The Agenda

Conservatives and Crafted Talk

A passage from Sandhya Somashekhar’s report from Virginia highlights the irony of a lot of the emerging anti-Obama sentiment. 

 

Stephanie Slater, 44, a neighbor of Cleland’s who leans Republican, voted for Obama on the strength of his character and because of his positions on education, energy and health care. She recalled brimming with confidence after Obama’s historic inaugural address.

“When he gave that speech that day, I was in awe. I was really inspired and thought, ‘Wow, this is a guy who can do it,’ ” said Slater, a medical transcriptionist and mother of three.

But she has been disturbed by the large Wall Street bonuses that Obama doesn’t seem to be able to halt and his inability to rein in credit card companies that raise rates even on those with good credit. Although she is trying to be patient, she said she is losing faith in the Democrats running Washington.

Slater’s objections to Obama aren’t conservative objections. They are populist objections. She wants heavier regulation of Wall Street compensation and credit card companies. That is, Slater wants Obama to move further to the left. Conservatism and populism do coincide at times, as in the case of Slater’s neighbor, Chris Ann Cleland. 

Cleland, 39, is not so generous. Obama was supposed to help the everyman but instead he helped the banks and General Motors, she said. He was supposed to help homeowners keep their houses, but the primary federal effort in that direction, called Hope for Homeowners, has had limited success. She said she has grown uneasy as government spending has seemingly grown out of control.

Conservatives are also wary of what they see as excessive spending. Yet what is at the root of Cleland’s anxieties? The common thread appears to be a sense of insecurity: she identifies as an everyman homeowner, and she wants protection against the market. Government spending is a threat insofar as it leads to higher taxes. 

The support of voters like Slater and Cleland is conditional: Republicans can win them over by promising to keep taxes low and budgets lean, yet Republicans will alienate them by defending the right of firms to determine their own compensation policies, etc. Democrats, similarly, can win them over by promising to punish large corporations and to create generous social programs that will insulate them from the loss of income or a home or health insurance; yet funding new social programs will require new revenue. The Democrats have squared this circle by calling for higher taxes on the rich, understood as the top 5 percent of earners. Yet increasing taxes on this group alone isn’t a sustainable strategy in light of the scale of spending increases and the existing budget shortfall. 

The political scientists Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro refer to the phenomenon of “crafted talk” in their landmark book Politicians Don’t Pander

 

Politicians pursue a strategy of crafted talk to change public opinion in order to offset the potential political costs of not following the preferences of average voters. Politicians track public opinion not to make policy but rather to determine how to craft their public presentations and win public support for the policies they and their supporters favor. Politicians want the best of both worlds: to enact their preferred policies and to be reelected.

While politicians devote their resources to changing public opinion, their actual influence is a more complex story. Politicians themselves attempt to change public opinion not by directly persuading the public on the merits of their policy choices but by “priming” public opinion: they “stay on message” to highlight standards or considerations for the public to use in evaluating policy proposals. 

What might a consistent populism look like? Can we imagine a Slater-Cleland party, one that would keep taxes and spending low while protecting all Americans from downward mobility? I think the answer is no, despite the efforts by insurgents like Ross Perot and Mike Huckabee and George Wallace represent this mercurial center. And so voters like Slater and Cleland will continue to float between the parties.

Conservatives face a particularly difficult dilemma, which Paul Krugman highlighted in a characteristically biting column on “Costs and Compassion.”

If President Bush had tried to rein in Medicare spending, he would have been accused, with considerable justice, of cutting benefits so that he could give the wealthy even more tax cuts. President Obama, by contrast, can link Medicare reform with the goal of protecting less fortunate Americans and making the middle class more secure.

In my view, this is wrongheaded. Had President Bush successfully pushed effective Medicare reform, he would have reduced healthcare costs for all Americans. It’s also true that by lightening the burden of entitlement spending, conservatives would have had room to reduce the tax burden as well, for the wealthy and for the middle class. Even if we assume that this approach would make Americans better off (as I think it would), it would do so in a difficult-to-discern manner: instead of passing new legislation that would provide you with very visible and very permanent new transfers, you’d receive a one-time tax cut and then your wages would rise over a long period of time. Rather than attribute these wage increases to enlightened public policy, you’d probably attribute them, with considerable justice, to your own hard work.

Politics is about deliverables. That’s Stephanie Slater and Chris Ann Cleland want most from their elected officials. While conservatives want Slater and Cleland to embrace self-reliance, liberals are eager to pass programs that will make a measurable difference in their lives while exacting costs that are for the most part concealed. Conservatives need to reveal those concealed costs to the best of their ability. (Steven Pearlstein would call this “fear-mongering.”)

That, however, is probably not enough. Conservatives also need to find deliverables of their own. Traditionally, the conservative deliverable has been tax cuts. In the current fiscal environment, that strategy has run out of steam. The alternatives include increasing the cost-effectiveness of public services or encouraging private-sector job creation. But if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that consistent conservatism is a tough sell to voters like Slater and Cleland.    

 

 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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