Saturday, January 30, 2010

The message war

I love the "Week in Politics" segment on NPR with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks.  They're both quite cordial and unusually eloquent by pundit standards, and they're also very bright.  But I took issue with some of the things they were saying this week.  They were advancing a media narrative that claims that Obama lost the "message war" with the Republicans over the past year.  Here's E.J.:
If you look back at the last year, politically, the Republicans won the two big definitional arguments of 2009 on the stimulus and on the health care bill. Were the Republicans obstructionists? Yes. Did they offer new ideas? No, but they did win the message wars.
How do we know any of this is true?  What does it even mean to lose the "message war"?  And I don't mean to single out Dionne with this -- I've heard this coming from a lot of political observers.  I suppose if you asked any of them what it means, they'd say that Obama offered one message to voters this past year ("Government can help you" or something) and Republicans offered another ("Government help is socialism and socialism is evil" or something).  And since Republicans won off-cycle elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, this proves that the Republican message is resonating with voters and the Democratic one is not.

To which I can only ask, don't you think the economy had something to do with this?  The jobs situation continued to sour throughout 2009, and Democrats are now seen as the party in power, so it's really not shocking to find that voters are blaming the Democrats for their economic woes.  If Obama had somehow managed to sustain seven percent economic growth throughout 2009 and managed to reduce unemployment from 8 to 4 percent, I'm guessing at least two of those special elections would have gone the Dems' way, regardless of who was arguing which message.

I'm not saying messages are meaningless (they might matter in close elections), but neither are conversations like the one Brooks and Dionne were having.  It's quite possible that Democrats have the right message right now and Republicans have the wrong one, but it's hard to tell because the economy speaks so loudly.  If they take the advice of these pundits seriously, that could lead the parties into error.


Anonymous said...

I agree. I heard that segment as well, and it seemed like they were hinging everything re: framing battles on the MA loss--which seems like ridiculous overreaching.

But then Stevenson's Week in Review piece in the NYT seems to be doing basically the same.

Meanwhile, I don't get why the Q&A with the GOP didn't get more press as a very savvy regaining of ground on messaging. Too nuanced?


Robert said...

Well said, Seth.

Seth Masket said...

Thanks, guys. NDW, Bernstein made the same point you did about the Stevenson NYT piece.