Thursday, October 23, 2008

The death of the GOP's rhetorical advantage or just a perfect storm?

UPDATE: Stupid Josh Marshall basically echoes my points - only more succinctly. Bastard.

Not to be presumptuous but it fairly reasonable to assume that Barack Obama will emerge as the President-elect of the United States in two weeks. The campaign certainly is not over but it is plenty appropriate to examine our evolving national discourse assuming a Democratic ascendancy that has been broadly demonstrated by polling.

The Nixon-Atwater-Rove model for GOP victory centered on the overall resonance of very familiar issues involving minority groups, their rights, and taxes. While long-deflected by Democrats as "wedge" issues, the genius of GOP message-makers was in weaving culturally divisive side issues into a broader political vision that allowed conservatives politicians to provoke reactionary and economically self-defeating voting behavior without doing so in such a way that offended the mainstream (media) borders on acceptable discourse.

For my money, the most concise discussion of the political history of the dissolution of the New Deal coalition and the ascendancy of the modern GOP is (and I think I've said this before) Chain Reaction by Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall. In it, the Edsalls describe how the GOP seized upon white fears and frustrations as the civil rights movement radicalized in the mid and late 1960s by billing itself as the party of temperance and order in the face of cultural upheaval and increasingly militant demands for the expansion of rights and economic repair. As competing rights movements - women's, gay, Latino, etc. - flexed their muscles on the street and within the rapidly fracturing and inarticulate Democratic Party, the GOP effectively applied the fear inspired by sensational media coverage of direct action campaigns and the overall generational conflict to populist economic policies and the expansion of liberties sent down by Earl Warren's Supreme Court. The issue was not "big government" - it was that "big government" was perceived as only benefiting minority groups. While clearly this is a vast oversimplification of an extremely detailed history, consider some emblematic cases as the GOP monopoly evolved. Nixon's 1968 election on 'law and order' followed the urban civil unrest and the Warren Court's decision on Miranda rights. Reagan's ascendancy seized upon a history of symbolic welfare queens to popularize a supply-side economic approach in which Americans voted against their own financial interests. George H. W. Bush's exploitation of Willie Horton and other similarly coded issues such as the death penalty can be seen as contributing to his victory over Dukakis, who had been lead in the polls into August of that year. But really, by that time, the whole rhetorical package employed by the GOP had been fully developed.

Democrats largely failed to articulate their stances on different policies into an overarching political vision that ordinary citizens could digest and relate to when knowledge of the specifics of a particular issue were lacking. President Clinton was an exception, but part of his success derives from his willingness and ability to co-opt Republican rhetorical frames and policies into his own agenda, welfare reform being the most obvious example.

Concurrent to the development of entrenched GOP rhetorical superiority was the absolute medium dominance by television and the emergence of widespread infotainment-based reporting. Again, this is a vast oversimplification, but Rove was able to feed the television media a steady diet of image points while candidates Gore and Kerry failed to articulate a vision. In 2004 especially, Bush overcame seemingly long odds by using the threat of terrorism as a substance-less fear wedge while Rove built a strong turnout machine in key states by recalling the old anti special rights frame for state amendments banning gay marriage.

But what's happening this year? Is anything different?

Certainly, the last eight years of nearly absolute rule by the GOP has proven disastrous and the Democrats have nominated an inspiring candidate that has been able to advocate for center-left policies within an overarching progressive vision. But is it just Obama's eloquence and the stronger DNC organizing abilities that have brought us to this point? Is it just McCain's various shortcomings as a campaigner and the fractured GOP base that have given the Democratic message such a boost?

After watching this campaign unfold, I think it is reasonable to examine whether or not part of John McCain's problem is that the traditional GOP rhetorical vision no longer resonates with the electorate. Let us try to set some variables equal. Let us assume equal campaign coffers and generic Republican and Democratic candidates. That is, we should take race, age, and personal likability off of the table - because certainly those things are significant factors in this year's election. If we were able to control some of these other factors, would the traditional GOP tactics or vision gain traction with the electorate?

