10/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Disdain Versus Change

Last week in this space I applauded the fact that a few important shards of reality broke through the predictable pageantry of the Democratic National Convention. This week, it is hard not to boo the truly fantastical specter of the RNC, where reality was banished from the hall.

Like others, I will critique the non-reality of it all (see Bob Herbert, e.g.), but I also think there is a critical, forward looking lesson from the past two weeks about how the fight is evolving, and what Democrats need to do to win this election and get America back on track.

It's their disdain versus our hope.

The whole frame of the RNC--running against the Washington establishment--was ludicrous, of course, with the ticket headed by a 26-year senator whose agenda is almost perfectly in sync with that of the past eight years. I tried to listen to all the big speeches, but to hear Romney argue that it's the liberals who have screwed everything up, or Palin, charismatic as she may be, gleefully mock Obama, or the chant of "drill, baby, drill" from the crowd, or McCain wax substance-free, ad nauseam, proved to be too much for me.

One of the best responses came from Obama himself.

"You wouldn't know that this is such a critical election by watching the convention last night. I know we had our week and so, you know, the Republicans deserve theirs. But it's been amazing to me to watch. Over the last two nights, if you sit there and you watch it, you're hearing a lot about John McCain - and he's got a compelling biography as a POW. You're hearing an awful lot about me, most of which is not true. What you're not hearing is a lot about you."

Watch the clip. He goes on to talk about what the R's managed to ignore all week: health care, alternative energy, jobs, the recession, the middle-class squeeze, strengthening unions (well, it's not like they would have come out for that one, though I did find it curious that they kept bragging on how Todd Palin is a member of the steelworkers' union--I get that they're making a play for the Reagan democrats, Hillary's white-working class vote, etc, but again, the spectacle of them courting these folks with their deeply anti-union agenda is hard to watch).

Obama's comments--"they're talking (albeit, lying) about me, not you"--were particularly notable compared to those made by McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis, who said the other day:
"This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

So these are the battle lines, and they're worth a bit of deconstruction. It's not just the old,
"we're about issues, they're about personalities." Like Obama said, it's about reaching "you," the voter, but each camp is going after a very different you.

Obama is correct, of course, in that they're not talking about your real struggles, the challenges you face. They're not talking about the part of your life wherein good government can actually make a difference. That's because they've failed to govern competently and they're bereft of ideas about what to do next.

But they are, in their coded, Rovian way, talking about "you." It's just not the "you" that can't find reliable, affordable health care, or the you whose job was offshored, or the you who would like to know the plan for reversing the eight months of consecutive job losses, or the you who's asking why we're about to bail out Fannie and Freddie.

The "you" they're going after is the one on which they successfully played the fear card in 2004. They played that card again in 2006, but you didn't pick it up, and they noticed. So now they're going after a different you.

They're stoking your disdain for "elitism"--a deeply weird tack given the status of so many of their principal players--for the media, for the Washington establishment (again, incredible). Remember the McCain adds accusing Obama of being a celebrity? It's the same thing: disdain for this unusual guy who's just too damn popular.

In fact, if you had to find one word to characterize that convention last week, "disdain" would be a fine choice. We think of negative campaigning as saying bad things about your opponent, but the negativity of conservatives in this election goes much deeper than that. It's a pernicious drive to tap into the electorate's cynicism, distrust, and disdain.

Did you see Giuliani and Palin tear into Obama for working as a community organizer? It was cast as a critique of his lack of experience, but I also heard pure disdain for helping the have-nots and powerless. (And it's been pointed out that the evangelical Palin should recognize that Jesus was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.)

What happened to the "morning in America" party of their patron saint Reagan? There's no optimism to these folks, just cynicism and disdain for the electorate: "Hey, you're a women for Hillary...well, then you'll want to support our new VP (pay no attention to their hugely disparate views);" disdain for the planet: "drill, baby, drill!;" disdain for the facts: "Obama will raise taxes on the middle class and small businesses!" (He cuts taxes much more than McCain for both groups.)

They're so busy spewing venom, they don't have time to think about the "you" that could use some seriously good government right about now. We face so many profound challenges both here and abroad, in no small part because we've been operating from their fantasy play book for so long. WMD's, Americans don't torture, Brownie's heckuva job, Mission Accomplished, the economy's fundamentals are sound, we're all whiners stuck in a mental recession...all of this nonsense keeps today's conservatives so busy assaulting reality that any actually useful initiatives have been almost totally crowded out.

But how do we make this election about the right "you," not the disdainful one who gets a negative charge out of dumping on Davis's "composite views," but the one who wants and needs a return to reality-based governing? As Drew Westin has pointed out, if this fight ends up being about our lists of good ideas versus their emotional grab, we lose.

Obviously, we need to elide our ideas with narratives that emotionally resonate, as Obama effectively did in his acceptance speech. It's helpful to point the hypocrisy so clearly on display last week at their convention, but too much of that and we just end up vying for the same negative vein they're busily tapping.

This doesn't mean they get a pass. Part of the narrative that Obama et al must continue telling stresses how damaging their ideas have been, particularly over the Bush years, and how McCain/Palin double-down on the worst of those ideas: supply-side tax cuts, endless war, no serious energy policy beyond drilling, privatize Social Security, health care reform that eschews risk pooling, the whole "you're on your own" agenda Obama castigated in his speech.

But the positive part of our agenda is equally important and it is simply this: we have will and the skill to honestly assess where we've gone wrong over the past eight years, and to make the needed changes to get America back on track.

We can look, open-eyed, at the current economy, with its contracting job market, banks failing in the wake of the housing bubble, and unprecedented levels of inequality and do something about it, something very different than what we've been doing: progressive tax changes (cuts for the those on the losing side of inequality, increases for its beneficiaries); an alternative energy plan that creates jobs while investing in independence from fossil fuels; a re-regulatory agenda to break the shampoo cycle of the macroeconomy (bubble, bust, repeat). They look at the same thing, somehow see an endorsement of Bushonomics, and push for more of the same.

It's the same with the war, where they're so busy supporting the Cheney/Bush/surge success story, that their eyes are off the ball. Did McCain even mention the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

I admit it, Mr. Davis, these are "issues." And while I know you'll be fighting to make this election not about them, we'll be relentlessly linking them to the real lives of the people you and your team are trying to collar with cynicism, disdain, and mockery.

And while it will be a close one, in the battle of hope and real, substantive change against cynical disdain, I think we'll win.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?