Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If Candidates Really Want to Win This Fall...

Because I write my blogs in advance, I don’t yet know the results of the 2012 Michigan Republican primaries, though you probably do. I do, however, know how much media attention has focused on the relationship between likely turnouts and the auto industry. Detroit native Mitt Romney has attempted to brand himself as a friend of auto workers, despite his open disdain for unionized labor and his previous opposition to the auto bailout.

On the very night of the primary, President Obama delivered a tubthumping speech to the United Auto Workers. He pitched a mix of policy and demagoguery guaranteed to gin up support from a group that was likely to back him anyway. While Romney and Obama compete to demonstrate who most supports workers’ economic rights, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich try to prove they support ordinary people’s moral vision.

But what I love about blogging is the opportunity to test ideas on the fly. In light of what I’ve written recently about working class values and effective advertising, I think I’ve hit a possible reason why all the candidates, whether incumbent or challenger, seem so dissatisfying this year. Rather than trying to parse their policies for success or failure, I look at their language choices. And I realize the problem: they’re asking the wrong questions.

Romney and Obama are probably closest, because both of them have focused on jobs. The moral issues Santorum and Gingrich emphasize will energize a base that, like Obama and the UAW, will already support them. But jobs aren’t good enough. Conservatives and progressives argue over questions like whether environmentalism and taxes are ethical. But blue collar workers want something else. The want:

  • beer that doesn’t taste like the can it came in
  • their plugs cleaned and tires filled so they burn less gas
  • time off to spend with their kids
  • to read luxury magazines and websites, dreaming about when they can afford a Cabin Cruiser and a Jaguar XJS
  • to leave more money to their kids than they have now

If the candidates want to win the blue collar workers who populate the “flyover states”—like the state where I live, and most of this year’s battle ground states—they need to reach voters where they live. They must frame all questions in practical terms, rather than the moralistic hyperbole both sides favor. That means addressing both their immediate needs, and their more abiding aspirations.

Consider just two practical applications: free trade and environmentalism. Conservatives love to ballyhoo the former, while progressives love the second. Notably, the two sides talk past each other, which is why, decades after both appeared on the public scope.

Economic libertarians successfully branded unrestrained international commerce as “free” trade, and cast it in terms of customers purchasing diverse products at competitive prices. This picture stuck home when, in spite of Ross Perot’s jeremiads, NAFTA not only didn’t suck American jobs to Mexico, it created a new market for subsidized American agriculture.

Progressives have made strides, however, spotlighting how many American jobs have moved overseas for pennies on the dollar. For instance, Irwin Vise-Grips moved manufacturing from De Witt, Nebraska, to rural China, undercutting an entire community’s economy. With the massive job loss, that story practically wrote itself for liberals and progressives. A town and state that ordinarily would support free trade saw its ugly face, and was repulsed.

But those same liberals suffer badly on the same job issue regarding the environment. “Climate change” and “pollution” seem like abstractions to oil drillers, timber cutters, and factory laborers who see their jobs shuttered. Liberals lose when they talk about abstractions and conservatives, and their working allies, look for economic security and wages.

Consider the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. It almost passed because it would create construction and maintenance jobs in the Great Plains. But prairie voters turned on it when they realized its ecological risks: not vague abstractions, but the likelihood it would spill oil into the main water source for six states. “Climate” and “ecology” are vague. Serving sludgy tap water to kids is specific enough to enrage ordinary workers.

We know that candidates running for office cannot speak too specifically. An old saying goes that if you have ten concrete proposals, and voters agree with nine, they will vote against you for the tenth. So I understand that they will continue speaking in abstractions. I will not ask them to stop doing so. I do, however, ask them how their abstractions speak to our needs and aspirations.

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