Post Literalism

There's a malady that Washington liberals and media types are particularly susceptible to. I've got a chronic recurring case of it myself. Call it policy literalism -- the persistent belief that policy should have a rational, direct relationship to politics.

Here's a test: Does it come as a surprise to you that most voters think their taxes went up in the last two years? Obama cut taxes by $240 billion, and nearly every household got a tax cut in the 2009 economic stimulus, but a pre-election poll for Bloomberg found that 52 percent of likely voters thought middle-class taxes had gone up, and only 19 percent thought they were lower.

There are a lot of explanations for this: Perhaps people watch too much Fox News, or they've been bombarded with billions of dollars in ads reinforcing the familiar theme that Democrats support big taxes and spending, or they don't pay much attention to changes in their taxes. (In 2001, President George W. Bush sent a letter to every household announcing a tax cut, then sent a check.) The most likely explanation, however, is that when people are economically stressed and angry, they attribute all manner of bad actions to the party in power.

Elections tend to serve as a bracing if temporary cure for policy literalism, a reminder that even educated, newspaper-reading adults outside of Washington have only the vaguest awareness of policy changes. Outside rare moments of outrage or enthusiasm, like the 2008 presidential campaign, people have little time or mental space for politics. Two weeks after the midterm election, a Pew survey found that only 46 percent of respondents knew Republicans had won control of the House.

The official line from the White House is that it should have done a better job of communicating policy achievements. But the administration didn't just fail to communicate; it failed to define the big conflict. The GOP, thanks to the liberty of total opposition and the decision to eschew any philosophical coherence, has brilliantly defined the conflicts over the last two years. To a policy literalist, it's incomprehensible that the Republicans could claim to want to cut the deficit and attack the health-reform law as big government while simultaneously criticizing it for cutting $500 billion from Medicare.

The result was an election filled with ironies. Almost half of the conservative Blue-Dog Democrats, who had insisted on trimming or crippling most Obama domestic initiatives on the basis that their moderate constituents were concerned about the deficit, were voted out and replaced by members of a party that quite plainly does not care about the deficit. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg points out at every opportunity, Republicans have yet to produce a policy agenda that would reduce the federal budget deficit by a dime.

It starts to make sense when you consider that the word "deficit" is to many voters just shorthand for an economy that's not working well for people. Recall the moment in a 1992 presidential debate when an audience member asked the candidates about the effect of "the national debt" -- and only Bill Clinton, blessedly immune to policy literalism, understood that she was talking about the recession and its impact on her own family.

The other symptom of policy literalism is taking the Republicans too seriously. Don't expect a replay of the 1994 Republican takeover, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, interpreting the election as a mandate, overplayed his hand by trying to cut popular programs, forcing a government shutdown that put him on the wrong side of the conflict. While some of the newly elected members seem determined to shut down the government, their leaders know better. The most significant election-night statement was incoming House Speaker John Boehner's deliberate passivity: "It is the president who sets the agenda for our government. ... We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people."

Boehner was signaling that the new majority intends to underplay its hand. Rather than take responsibility for governing, the Republicans will continue to bait Obama and hope to lure him into unpopular moves like cutting spending, which will then allow them to continue to set up and define the conflicts on their own terms. With the encouragement of a gullible media, the White House seems dangerously close to taking the bait. The key to reclaiming the politics of the next few years is to call the Republicans out, force them to take some responsibility, and define the big fight -- not legislative and policy battles that no one knows about -- in ways that show the American voters who is on their side and who isn't.

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