The Parties Have Already Devised Their Midterm Messages

Democrats and Republicans are ready for November, but it’s not clear that either of their story lines will resonate across the spectrum.

Mitt Romney delivers the nomination speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Jan. 10, 2014, midnight

The gavel has been struck on what has been widely judged to be the least pro­duct­ive ses­sion of Con­gress in his­tory, and now a new one with few, if any, ex­pect­a­tions of im­prove­ment has com­menced. It used to be that this first week of a ses­sion was filled with ex­pect­a­tions — some un­real­ist­ic­ally high, oth­ers more plaus­ible — but the gen­er­al theme was of hope, not the dread or des­pair pre­val­ent today. The only wide­spread agree­ment is about how bad things have got­ten.

Le­gis­lat­ive battles that once came to some con­clu­sion — with one side pre­vail­ing over the oth­er or, more of­ten, some sort of com­prom­ise — have giv­en way to fights over mes­saging. Each side is con­stantly try­ing to best po­s­i­tion it­self and to frame the next elec­tion in the minds of voters in the most ad­vant­age­ous way. The idea of ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish­ing something is not en­tirely dead, but it gen­er­ally be­longs to the etern­al op­tim­ists and the wish­ful thinkers.

Re­pub­lic­ans are ob­vi­ously try­ing to cast the midterm elec­tion as a ref­er­en­dum on the Af­ford­able Care Act, hardly a sur­prise giv­en the broadly neg­at­ive views that a plur­al­ity of Amer­ic­ans hold to­ward it and its dis­astrous launch. But be­sides the ob­vi­ous stra­tegic risk of put­ting all their eggs in one bas­ket, there is an­oth­er prob­lem with the GOP’s ap­proach to 2014. While the pub­lic is hardly en­thu­si­ast­ic about Obama­care, the same polls that show un­fa­vor­able at­ti­tudes to­ward the law also show an elect­or­ate that isn’t look­ing to re­peal it but rather fix it. This theme is ab­sent from Re­pub­lic­ans’ talk­ing points. They risk be­ing seen as cap­able of only throw­ing rocks rather than im­prov­ing things, thus con­trib­ut­ing to a neg­at­ive im­age that led to many of their prob­lems in the 2012 elec­tions.

Demo­crats want to change the sub­ject to in­come in­equal­ity, hop­ing to buy time for the Af­ford­able Care Act to work out its prob­lems and for a con­stitu­ency to grow among those who like and use it. All in all, this isn’t a bad strategy; they def­in­itely should want to shift the fo­cus from the pres­id­ent’s sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment, now a sore sub­ject. The pub­lic, however, is in­creas­ingly aware of not just the grow­ing gap between the rich and the poor, but also the one between the well-to-do and those who were once in the middle class but have slipped be­low it even as they try to cling to what they have. In James Carville’s and Stan Green­berg’s 2012 book, It’s the Middle Class, Stu­pid, the renowned Demo­crat­ic strategists made a com­pel­ling eco­nom­ic case for how wide the gap has grown and how fear­ful many work­ing and middle-class Amer­ic­ans are of los­ing any shot at the Amer­ic­an Dream. And they also ar­gue that dir­ect­ing at­ten­tion to the is­sue is a win­ning polit­ic­al strategy.

One doesn’t have to be a lib­er­al or a pop­u­list or, for that mat­ter, a so­cial-justice ad­voc­ate to fear the so­cial, polit­ic­al, and eco­nom­ic con­sequences of such a wide swath of voters who fear what the fu­ture holds for them. It’s of­ten noted that this is the first time in our na­tion’s his­tory that most Amer­ic­ans do not ex­pect their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to have the same op­por­tun­it­ies they did. As a coun­try built on op­tim­ism, the United States has of­ten at­trac­ted im­mig­rants seek­ing the prom­ise of a bet­ter life. Over the last 30 years, but par­tic­u­larly the past 15 years, that op­tim­ism has been fun­da­ment­ally un­der­mined.

To be sure, Re­pub­lic­ans have their own case to make for job cre­ation and eco­nom­ic growth. Gen­er­ally, their pre­scrip­tions in­clude vari­ations on trickle-down eco­nom­ics. Ar­gu­ments about cut­ting tax rates and get­ting gov­ern­ment out of the way for em­ploy­ers to cre­ate more jobs con­tin­ues to be a com­pel­ling one for con­ser­vat­ives. But these policies don’t tend to res­on­ate much among the — ac­cord­ing to exit polls from 2012 — 41 per­cent who call them­selves mod­er­ate, let alone the 25 per­cent who la­bel them­selves lib­er­al.

As we were re­minded re­cently by the NBC News First Read news­let­ter, Re­pub­lic­ans need to re­main cog­niz­ant of the “em­pathy gap.” In the last elec­tion, when people were asked to choose which qual­ity mattered the most in de­cid­ing how they voted for pres­id­ent, the top choice was “has a vis­ion for the fu­ture” at 29 per­cent, fol­lowed by “shares my val­ues” at 27 per­cent. Com­ing in third was “cares about people like me” at 21 per­cent, and, in fourth place, “is a strong lead­er” at 18 per­cent. Rom­ney scored high­er on three out of four of these qual­it­ies. Those choos­ing “shares my val­ues” voted 55 per­cent for Rom­ney and 42 per­cent for Obama. Those who picked “is a strong lead­er” as a key qual­ity in their pres­id­ent sided for Rom­ney, 61 per­cent to 38 per­cent. Those who said “has a vis­ion for the fu­ture” went 54 per­cent for Rom­ney, 45 per­cent for Obama. Look­ing at these num­bers, one might as­sume Rom­ney won the elec­tion. However, among the one in five voters for whom “cares about people like me” was most im­port­ant, Obama won 81 per­cent to 18 per­cent. That is a jaw-drop­ping find­ing as Re­pub­lic­ans search for the an­swer to the ques­tion, “Why did we lose?”

Re­pub­lic­ans need to think about these res­ults as they de­cide how to po­s­i­tion their party for 2014 and 2016, lest they watch this em­pathy gap cost them an­oth­er win­nable elec­tion.

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