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Jay Cost on Dueling Messages in 2012

Jay Cost has been analyzing what he takes to be the core messages of the Democratic and Republican parties going into the 2012 presidential election. He is harsh on what he sees as the emerging Democratic message, observing that the president “consistently deflects blame” and “talks only about inputs, never outputs”:

Watch for this next time he holds a press conference or some kind of public forum. Whenever somebody asks him about the unemployment rate and why it is so high, he will inevitably get back to all of the programs and initiatives he has launched to deal with the problem. That’s a deflection because, of course, the programs and initiatives clearly haven’t worked. About the only output that he can point to is “saving” GM, but the auto bailout was massively unpopular.

The third element of the president’s strategy, according to Cost, is a multipronged effort to render his opponent unacceptable by characterizing him as extreme. As a congenital political pessimist, I tend to think that while Cost’s characterization of the president’s strategy is accurate, it is more likely than not that it will work. During a conversation with a friend yesterday afternoon, I tried to offer a generous interpretation of the president’s case:

(a) the president has been working to strengthen the recovery, yet he has been stopped at every turn by obstreperous conservatives;

(b) it is essential that the president be reelected because only he is willing to take the steps necessary — more fiscal stimulus, more long-term investment in high-speed rail and green energy, more transfers to states that can no longer afford to sustain their public payrolls, etc. — to keep the economy afloat;

(c) it is also essential that the president be given a large Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, so that he can have a free hand to, presumably, pursue policies much like those he pursued during his first two years in office — anything short of that will inevitably lead to ferocious opposition that will block progressive reform;

(d) and we need a “Buffett Rule” to ensure that rich people pay a somewhat larger share of their income in taxes.

What I can’t discern is a positive vision. The positive vision in 2008 — end the war(s), build a green energy economy, universal health coverage — no longer has the same pull, as the wars have receded into the background, the idea of a green energy economy has suffered from bad PR that flows from legitimate questions regarding the competence of the federal government as a strategic investor in emerging technologies, and the legislative goal of passing a universal coverage bill has been achieved, albeit in a form that many Americans, on the left as well as the right, find at least somewhat problematic. Perhaps it is natural that there is no positive vision, if we embrace the narrative that the president achieved so much in his first years in office that it would be unreasonable to expect him to do anything more but defend those historic achievements. 

Cost’s characterization of the Republican strategy offers an interesting contrast: there are many potential points of attack. 


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