Battle of the Populists

Democracy Corps has been doing some focus groups on the economy. You have to take them as they’re presented, since the test messages in themselves reveal a certain agenda, but it’s informative nonetheless:

Voters are receptive to Republicans when they make statements about big government, spending, ballooning deficits, and regulations on business, which they fear will stymie job growth.

A conservative message that says:

After massive spending on a stimulus, ballooning deficits and a spate of new regulations on business, the last thing we should consider is staying with Obama and the congressional Democrats who caused uncertainty, threatened new taxes and imposed vast regulations on business that undermine their ability to create jobs and grow our economy.

beats a Democratic message about regulation, financial excess and the economy.

A conservative message about debt, hard work and responsibility scores as well as the Democratic messages below. Conservatives appear here to understand the debt, leverage and irresponsibility that produced the crisis; it goes to the heart of their frustrations with the current economy and fears about the future.

America has succeeded because of hard work and competition, not because we expect government to give us things for free. For too long, Americans have spent money they couldn’t afford, driving up personal and government debt.

There is no reason why conservatives should be the ones who put irresponsibility at the heart of their message.

Winning the Economic Argument

But there is an emerging power in the progressive economic argument centered on the middle class, 99-1, battling the corrupt nexus of Wall Street and Washington, holding excess to account, taking deficits seriously, and investing for growth.

The real power of our economic worldview lies in the focus on the middle class — battling for a country where they come first. As powerful as the Republican message centered on responsibility is a Democratic framework that also takes responsibility and excess seriously—on behalf of the middle class. Three-quarters agree with a message that says:

The big banks got bailed out but the middle class got left behind. Our economy works for Wall Street CEOs but not for the middle class. America isn’t supposed to only work for the top one percent.

But our best message supported by 81 percent, 57 percent strongly says the economy is “upside down.” Regular people are in recession and work harder and harder for less while CEOs get bigger bonuses yet. This message says:

Our economy is upside down. The majority of America is in a recession, but Wall Street is doing better than ever. Regular people work harder and harder for less and less while Wall Street CEOs enjoy bigger bonuses than ever. If American’s economy isn’t working for the 99 percent, it’s not working.

What do voters want to do about this outrage? The top three policies championed by voters all focus on cleaning up politics, Wall Street and holding people accountable. Voters want reform as the first task for the country.

This kind of makes my head hurt. But it would be a good thing if the country saw the two parties hash it out on this basis. Unfortunately, they probably won’t because the Democrats are going to muddle up their message with a bunch of hoohah about deficits and “sacrifice” and nobody will know what the hell they’re talking about.

Here, from a very tainted messenger, comes a clever way of packaging it from the right, however:

Sarah Palin told Republican donors Thursday that Occupy Wall Street protesters want the same thing as the “fat cats” they’re upset with — a government bailout.

Palin criticized the protesters as believing they’re entitled to other people’s productivity and money and said they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. Instead, the former Alaska governor said people should look to the tea party.

“They say `Wall Street fat cats got a bailout so now I want one too.’ And the correct answer is no one is entitled to a bailout,” Palin told the crowd of about 1,000 at the Republican Party of Florida dinner. “The American dream, our foundation, is about work ethic and empowerment, not entitlement.”

She compared the protesters and President Barack Obama to the “crony capitalists” they say they oppose.

“Barack Obama is owned by Wall Street. The fat cats, as he calls them, they’re his friends. They’re his pals. That’s where he gets his campaign donations. And he’s very generous about giving these cats their cat nip — bigger returns on their investments in bailouts,” Palin said.

She said she understands why people are frustrated with Wall Street and government and that she’s disgusted by the wrong kind of capitalist. But the proper way to protest is through the tea party movement.

“My question to the Occupy Wall street crowd is, `Where have you been the last three years?’ I suggest if they want to vent and want to change the situation, then they vent in the right direction. They need to hop on a bus and travel south — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where there’s plenty of space to occupy,” Palin said.

She does have a knack for finding the populist/reformer sweet spot. Here she takes a shot at the protesters while also portraying Obama as the servant of Wall Street. Basically it’s a co-option of the best Democratic message. It’s clever, although I can’t imagine that Mitt Romney could believably make that case.

Still, you can see the outlines of a populist case using much of what that Democracy Corps finds resonant in the Democrats’ argument, turned against them. Combined with the GOP’s “anti-bailout” theme used against the protesters, it could be put to good use by candidates around the country.
All that’s missing is the sacrifice and deficit part of the message, which the Republicans will probably turn on the Democrats with stealthy, anonymous attacks against their votes to slash Medicare and Social Security (if the Dems are stupid enough to vote for any Super Committee deal.)

This is going to be a very interesting election in terms of rhetoric and argument, with both parties having the walk on fault lines that aren’t natural to them. I’d have to give the edge to the Republicans because they aren’t burdened by any necessity to be consistent and don’t worry about trying to appeal to people who will never vote for them. And then there’s all that the secret money.

Here’s the final paragraph of the DC memo:

This is in an environment where Republicans start with a 7-point advantage on the economy. When voters hear the progressive frameworks, however, they test at least as strong, or better, than the best Republican messages. This is important, as voters look at the Democrats and still see bailouts and excess.

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