Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Sour Politics of Decline

The political psychology of talking taxes, Tbilisi and trade

I bet nobody watching the Olympics on TV was aching to see a grumpy political attack ad from John McCain, the one that attacks Barack Obama as a tax-raising job-killer. But you knew it’d come. Neither campaign was about to ignore the summer’s highest Household Utilization of Television levels.

The contrast in tone distinguishes strategy, and also illustrates something much more fundamental: the political psychology underlying the quest for power.

For Republicans, there’s nothing new under the sun. The McCain campaign jumped immediately into the most enduring and effective Republican tactic, which is to suppress voter turnout among swing voters by banging the anti-tax drum. Ronald Reagan learned what Western New York’s Jack Kemp taught him in the stressful 1970s – that when working people are betrayed by corporate management’s incompetence and perfidy, and by Washington’s unpatriotic policies, you can nevertheless dissuade working- and middle-class voters from voting their own economic interest by putting an African-American face on government and alleging that the Democrat will “raise your taxes.” To quote Mick Jagger, Republicans paint it black.

In 1992, Bill Clinton figured out how to quote Fleetwood Mack, and succeeded with a hopeful, bouncy campaign of “don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow.” That’s what Obama is up to.

The Obama campaign’s decision is thus a heckuva lot bolder than the Republicans. The emotional tone of Obama’s ad about windmills and green jobs is more consistent with the spirit of the Games, to be sure, but the raw politics of Obama is to build confidence, and thus turnout. Like in 1992 – the last time a Democratic presidential candidate rebutted the Republican “he’ll raise your taxes” campaign – the Democrat is betting that working- and middle-class voters have figured out that Republican tax policy is not in their interest.

McCain’s message is, in short, about suppressing voter participation. Obama’s is about building it.

As a recent Wall Street Journal survey of black voter non-turnout in 2004 showed, Obama’s ability to boost turnout is the key to his chance for victory. That’s why Obama’s messaging has to remain calm and confident, and even humorous, even when the Obama campaign counter-punches.

So amidst soccer contests between hard-to-find countries, rowing repechages, and beach volleyball starring the tallest women on earth, the broadcast audience will see Obama’s camp perform jiu-jitsu rather than frontal attack as it counters the McCain “celebrity” charge. Expect the tone to remain calm and positive.

Bet on cheerfulness, hope, uplift and confidence from the young guy – unless the world gets substantially uglier in the next few months.

Warning signs

The world, unfortunately, is indeed getting uglier, even as we watch the show from Beijing.

The Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia is another unwelcome TV experience. Russia’s aggression – which the Russians characterize as rational acts to defend non-Georgian ethnic minorities that happen to live within the boundaries of Georgia – is characterized by some experts as evidence of Vladimir Putin’s personal political power in a country that allegedly just became a true democracy by electing a President.

Others see the invasion of Georgia as the inevitable consequence of US and NATO policy. George W. Bush and NATO decided to recognize the independence of another breakaway ethnic territory, the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo in what was Serbia, and that, say observers, gives Putin cover to smash Georgia. Experts warned then that Russian politicians would point to Kosovo whenever they chose to move against US allies on Russia’s borders – especially Georgia and Ukraine, where folks get elected on platforms of independence from Russia.

These developments seem so remote to most Americans that the eyes tend to glaze over.

But if the Republican campaign determines that there has been sufficient news coverage of the carnage in Georgia – and if there is more Russian aggression in a big border country, like Ukraine – you can bet that the Republican messaging will include very, very aggressive saber-rattling. American sports fans may not be able to distinguish Georgia from Kosovo, but if Republican operatives perceive an opportunity to exploit American anxieties about the ugly world, then expect the “he’ll raise your taxes” message to be joined by the “we’ll keep you safe from evil foreigners.”

Trade lurking as an Obama issue

The other news intruding on Olympics coverage is about trade. In this two-week display of Chinese triumph comes the not-very-surprising word that China will shortly outpace the United States as the world leader in manufacturing.

Obama has clean hands on the issue of how America’s manufacturing moved to China. He was not there in the 1990s when the Clinton Administration, and its bi-partisan coalition of investment bankers, made the historic transfer of wealth from our country to the host country of the 2008 Olympics.

It won’t just be Lou Dobbs of CNN who raises hell about China overtaking the United States as the global leader in manufacturing. The word seems to be fairly widespread, and with the word the feeling, that there is something fundamentally wrong with trade policies that don’t protect Americans.

There is every possibility that Democrats will triumph if their messaging on trade is pro-American while the Republicans stick to defending “free” trade – especially when Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens all say that producing clean green energy here at home is patriotic, too.

That’s why it was necessary for Obama to concede ground on the issue of coastal oil-drilling. Oil wells on the Continental Shelf won’t produce for ten years, but Obama-leaning voters were departing for McCain, and McCain happily asserting that he likes wind-turbines, too, so Obama had to agree that he, too, is patriotic on energy.

But that still leaves plenty of room for Republicans to do what Republicans do, which is to “paint it black” on taxes.

Back in the 1970s, Jack Kemp’s campaign set the tone for Republicans nationwide by distracting the blue-collar Catholic union member from the rottenness of corporate leadership. Blaming taxes for industrial decline became the Republican mantra.

Fast forward to the distressed urban regions of the Great Lakes today, where politics still gives a pass to rotten corporate leadership at Ford, GM and Chrysler, despite measureable incompetence, like GM’s loss of over $15 billion in the last quarter. (Wow.)

Folks in Michigan are very, very pissed off at their tax-increasing governor and at their disappearing auto-related jobs and at their misbehaving Detroit mayor. Folks in Ohio are looking at more automobile plants closing. Upstate New York jobs at GM suppliers like Delphi and at Powertrain have already disappeared by the thousands. The New York branch of the Federal Reserve Bank sent its economist out to a conference at a right-wing think tank entitled “Can Upstate Cities Save Themselves?” in which his PowerPoint brightly displays the sharp drop in high-wage manufacturing jobs.

Politically, it would seem that the elements of receptivity are all there for more Republican triumph: distressed and displaced and dissed older white workers who are ready to hear that tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy are in their personal economic interest.

But there remains another possibility – that Obama’s messages will click. He is in a better position to connect with criticism of pro-China “free trade” deals. His disapproval of Wal-Mart (recall that he criticized Hillary Clinton’s service on Wal-Mart’s board during the primary) reassured blue-collar voters that he understands their anxieties. And his pledge to invest in clean energy and clean cars was a promise of real manufacturing jobs in the places that have been losing manufacturing jobs.

Psychological distress based in economic anxiety has favored Republicans, which is why Republicans construct their messaging to stoke fears, exploit racial resentments and promise deliverance through riches. The old Democratic messaging about class resentment and wealth redistribution are still too radical, so it’s doubtful that Obama will do more than observe that the Bush tax breaks swelled the deficit, favored the few and didn’t deliver prosperity.

Fear worked for Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, and McCain is singing the same song. Hope worked for Clinton. Hope, plus good manners and a green version of economic nationalism, could be the formula for turning the Democrats that Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan lured away back into Democrats.