Monday, April 5, 2010

The Candidate vs. The Politician

Article at TAP explaining (well) the mistake this White House made in it's approach to populist America:

Team Obama can almost be forgiven for adhering to a quaint but mistaken theory of democracy. It won the election by a substantial margin and assumed that victory delivered a mandate for its major initiatives, both those that helped mobilize supporters (such as health care) and those that went unmentioned. It tried to advance those initiatives with an air of technocratic paternalism through a handful of really smart people -- -Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag -- who would figure out what was best for America and then through skilled political operatives who would get it through Congress.

Obama and the White House staff seem to have lost sight of a reality that the election did not change: Most Americans have become extremely cynical about government. Pollsters often ask Americans whether they think that "this country is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" or whether it is run "for the benefit of all the people." In the 1960s, the majority of Americans thought that government was run for the benefit of all. But in recent decades, most Americans respond that they think government is run by a few big interests. One election and one president, no matter how appealing or articulate, cannot reverse that tectonic shift in American political culture. Because Americans trust their government much less than they did in the past, politicians must earn public support every day, not just on Election Day. But Team Obama thought that it could live off of the interest.
A book I read a few years back (and written many years before that even) The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, talks about a contradiction in voters when it comes to elections, and office holding: Voters want a "cowboy" candidate, but a pragmatic President, once in office. I think that paradox has only grown in many ways since the books publication, and not just in our attitudes toward presidents.

I don't think that entirely sums up voter attitudes toward office holders today, but it does shed light on the difficulties (and often broken promises) of a campaign, once the candidate is elected and must do the job elected to do. (A great example of this in local politics would be the unrealistic rhetoric of the Mike Lee campaign... if he's elected, his campaign rhetoric continued on the Senate floor would likely get him laughed off the Senate floor. You want to what? AHAHAHAHHAHA! Sure, Mikey!) There are obvious contradictions in our attitudes toward our politicians. We will vote them in to solve all our problems, and then hate them when they don't solve our immediate personal problems. Polls show most Americans want what government provides, but generally don't want to pay for it. And evident in the health care town halls last summer, the most vocal activists -- rarely speaking the sentiment of the majority -- get the most media play.

Drew Western has written repeatedly about the Democrats' failure to connect with majorities in certain policy making debates, even when they are on the "truth telling" side of the argument, up against a Republican (and now Tea Party) Bullshit Campaign. Republicans, Western writes, often win those debates despite the bullshit they're spewing because their rhetoric connects with the "gut" while Democrats are trying to talk to the "head."

Combine these ideas with the loss of the populism he enjoyed during the campaigns, and the author has an extremely important point I hope this White House hears. For better or worse, good policy, explained by competent experts will never give the lawmakers you need to get your policy through the political capital necessary to get the job down. There's no need to sink as low as feeding the uninformed angry mobs of the Tea Party "movement" as the GOP has done (and arguably, there is political damage in that route as well) but -- using financial reform as an example -- selling the policy through an OFA ground assault, coupled with a revived "us" message mostly absent since the campaigns will gain more ground than any number of educated experts pushing it on CSPAN. Good or bad, voters respond to an emotional message now more than an intellectual explanation of policy.

I think this is excellent advice for this President, when considering only how to get his policies through more quickly, and less watered down. But I can't help but wonder what this says about our politics. Is this really, as the article's author says, a result of cynicism from voters? Is it a result of a dumbed down 24 hour cable news cycle? Is it real populism that might lead to a one day more engaged electorate? Or is this a message from the American people that they want their politicians to stop using big words, and start telling them what to feel warm/fuzzy about, or afraid/angry about?

The author of the TAP article calls it "A Tea Party for Obama." But considering how uninformed the Tea Party activists seem to be, is this really what we want? From a perspective of "winning," Drew Western is right on how Republicans have succeeded even when they are lying. But it's hard not to wonder where "speak to the gut, not the head" will lead us in the long run. A more engaged, involved, and informed electorate would be amazing. A contest of who can build the biggest uninformed angry mob when making policy, not just -- as is tradition -- while campaigning? Bad. Very bad.

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