unprincipled gang?
Next, define the real choice in this election. This is a plain job, but not a simple one. It is not, for example, “saving” America by giving us a make-over into a mythical Founding Fathers’ paradise. Nor is it a question of killing Big Government and “the entitlement state.” Matt Taibbi explains much about Romney in his article in 13 September Rolling Stone, but one perceptive observation is that “Romney is the frontman and apostle of an economic revolution, in which transactions are manufactured instead of products, wealth is generated without accompanying prosperity, and Cayman Islands partnerships are lovingly erected and nurtured while American communities fall apart.” This is actually the basic philosophy underlying Ryan’s budget and most of the points in the Republican platform. According to Taibbi, Romney represents a new cultural divide, between “people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere:”
“It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they owe patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege—- a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.”
In other words, what the Republican platform is offering, and the agenda they will pursue if elected, is a new social-political system that is fundamentally authoritarian, elitist, and un-democratic. The real choice in this election is between two opposing visions of how America will live in the future: a self-governing, diverse community based on the social contract, opportunity, and shared prosperity, versus a winner-take-all jungle, an unelected corporate government run to benefit and sustain the one percent. Republicans intend to legitimize the archipelago of privilege. All their rhetoric about values, the Constitution, personal responsibility, “entitlements,” the fiscal cliff, and our grandchildren is window-dressing. It distracts from their true agenda, it is selling snake oil to folks they intend to fleece.
Obama and the Democrats must use metaphor and short narrative (like Reagan’s little cameo stories) to bring the point home to confused swing-voters, and hit the emotional bull’s eye—- not charts and graphs, but something beyond reminding them Romney will raise their taxes $2,000 while cutting taxes for the rich by hundreds of thousands… tell a story, give a punch-line. And then, Obama must offer at least one big surprise program to prove Democrats are positive on America. I am hoping he springs it on us in his acceptance speech, A real jobs program, a consumer-oriented mortgage foreclosure program that does more than nibble around the edges and suck up to banks, a public works program, something to show that he cares, and is an activist; something that reflects the choice of a self-governing, diverse community based on the social contract, opportunity,and shared prosperity.