Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's not about Policies (stupid)!

One of my neighbors, who seems to follow my writings about music and politics with equal interest, recently sent me electronic mail that included the following observation:

The democrats have to learn to present issues to voters not as abstractions, but in terms that most voters can understand.

I found myself thinking about this while reading the print version of a report that Paul Moss prepared for BBC Radio 4 concerned with Sarah Palin's cross-party appeal to white women. Here is how that report basically began:

I had travelled to Barrington, out in Cook County, Illinois, to meet some of America's "football moms" - the army of women who turn out every weekend across America, to cheer on their sporting sons and daughters.

They are loyal, they are dedicated. And now, many of them are also big fans of Sarah Palin.

"She says it like it is," I was told, a common description of the young governor from Alaska. "She's hard-working, and I think she has strong moral values."

Mrs Palin's large family formed the basis of many compliments from the "football moms".

"She's doing great things, supporting her church and supporting her family. Five children is a lot in this day and age."

Here is how it ended:

"What's critical, as far as Democrats are concerned, is that they stay focused on issues," says Lisa Madigan, attorney general for Illinois.

The war in Iraq, energy policy - these are the areas she believes will expose Mrs Palin as lacking sufficient knowledge for the job.

"It is really impossible to believe," Ms Madigan says, "that at the end of the day, Hillary [Clinton] voters or independent voters are going to look to Sarah Palin as somebody they believe in."

But it is not so impossible to believe, if you listen to the football moms of Barrington High. I asked Mrs Palin's supporters there if there were any specific policies of hers they admire. None could name a single one, but that did not seem to dampen their admiration.

"She's interesting, she's hard-working," I was told. "I think she's going to do a great job."

Thus, one way to interpret Moss' conclusion is that Madigan (and other powerful Democrats) need to take my neighbor's observation more seriously.

Think about it. In preparing this report Moss chose (presumably intentionally) to go right into the heart of Obama country, Cook County, Illinois. There he encountered a vox populi, at least among women, supportive of Palin for "doing great things." Unfortunately, those "great things" had nothing to do with leading the United States out of any of its current problems, whether those problems involve the economy (Bill Clinton's old trump card), the war in Iraq, or the energy crisis (not to mention an energy policy that may well be fomenting a hunger crisis). No, the "great things" Palin is doing are "supporting her church and supporting her family;" and that is what matters to those "football moms." Moss stressed this observation in his conclusion: None of those football moms could name a specific Palin policy that they admired. (Tina Fey nailed this point on Saturday Night Live, but making fun of football moms is not a good way to win their votes!) Meanwhile, out on the campaign trail, we have Barack Obama speaking nobly and effectively about failed economic policy; but, even if that failure has a severe impact on the ability to support a family, even when he speaks in the plainest of language, his points just do not register, even in his own state.

Thus, I am not entirely sure that I agree with my neighbor. It is not just a matter of speaking to the electorate in terms they can understand. It may have more to do with speaking to voters in those terms they value the most and wish to hear the most, rather than in terms (no matter how straightforward) of working together to solve serious problems. I have tried to argue that the latter is the Obama strategy; and it may be the most effective strategy for elevating the concept of "change we can believe in" above the level of hollow rhetoric. However, the former is the strategy of Karl Rove, which has now been passed on to a disciple who has been calling the shots (more effectively than many of us would like to believe) for the Republican campaign. This strategy turned out to be very effective in the last two elections, where the polls kept showing that the numbers for the two candidates were very close. Thus, I suspect I have to revise my previous assertion that differentiation would "matter significantly where both political parties are concerned," to the proposition that differentiation will be vital to Obama if he is to recover his standing in the polls by a substantially wide margin and parlay that standing to victory in the Electoral College.

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