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February 20, 2006

Creating a Change Election

-- by Dave Johnson

Bloggers are talking about how to create a "change election."

My thinking is the public needs an ideological story about a problem that is causing them pain, a symbolic election-year focal point that illustrates how the ideology applies to the problem, and a simple way to fix the problem that hilites the story elements. As the story is unfolded, current events are utilized by explaining them in terms of the story and the solution.

An example of one story the Republicans used this way is government spending.
- The story was "tax and spend Democrats" representing a larger ideological story of do-gooder socialists in control of the government forcing righteous citizens to support lazy people who won't work
- The pain was described as taxes "taken" by Democrats to spend on people who don’t work
- The focal point event was the Congressional check-bouncing scandal illustrating how Democrats can't manage money.
- The solution was the "Line-Item Veto" and longer-term cutting "big government." This proposal focused on the concept of let the Republicans block the stuff the corrupt Democrats add to spending.
- Current events were worded into examples of excessive government spending that could be solved only with a line-item veto that electing Republicans would bring about.

But this was not just an election-time strategy. They kept at it. They used "tax-and-spend" and they didn't stop using it. That is why it works so well, becomes conventional wisdom.

I suggest developing a long-term story around the Culture of Corruption and Cronyism representing a larger progressive ideology of community and democracy – the people against the powerful, making rules and playing by them, influence-buying brought under control by an engaged community – vs right-wing ideology of greed, winner-take-all, power of aristocratic wealth dominating over the popular good.

The pain still needs a simple representative phrasing. People need to feel how the corruption and cronyism hurts them – jobs moved overseas, people losing pensions, dirty water, all that – but we need one symbolic pain to focus on, where corruption directly leads to their pain. Imagine how Katrina would have affected pubic thinking if we had already been pounding on a theme that corruption and cronyism hurts people, and then utilized Katrina as one more focus event that illustrated our point.

Possible focus events might be something that comes from the Abramoff scandal. (Keep in mind that the check-bouncing scandal was bipartisan, but was presented as a key example of Democratic misuse of public money.) The key is to repeat the core story, driving the ideological point home. An event will offer itself.

I think a good focus solution is minority-party subpoena powers. Imagine if the minority party - Dems - could hold hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents. This solution hilites the lack of oversite, the party-wide corruption, the shutting out of the Democrats… It says that we need Democrats to keep corruption out of government because Republicans are the party of money over law.

A point to keep in mind is that the Right does not work in a next-election timeframe. They were and are in it for the long term and their strategies play out over many years, even decades. We need to stop thinking we can fight them back in an election cycle if only a few things break our way, and start thinking about how we are going to turn things around over the long term.

Posted by Dave Johnson at February 20, 2006 9:57 PM

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Comments

I am certain that the single most universal topic to harp on is health care and am sure that people who are better informed than I can come up with plenty of examples of collusion and corruption on the part of the Republicans in this area. I suspect that it might even be possible to show that those who destroyed Hillary's proposed babystep toward universal coverage back in the day were beneficiaries of HMO/Insurance/AMA interests, but certainly the frightful escalation of costs and simultaneous reduction of services in the past five years (and the loss of rights to sue for negligence on the part of doctors or corporations) can be laid at the Republicans feet.

Everyone - with the possible exception of the few thousand people who are availing themselves of boutique medicine - has noticed the incredibly fast deterioration of medical care (even as the technology has improved)... even those who can afford it. And think of all the tear-jerking personal stories which can be tied to this! There won't be a whistle-stop on anyone's campaign where it won't be possible to produce countless "victims" of the Republicans' cavalier and corrupt approach to basic health care.

We are an ailing nation and we need the Democrats to get us back on the road to health (and, while they're at it, they should damn well insist that PE is once again a daily event in the lives of our children).

Posted by: DeeLuzon [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2006 10:28 PM

The message can't be "corruption" or "cronyism", because those issues are too easy for a typical Republican to disassociate from.

A better message would be something along the lines of "hurting the Average American" -- not the poor (unfortunately the poor have been classified by Republicans as "lazy and deserving what they get", so when you defend them you fall into the trap of "take from the successful and give to the lazy".)

I think you hit on it when you talk about outsourcing, high medical costs, job loss, bankruptcy, the high cost of college, people who work hard for an unlivable minimum wage, people who are seeing their property taxes go up while corporations are given tax breaks, etc. Those are all issues where Republicans take a very anti-average-American position, they instead favor the wealthy or the corporations.

