08/08/2011 01:58 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

How the GOP Framed the Debt Ceiling Debate

How did the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party manage to convince so many Americans that the debt ceiling should not be raised? Voting to increase the debt ceiling had usually been a routine endeavor under previous presidents, Republican and Democrat alike. A rubber stamp, business as usual. Reagan and the Bushes (sounds like a failed Motown group) raised the debt ceiling dozens of times, and no one batted an eye. Actually paying for Bush's costly wars required President Obama to ask for a raise on the country's line of credit. Suddenly, Tea Party bloggers and protesters were successfully waging war against President Obama for even thinking of raising it again.

The Republican ruse of sudden fiscal responsibility is a way to gut Social Security, Medicare and other social safety net programs for our most fragile citizens. As much as I disagree with GOP philosophy, I am in awe of their effective strategyzing. From a political point of view, how on Earth did they frame this debate? A dialogue on my Facebook page provides the answer.

Dave Ramsey.

For those politicos who are not familiar with Dave Ramsey, you should be. He is the conservative Christian financial guru who speaks in large churches all over the country. He gives huge training sessions, lectures and workshops on fixing one's family budget using financial advice found in the Bible. He does frequent appearances on television, and has his own radio show. He sells tapes, books, and workshops to parishioners, and suggests people give money to their church.

People who follow Dave Ramsey are sometimes in very deep debt -- they can't pay their bills, they can't feed their kids, and they don't have a penny saved for their kid's college, or their own retirement. Some, like my friend John, are doing great financially, and credit Ramsey for their success. Ramsey tells them (paraphrasing), "Give at least ten percent of your income, and G-d will reward you with future prosperity".

I have heard of people whose financial lives have been saved using Dave Ramsey's "seven steps" program, while others have justified not saving for their kid's college, or buying health or life insurance, or helping out invalid relatives, until they have completed other "steps" first. Mega-churches love this guy -- he brings in tons of money for them. When parishioners improve their financial success, they tell their friends, churches get more donations, Ramsey sells more products, and everyone wins.

In this clip, Ramsey references Adam Smith as the "Father of Economics"­, calls FDR a socialist, pits government as the opposite of G-d, and essentiall­y says people who believe the government should help fragile citizens are going against G-d. He tells people to go to church rather than watch news on television -- to "throw a brick through the television­". He tells them those who read the Bible have "earned a master's degree in finance". It is hard to deny Ramsey's influence on Tea Party economic views.

One of my facebook friends, a conservative philanthropist in the south, explained the tea party argument about the debt ceiling using the metaphor of a family home, while quoting Dave Ramsey:

"If the US Government was a family, they would be making $58,000 a year, they would spend $75,000 a year, and are $327,000 in credit card debt. They are currently proposing BIG spending cuts to reduce their spending to $72,000 a year. These are the actual proportions of the federal budget and debt, reduced to a level that we can understand." - Dave Ramsey

My friend continues sharing what he learned from Dave Ramsey: "The Bible warns about being in debt. It says that the borrower is slave to the holder of the debt... We are in debt to China... We need to live within our means."

Several of my progressive Facebook friends had a field day with this. Although I normally think it is bad form to cut and paste from one electronic medium to another, I think their responses are also worth sharing.

Kevin wrote, "John. That is an apples to oranges comparison. Does your family spend 20% of it's revenues on defense? You also seem to be under the impression that China owns most of our debt. They don't. Americans are the largest holder of U.S. debt."

Joe wrote:

If the US Government was a family, it'd be a working Mom trying to take care of millions of kids and pets while paying all the bills and doing the cleaning and house maintenance. Meanwhile the abusive Dad racks up credit card debt on high tech toys and presents for his rich friends, while refusing to help pay ANY of the debt even though he makes money too. Oh, and he is always yelling at the neighbors and sometimes beating them up. The question is, which parent should we kids call the cops on?

James wrote, "We are taking in much less than we should because the abusive dad started a couple of costly wars and then went to the boss and demanded a cut in pay. Who would do that?"

Kevin, Joe and James have been drawn into the argument using John's framework. Although they are armed with a more sophisticated and accurate view of our financial economic reality (facts), they're response is not quite as neat and tidy. Busy Americans love neat and tidy; it's much easier than actually reading the newspaper or watching real (non-Fox) news on television. Add to that the fundamentalist teaching that is (mis)interpreted to make all secular (non-Christian) sources of news suspicious, and you have people thirsty for every drop of information Ramsey can give them:

Psalm 101:3 states, "I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me" (King James Version).

It is difficult to work within someone else's "frame." John has effectively framed the argument -- a great example of what the GOP has done for decades, leaving those of us on the left sitting in awe, rubbing our bruised backsides and asking, "How did they do this to us again?"

Followers will tell you Dave Ramsey is apolitical, and that he has followers who are not Republican. His "Seven Baby Steps to Financial Security" does not list giving to one's church, but people I know who have attended his workshops (at church) have told me that it's always in there. Ramsey"s marketing strategy of using mega-churches to disseminate his philosophy and to attract future followers ensures that the vast majority of them are members of the GOP.

Underneath this example is a point I've been making for years: Democrats are ineffective at messaging, relatively speaking. The GOP is brilliant at it. By reducing their political goals to a metaphor every American can identify with, and by disseminating that message through a faithful follower who has large, already-organized captive audiences (mega-churches), they have effectively seized the message, the media and the money. Brilliant.

And what do people on the left do? We use charts, graphs, statistics and sarcasm and quote scholarly experts who write in The New York Times. We try to impress people with our verbosity and our vocabulary. No wonder people would rather hurt themselves with forks than go to a Democratic public policy meeting or town hall. Where is folksy home-boy Bill Clinton when we need a translater?

Don't even get me started about the negative connotations Fox News has associated effectively with the word "entitlements." That's a whole 'nother blog diary.

This post has been updated from it's previous version.