I don't believe so.

Let's examine a couple examples of traditional GOP tactics as employed in this election.

1. Bill Ayers

The McCain campaign has made Barack Obama's relationship with William Ayers a centerpiece of their campaign over the last few weeks. It's a very typical GOP-style smear: generic Democrats are soft on terror. One would imagine a much more powerful resonance with the American public in Obama's case because of the spread of various other-based lies regarding his racial/ethnic background and religious upbringing. Yet despite a truly enormous media push, the numbers demonstrate that the attack has fallen flat. This recent Fox poll indicates that only a third of the electorate has said that the Ayers connection makes a difference for them. In a recent ABC News and WaPo poll, 60 percent of respondents believed that the Ayers relationship was "not a legitimate issue."

2. Taxes

Polling data on whether or not Americans believe the Democratic nominee will raise taxes is striking. The Republicans have been able to go to the tax well for decades, applying the 'tax-and-spend' label to generic Democrats across the board, regardless of the fact that the GOP's tax cuts always went to the wealthy. Not so much now. This CBS poll found that more respondents believe it is more likely that John McCain will raise their taxes than Obama. Those polled by WSJ/NBC this week found Obama to be "better on taxes" by a 48% - 34% margin. A month ago, before the financial crisis, McCain still only had a marginal 41% - 37% advantage. And again, this is striking even accounting for Obama's charismatic appeal since the GOP has historically couched their opposition to progressive taxation in racially evocative terms and because Barack Obama is being very explicit about his intention to raise taxes on the wealthy. This week's McCain campaign line about Dems wanting to raise taxes on those who pay taxes to give breaks to those that don't pay taxes is good example of traditional GOP coupling of taxes to welfare and/or the myth of the willfully unemployed.

These examples work to illustrate the rejection of the traditional Republican tactics because McCain's team has invested incredible resources into these two attacks specifically, somewhat levelling the spending playing field on these two issues. Additionally, as I've said, Obama would seemingly be more susceptible to the tactics than a generic Democrat because of the racially-evocative foundation of these GOP strategies.

Finally, other key aspects of the traditional GOP argument against the Democrats seems not to be as potent as in past elections. After having widely exploited homophobia to boost turnout in 2004, gay-baiting seems to be only a peripheral tactic in localized elections where incumbent GOPers face surprisingly tough reelection battles in socially conservative districts. The generic anti big government pitch is less credible than it has been in forty years following the bailout of the financial sector. Railing against activist judges doesn't work now that the Supreme Court is largely conservative. The typical 'soft on crime' attack, demonstrated this week by a new Giuliani robo-call is less salient as introduced to the current political environment but may have been a more legitimate factor had it been a centerpiece of the McCain campaign all along.

Now certainly nothing laid out here represents conclusive evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no way to separate the failure of the Republican message to resonate from the current set of political circumstances - Obama's unique campaign and the cartoonish failures of President Bush.

But I do see evidence that the conservative coalition's rhetorical vision has lost overall relevance regardless of the immediate economic crisis and the temporary Obama ad blitz.

Perhaps later this week, I'll explore why the traditional rhetorical GOP vision is failing.


jeffrey said...

Billmon compares a (theoretical) failed McCain campaign to that of Barry Goldwater and speculates that a similar rationalization-of-defeat process is currently in motion... the implication being that the ashes of 2008 could eventually beget an even uglier and more fascistic resurgent GOP in the future.

Eli Ackerman said...

Hmm. That link doesn't refer to what you're talking about.

But I'll tell you right now that the parallels between the McCain campaign and Goldwater in '64 are weak.

Goldwater, though blown out, represented the debut of a new GOP coalition and a test of a new GOP rhetoric that informed the next 40 years. John McCain certainly is not testing a new message. He is recycling the Goldwater message, which I don't believe can work anymore.

The McCain campaign is a lot more like Mondale in '84, but I'm not sure any particular electoral comparison is appropriate.