In short, the Democrats need to play to the middle class instead of to the lower class -- because no one wants to believe that they are lower class, or that they will ever become lower class. Most people believe that they have a better chance of becoming one of this country's top 1% of wealth rather than the bottom 50%, and they don't like it when people tell them otherwise.

Posted by: NoPolitician at February 21, 2006 8:59 AM

I like the suggestions made here -- about focusing on corruption and cronyism and about focusing on the pain that the Republicans are causing America through direct action or neglect.

However, as you shape your battle plans there is something you should be aware of -- your economic/medical/social experiences in densely populated California are very different from those people experience in the so-call "Red State" areas.

I discovered this last year when we moved from the Bay Area. We temporarily lived in a solid RED area, then in BLUE Chicago, before settling in another RED area. In the RED areas:

* Economic issues like jobs going overseas or stagnant wages don't have a big local impact. A clerk at Target can afford a decent car and a nice house -- and the cost of everything out here, from gas to groceries to basic goods -- is measurably cheaper than in areas like Chicago or the coasts. While economic studies show the average standard of living, in a dollar sense, has declined since the Reagan years, the actual sense people have is that lives have greatly improved. Much of this is due to the electronic revolution and cheap goods from China.

* Access to medical care is much, much better in the RED areas. In general, everything is less crowded, from retail stores to services like doctors. You might wait 3 weeks for a non-emergency MRI in affluent Palo Alto, CA -- but get the same non-emergency MRI the next day in Kansas City. This means costs are lower, which also means insurance costs are lower. In addition, whereas in the SF bay area those without insurance really struggle to get medical care, it's more readily available in the RED areas. Finally, for those few who get creamed by catastrophic medical costs, local communities in the RED areas are more likely to rally around and help -- probably due to lower population density and less frequent turnover of residents.

I'm not trying to say the RED areas are better -- and certainly NOT trying to justify Republicans policies -- but only trying to explain why appeals based on "pain" people are experiencing are not likely to succeed in RED areas.

Posted by: Blue in a red state at February 21, 2006 10:36 AM

how about 'BORROW AND SPEND REPUBLICANS' it takes advantage of the word recognition they built up for tax and spend.

Posted by: del at February 21, 2006 3:03 PM

Blue -- I think you are saying that RED areas have been less thoroughly destroyed by capitalist development. Social networks are not so completely replaced by the market. Winners still have to get along with the losers. So the pain is less.

Posted by: janinsanfran at February 21, 2006 3:15 PM

Blue - you are singing one of my tunes. I think it is important for all of us to recognize that we (bloggers and readers) are not representative of the public-at-large. We are hyperinformed and interested in politics. (I don't assume that "we" are located in "blue" areas, though. Plenty of us are writing or reading in "red" areas.)

To reach the public-at-large we need to learn how THEY receive THEIR information and what THEY think it means, and how THEY react, and how THEY retain... Of course I mean reaching carefully chosen target demographics... but that's a fine point...

Posted by: Dave Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 21, 2006 4:45 PM

Dave -- yes, I recognize this is one of your memes. Just trying to offer an insight into what its like in RED America -- from the RED point of view things are going pretty well economically. The old Carville slogan -- It's the economy stupid -- isn't going to reasonate this year in redstateville.

janinsanfran -- not really. I've been thinking about this for a while and my favored theory is that the main difference between Blue and Red is population density. This makes sense: Blue areas are more attractive places to live culturally so more people (and jobs) move there -- leading to higher prices, crowded conditions, and less of a sense of community.

This may also explain why BLUE areas are quicker to seek government relief from market failures than RED staters -- because in crowded conditions market failures happen sooner and with higher impact.

Posted by: Blue in a red state at February 21, 2006 8:27 PM

Blue, I'm at a loss to understand how this is even possible.

How can someone making $7 an hour at Target afford both a car and a house payment? Let's say $150/month for a car lease, according to Bankrate.com you can afford a $40,281 house if your property taxes are zero. Houses can't be that cheap, can they?

I simply can't understand how the cost of living can be so different in different parts of the country. I'm not willing to accept the "it's the unions, it's the tax-and-spend democrats" arguments because that's both simplistic and without backup information.

Things like medical school cost the same everywhere, so how can someone going to work in Alabama accept so much less money than someone going to work in NYC? Who pays off their loans? Same applies to anyone with a degree -- how can people pay their same-everywhere debt with lower salaries?

