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Paul Abrams

Paul Abrams

Posted: October 11, 2010 06:22 PM

"Too many notes"--Emperor commenting on Mozart's first opera, in Amadeus

The electorate is unhappy. With everyone. And, justifiably. When people are angry or anxious, their thoughts and actions are not as fixed or predictable as in more normal situations.

Although this psychology will govern who governs, it is not incorporated into serious thinking about political strategy, at least among Democrats.

Forget the polls. If there is any lesson from this year's primaries, it is that gaps previously thought to be insurmountable have been closed and overcome in less than two weeks. Moreover, polls are inherently inaccurate (the subject of a subsequent article on Public Opinion Polling). The news organizations that report them as "news" are incompetent to explain their pitfalls and qualifications, and uninterested in doing so because it would diminish their emotive appeal, and thus their viewers.

So, the election remains up for grabs. That does not mean the Democrats will pull it out, they could get shellacked even more than is now believed. But, it does mean that they can pull it out.

Anxiety "hurts." There is a strong psychological drive to reduce it that overwhelms "rational" thought.

For that reason, the party/candidate that seems to provide the most relief from anxiety will win. Period.

One way not to provide relief from anxiety is to have many different messages addressing each concern that promotes the anxiety. When one is angry and anxious, there is not very much that you can really "hear." What an angry and anxious person wants is clarity and simplicity. Providing them a cacophony of issues -- education for the education-minded, energy for the security/pollution-minded, health care for the pre-existing illnesses, foreign money buying the election, and so forth -- only exacerbates their anxiety.

And so, you lose. That does not mean that one is not good, true and beautiful, just that you have a tin ear. You cannot blame the economy -- Ronald Reagan's economic record at this time in his presidency was far worse (unemployment was rising, not remaining stable), his approval rating was lower (mid-30s to low 40s) -- he lost some seats, but it was not a blow-out.

The Republicans have two messages: "Where are the jobs"? "Too much spending." That's it. They repeat it over-and-over-and-over, elevating anxiety against the Democrats, so that the relief valve is to choose Republicans.

Never mind that the disastrous Bush Administration got us here. When people are anxious, details do not really matter. That is why Republican obstruction to creating jobs and their responsibility for the deficit gets lost "on deaf ears." The desired response to each of these messages is to strike out. That will provide voters a momentary relief from anxiety, but it will bring the Republicans to power and, with that, their disastrous policies.

For Democrats to pull this out, they need to do two things. First, put the electorate on the couch. Acknowledging and affirming the anxiety helps reduce tension. One cannot pour more water into a glass that is already full. Let some of the water in that glass empty. Additionally, demonstrate you are as angry as they are. Together, then, but only together, you can lower the temperature. It is your 'mirror neurons' at work. (Which is why criticizing people for not being fired up from a position -- justifiable as it might be -- that you have helped them, does not work. It is like a stray horse from a herd -- you have to ride your horse alongside it and then gradually, together, lead it back).

Second, the Democrats need two -- not three, four or five -- clean, clear, messages that raise voters' anxiety about Republicans and reduce it for Democrats. Since most of the anxiety relates to jobs, both should be job focused.

The two I suggest are: 1) Jobs for You vs. Tax Breaks to Billionaires; and 2) Keeping Jobs in America versus Offshoring Your Job.

1) Propose direct hiring of 4-6 million workers by the government for up to 4 years. Like the WPA. Paid for by increasing taxes for the wealthy. The private sector has had its chance, it is sitting on unspent cash, so, until they start hiring, the government will step in. If unemployment falls, say, to 7% based on private sector job growth, the full 4 years may not be necessary.

Even at $45K/worker average, it would cost $720B minus the saved costs of unemployment insurance. As many of the workers would be young people in their first jobs, the average may be considerably less...e.g., at $30K/worker average, the whole cost would be $480B, or we could hire 6M workers. Make it a choice between $700B* in tax cuts for billionaires versus 4-6M guaranteed jobs for Americans. Not incentives to hire. Hired. [Hint: regardless of what polls say about theories of government, people will pull the lever for it because survival is a very strong motivator. Moreover, the right images -- of parks, roads, bridges, the Grand Coulee Dam, fiberoptic cable, green energy -- depicting what will be built, would be very soothing. Note: the famous 'morning in America' voiceover itself was a very soothing voice. Michael Deaver "got it"].

2) Stop offshoring jobs. Make it a choice between Republicans who give tax breaks to companies who offshore your jobs, and Democrats who tried, and will try again, to stop it.

From now until November 2, do not speak about anything else.

Both ads should begin with the scene of George Bush to a black-tied, bejeweled audience saying, "You are my base", merging to Joe Barton apologizing to BP.

Both ads should end with the word "choice": "It is your choice -- vote for [Democratic candidate] who create 4M jobs performing the work America needs, or Republicans [Boehner handing out tobacco lobbyists checks on the House floor] who prefer TAX BREAKS to billionaires over JOBS to Americans (ad #1); or Republicans who have destroyed X million jobs, and want YOU to pay for shipping your own job overseas (ad #2).

To make this election a choice, not a referendum, Democrats must a) first "tread water" with voters, by acknowledging, affirming and joining in their feelings of frustration, anger and anxiety; and b) deliver 2 clear, sharp, distinguishing messages that resonate.

That's the closing argument. Those two items. Nothing more.

Guaranteeing 4-6M (a specific number should be determined before putting this out, so there is a concrete number) provides security that no incentives, whether trickling up or trickling down, can do. That reduces anxiety about the present better than anything the Republicans can offer. Keeping jobs in America reduces anxiety about the future.

That is, you win.

This election can still be won.

*I am well aware that the $700B from allowing the tax cuts to expire on income above $250K would come in over 10 years, not 4. Thus, the program would run a deficit of $2-400B over 4 years. But, at least it is paid for in 6 more years, and will not increase the long-term debt. If Republicans want to argue that point--let them. It is still 4-6M guaranteed jobs, paid back with dams, roads, bridges, green energy, fiberoptic cable, electric grid, high-speed rail, and so forth. If Republicans oppose a $2-400B downpayment on American workers, let them say so. I would welcome that fight.