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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 20, 2003

 
Center Cut

Matt Yglesias is right when he says:

Everyone must read David Brooks' column and come to the realization that either Brooks is lying to us, or else administration sources are lying to Brooks. The program that Brooks describes sounds reasonable enough, but this bundle of proposals is, in fact, designed to accomplish something rather different. The idea is to shelter from taxation various savings and investment schemes that will provide a minor level of help to average middle class folks. At the same time, however, there will be no caps on the quantity of money that can be thereby sheltered.

The result is that already-wealthy people will be able to obtain vast quantities of investment-driven income without paying any taxes on it. As John Edwards has been saying -- to little avail -- on the trail, the idea is to move from a society that rewards work to one that rewards wealth.


Of course the Bush administration is finding more ways to shelter wealth from taxes. Is there any economic policy they've produced that isn't designed toward that end?

However, what is interesting about Brooks' piece is the way he frames it politically. I think it is a portent of things to come. The Republicans are going to say they are the natural inheritors of the center because the Democrats have "moved so far to the left." Passage of the bogus prescription drug bill and the schoolvoucher enabling act are calculated to do just that, leaving Democrats kvetching about the Norwood-Dingell details while Republicans bring home a boatload of roast suckling pig.

This "Ownership Society" gambit is another of those slick sell jobs that Americans love to buy into since it gives them an illusion of guaranteed upward mobility by dint of their own special talent and superior moral values. Most people would rather hear that, I'm afraid, than hear that they are a bunch of rubes who've been sold down the river by a rich, elitist snake oil salesman. It will take a serious economic catastrophe to get people to admit that their belief in the "low-taxes-will-make-you-rich" American Dream was a scam.

And the GOP base is going to love calling themselves centrist because it is a validation of their belief that they are the "mainstream."

It's the usual Orwellian Up-Is-Down GOP projection, but it could work. While hard core partisans on both sides are mostly team players who have made a blanket decision to back their party's interpretation of events, the majority of swing voters, in my view, are not interested enough or have enough time to sort out this kind of cognitive dissonance (unless they are faced with a personal crisis that forces them to.) Instead they rely on an instinctive barometer of a politician's temperament and image to determine if they are strong or weak, extreme or moderate, candid or secretive, honorable or base, elitist or common.

If an incumbent seems to manifest a preponderance of positive character traits, and the country isn't in obvious crisis, they will tend to preserve the status quo if they see it as moderate and sensible. This is even more likely during a time of "war" when a sitting president can make a case for continuity on security grounds. Most importantly, in Rove's calculation, these are the types of people for whom politics is "TV with the sound turned off." Image becomes substance, hence the unsubtle brainwashing techniques of the repetitive phrases behind Junior's head as he speaks to wildly adoring crowds.

If the ground game is going to mean anything besides getting a larger popular vote margin in blue states it will be in one on one encounters, calm and reasonable in tone, in which Democrats engage swing voters in close swing states and whittle away at Bush's image without turning him into a caricature that rings false to what they see on television. And, considering that Rove is going to spend huge amounts of time and money portraying our nominee to these people as an emotionally unstable extremist Real Player (which none of them actually are) I believe that we will have to make a serious effort to sell our guy, whoever he is, to these swing voters as someone who is steady, level-headed and in control.




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