Does everyone in a Red state work for a defense contractor?

Posted by: NoPolitician at February 21, 2006 8:47 PM

NoPolitician: Yes, it was a surprise to me too -- grocery clerks own decent houses and nice cars. I've wondered this myself and collected some information that I'll share to explain. Sorry that this is long.

First, let me call your attention to a report of a housing price study:

http://money.cnn.com/pf/features/lists/hpci_data/

Now, I've seen many such studies and in most cases the methodology is flawed -- they usually take the lazy route and gather MLS sales data and either make the mistake of grouping disparate neighborhoods together and/or failing to understand the individual factors of a given house sale. The worst studies just look at "medians".

I can say that, having sold a house in SF Bay in 2005 (so I really studied the market in the prior year) and having looked in depth at 6 areas outside CA before buying our house, that this study is very accurate.

[Note:What the study doesn't show is the affect property taxes have on affordability. The variance in property taxes is huge -- and the highest taxes tend to come in the most BLUE regions (CA's prop 13 is the obvious outlier). For example, a $500,000 house in CA cost $5k/year in taxes -- depending on locality it may be $3k in Colorado or Kansas -- but $10k in more desirable suburbs around Chicago and up to 5% annual property tax in parts of New England!]

So, note the study compares a slightly larger than mid-size house (2200 sf, 4 bed 2.5 bath, 2 car garage) in different markets -- and specified that these were homes that a corporate middle manager would want -- so best school districts, lowest local crime rates, etc. For grocery clerks you can still get nice, smaller homes in average school districts for half or less what is shown here.

As you scan the list you'll note that the vast majority of RED areas are under $300k for the comparison house -- and many are under $200k. So, figure a nice grocery clerk house can be had for $100-150k or LESS.

Now, let's address salary. Yes, Walmart clerks are widely underpaid, which is why their service is poor even in the RED states. But grocery clerks have long earned at least twice minimum wage, and clerks at places like CostCo and (Super)Target qualify. So, their hourly puts them $15 or higher -- and figure they are hauling down overtime.

Now factor in two incomes -- Moms are more likely to be stay at home but once the youngest is in school they can go back to clerking part time.

Then factor in the high debt loads these people carry. Our local realtor told me that most mortages are done as no money down -- a first mortgage of 80% and a second mortage at higher rate to provide the 20% down payment.

For cars you won't typically find the clerk driving home in a new SUV -- something used, but with CarMax et al there are lots of attractive used cars out there.

Finally -- and this won't sound good coming out, but it is a truth -- the expected living standards from people who choose grocery clerk jobs are different than professionals. Expectations regarding housing, toys, cars, vacations, local culture, etc. are far different.

Posted by: Blue in a red state at February 22, 2006 8:32 AM

NoPolitician: I realized I didn't address the "why" question.

My best theory is the population density factor. You don't get crowds here. I've noticed that I can walk into CostCo on a Saturday afternoon and have a fair chance of no wait in line when I check out. In SF bay the lines at that time are a minimum of 20 minutes -- usually more. As a result, no one in the CostCo here is stressed, no one is rushed, and everyone is friendly. [I mentioned that Walmart is an exception, and there are a few other large chains that seem to drive their people hard and get poor results.]

For medical, for example, we called a highly recommended doctor and got an appointment that morning -- he spent an hour with me on getting to know me and diagnosis. He clearly was affluent and had a thriving practice -- as were the other doctors in his office -- yet no one seemed rushed or stressed -- everyone has time to help you.

So, how does the doctor afford to take it so easy? First, his overhead in terms of staff and rent is probably an order of magnitude lower. Second, the income he needs to generate to live well is much lower. If he has a $500k house he's in the top 5% or higher -- new $500k houses on desirable lots in desirable locations will typically be 3500 sf or larger.

Posted by: Blue in a red state at February 22, 2006 8:45 AM

I'd like to suggest as an issue, that working people are being eaten alive by the credit-card companies, who at this point have vitually no restrictions on the changes they can make in the terms of their agreements with cardholders; because the politicians are bought and paid-for by the financial services industry.

Of course, that would mean weaning our own folks off that teat.

John Edwards has spoken on this subject, and ought to be encouraged to continue to do so.

Posted by: Nancy Irving at February 24, 2006 12:56 AM

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