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What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November

To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.

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  • The public has been clamoring for health care reform. Over 40 million people don't have health insurance at all, and the 85 percent of voters who do have health care have seen their costs double during the Bush years at the same time as real income has declined. Effective narratives on health care are widely available that win by a 2:1 margin against the toughest Harry-and-Louise anti-reform language from the other side. The opposition knows it, as evident in a leaked memo by Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz, who warns that this will be an uphill climb for opponents of reform, who would do well to accept some major elements of it.
  • But instead of using any of the well-tested narratives that were highly effective during the campaign or devising any new ones of its own, the administration decides to try to "sell" health care without a narrative. (I wrote about this in detail a year ago and will not repeat that history here, except in telegraphic form.) The president refuses to state where he stands on any of the substantive debates about health reform for a year, such as whether we should have a "public option" (a term so ill-conceived it's hard to believe the public supported it anyway; imagine the support it might have received if it had been called instead "the one health care plan the health insurance companies don't get to control"). Instead, the White House uses phrases such as "bending the cost curve" while conservatives flood the airwaves with evocative phrases such as "government takeover," "a bureaucrat between you and your doctor," and "death panels."
  • Instead of using Big Pharma and the health insurance industry as the villains of the health care story, which would explain why we need an overhaul rather than a Band-Aid, the White House once again offers a story without protagonists or antagonists, and cuts secret deals with both industries that become public.
  • Over interminable months of trying to get the votes of the same Republicans who fought against Medicare for seniors for 30 years until the program was just too popular to keep attacking it and who are still trying to gut Social Security despite its popularity, the public then watches what George Will describes as the "serial bribery" of Republican and Democratic Senators alike, as each gets to take his or her turn as the 60th vote.
  • At the 11th hour, as a compromise plan is finally going to pass, the president nixes the idea of a Medicare-like alternative Americans can choose over a health-insurance industry plan if they so desire, despite 60 percent of even swing voters wanting it included in the bill.
  • Instead of being the signature bill that demonstrates both that Democrats can govern effectively and that government can be a force for good for working and middle class Americans (who have just been told that the better plans they've negotiated or been offered for years by their employers are "Cadillacs" that are going to be taxed out of existence), the entire process proves to the average American that government can't do anything right and scares moderate Democrats away from voting for any other bill that would ever put them on the record supporting government or spending.
  • "Government" hits an all-time low in the polls, matching the popularity of big corporations, CEOs, and bailouts.
  • Populist anger emerges as the primary emotion across the political spectrum, and the president's job approval with swing voters drops into the high thirties.
  • Following the conventional wisdom, Democrats return to their all-too-familiar defensive crouch, and conclude that when in trouble, tack right. On health care, the president and his Cabinet fan out all over television to "reassure" the public on health care that abortion won't be covered (thanks for the reassurance, but most of us didn't find that reassuring), that domestic partners won't be covered, and that immigrants won't be covered. None of these issues needed to be conceded. (I know this because I tested messages on them, and well- messaged progressive positions on them would have boosted the popularity of the bill with swing voters.)
  • The White House starts adopting failed conservative policies and talking points that leave the public utterly confused about where the president, and by extension, his party, stands on the central issues of the day. The president talks about cutting deficits and increasing spending in the same breath, using the metaphor of families tightening their belt in tough times, which only strengthens resolve against stimulating a faltering economy; pledges support for massively expanding offshore drilling and "clean coal" (which doesn't exist, by the way) in a speech on climate change; and sends in 1200 additional National Guards to Arizona as an apparent reward for passing "No Latino Left Behind," while publicly objecting to the legislation.
  • The underlying psychological assumption of these moves is that if you mix policies from the right and left in equal parts, you win the center. In fact, no one has ever won the center that way. It appears weak, opportunistic, and incoherent to the average swing voter, which is particularly problematic at a time when people in the center desperately want to know that their leaders have a vision and a coherent plan for what to do (which is why both FDR and Ronald Reagan were so effective in moving voters in the center). It doesn't win any votes on the right. But it does have one predictable effect: It sucks the motivation out of your base, who feel demoralized and betrayed (if they're part of the "professional left") or less likely to vote (if they're average voters who don't follow politics carefully but just don't feel very enthusiastic anymore, even if they don't really know why).
  • Capping it all off, the BP disaster occurs two weeks after the president has adopted the "drill here, drill now," "all of the above" position of the Republican Party and the oil companies. This could have been the perfect opportunity to go on the offensive, contrast what Democrats stand for (common sense, protection of our safety, the land we leave our children, and key American industries and jobs, and sticking up for ordinary Americans against big businesses and their lobbyists) with what Republicans stand for; and connect the dots between what happened on Wall Street (with regulators owned and operated by the companies they were supposed to regulate) and what happened in the Gulf (where precisely the same thing happened). Instead, the administration finds itself on the defensive, increasingly sounding like a subsidiary of BP, allowing BP to call the shots and control information for weeks, defending increasingly hard-to-believe statistics, and issuing press releases that appear indistinguishable from those issued by BP but are inconsistent with assessments of independent scientists.

Where Do We Go from Here?

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