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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff, Westen & Nyhan: Messaging vs. “It’s the Economy”

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the political e-zines about the relative influence of ‘messaging’ and the economy in formulating Democratic strategy. Messaging gurus Drew Westen and George Lakoff have recently posted intriguing and sometimes conflicting arguments about Democratic messaging strategy, while both agree on it’s central importance. Brendan Nyhan, on the other hand has made a well-documented case that “structural factors,” particularly the economy, trump messaging and tactical choices in affecting election outcomes.
Lakoff’s Alternet article, “The Dems Need to Speak to Progressive Values, or Else Lose Badly Come November,” is a hybrid piggy-back/critique of Drew Westen’s recent Huffpo article on Democratic midterm strategy.
After (rightly) praising Westen’s article as “outstanding,” Lakoff explains,

I agree fully with everything he says. But …
Westen’s piece is incomplete in crucial ways. His piece can be read as saying that this election is about kitchen table economics (right) and only kitchen table economics (wrong).
This election is about more than just jobs, and mortgages, and adequate health care. All politics is moral. All political leaders say to do what they propose because it is right. No political leaders say to do what they say because it is wrong. Morality is behind everything in politics — and progressives and conservatives have different moral systems.

Lakoff believes it’s important to understand the moral bearings of Republicans in formulating a sound strategy:

In the conservative moral system, the highest value is preserving and extending the moral system itself. That is why they keep saying no to Obama’s proposals, even voting against their own ideas when Obama accepts them. To give Obama any victory at all would be a blow to their moral system. Their moral system requires non-co-operation. That is a major thing the Obama administration has not understood.

Lakoff joins with many progressives who have said there was never any chance that the Republicans were sincere about bipartisanship and President Obama should accept that as a reality. On HCR, Lakoff adds, “The Obama administration made a policy case, not a moral case…”
I’m sure Lakoff is right that a strong moral case can often excite voters in a favorable way. And just about any progressive policy can be advocated as right and just. But there is danger for candidates in coming off as a high-horse moralist.
One of Lakoff’s more perceptive insights has to do with the center of the political spectrum:

Westen’s discussion of “the center” and of populism in general, misses what is crucial in this election. There is no one “center.” Instead, a considerable number of Americans (perhaps as many as 15 to 20 percent) are conservative in some respects and progressive in other respects. They have both moral systems and apply them to different issues — in all kinds of ways. You can be conservative on economics and progressive on social issues, or conservative on foreign policy and progressive on domestic issues, and so on — in all sorts of combinations.

I think this is important. Just as the term “Independent” is misinterpreted to suggest those who identify themselves as such have a predictable political ideology, those who are often self-identified as “Centrists” or “Moderates” do indeed often embrace liberal AND conservative views on various issues — which makes it close to impossible to formulate a coherent issue-focused strategy to win their votes.
Political ideology is often complex. At the Beck rally the other day, for example, I noticed that his first mention of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his opening speech got a substantial and sincere-sounding applause, presumably from many wingnuts. What’s up with that? Perhaps MLK’s integrity and humility transcend differences on issues. Or maybe it’s just his icon status got some respect from the less unhinged members of Beck’s audiences.
Lakoff argues further that “the swing voters are really swing thinkers.” He emphasizes the importance of appealing to them by “framing all issues in terms of your values. Avoid their language, even in arguing against them…It just activates their arguments in the brains of listeners.”
Over the longer run, Lakoff advocates training “spokespeople all over the country in using such framing and avoiding mistakes.” He concludes, “The Democrats cannot take their base for granted. Only moral leadership backed by actions and communicated effectively can excite the Obama base once more.”
After giving Lakoff and Westen due credit for their interesting and useful insights, it seems prudent to give fair consideration to a different view, well-articulated by Brendan Nyhan in a recent link-rich post shared by Pollster.com and HuffPo regarding what he calls the “tactical fallacy” of messaging gurus and others. As Nyhan explains:

The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in ’02 to Bush ’06, or Obama in ’08 to Obama in ’09-’10). But that doesn’t mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president’s party, whether it’s a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.
What advocates of the tactical view have failed to do is provide a viable counterfactual — where is the example of the president whose messaging succeeded despite a similarly poor economy? TNR’s John Judis has tried to argue that Reagan was more successful than Obama in 1981-1982…but as I have pointed out…the 1982 election results do not suggest Republicans significantly overperformed and Reagan’s approval ratings (both on the economy and overall) were extremely similar to Obama’s at the same point in their presidencies.
The reality is that Obama’s current standing — and the rush to blame it on tactical failures — could be predicted months ago based on structural factors. His approval ratings largely reflect a poor economy. Similarly, Democrats were likely to suffer significant losses in the House no matter what due to the number of seats they currently hold and the fact that it is a midterm election. Nonetheless, expect the tactics-are-everything crowd to be saying “I told you so” on November 3.*
* Bonus prediction: If the economy rebounds before 2012, the media will rediscover the tactical genius of Obama and David Axelrod.

A sobering notion. Maybe the messaging strategies of Westen and Lakoff have very limited value in a tanking economy, and might work better in an economy that is at least moderately hopeful. If Nyhan is right, the Democrats’ best strategy for the 2010 midterms may be to target a few pivotal campaigns and spread campaign resources less broadly.

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