Karl Rove’s organization American Crossroads, which functions as a kind of privately run Republican Party organization, has a memo laying out how the party ought to oppose President Obama’s jobs bill. It’s a telling window into the contours of the jobs debate. The specifics of Obama’s proposal are all highly popular, and the Republican challenge is to oppose it anyway. The memo offers a fascinating look at the mechanisms of political spin in general, and the particular dilemma of the Republican Party as it blocks economic action in the face of crisis.
The key fact to understand about the bill, delicately left unmentioned by the American Crossroads memo, is that Americans want to do all the things Obama proposes. By a twenty-point margin, they favor funding new road construction and a payroll tax cut. By a 30-point margin, they agree with higher taxes on the rich to cut the long-term deficit. They support helping stave off layoffs of police officers, firefighters, and teachers by a 50-point margin. How do you fight that?
You redefine the issue as a generalization. People don’t like firing police officers and teachers? Fine, just call them “union workers”:
Similarly, 70% of respondents initially favor Obama’s proposal to “give billions to states to stop layoffs of teachers and firefighters.” But when the same idea is described as “giv[ing] billions to states to keep government union workers on the payroll,” 52% turn against the idea.
Likewise, people may like payroll tax cuts and spending money to build roads, but they don’t like “stimulus”:
Fully 64% of respondents, including 70% of ticket-splitters, agree that: “The new stimulus bill is nearly identical to President Obama’s first stimulus, which spent $830 billion, yet the unemployment rate went up, so we don’t need to waste even more money.”
You can see the method here. Most people pay little attention to policy details. The logic that Obama passed a stimulus and the economy still stinks, therefore the stimulus failed, is highly intuitive. Arguments that the stimulus prevented a deeper crisis are not.
Another crude heuristic voters use in place of detailed analysis is partisanship. When one party is unanimously opposed to something, and the other party is disagreeing about it, many people figure it’s a bad idea. This was an insight Mitch McConnell grasped from the outset of Obama’s presidency, announcing that unified Republican opposition would help make the president’s policies unpopular. Accordingly, American Crossroads finds that the mere fact of Republican unanimity, and Democratic lack thereof, ranks among its most persuasive arguments against the bill:
56% of respondents, including 60% of self-described ticket-splitters (which we analyze because their views are less defined by partisan identity), agree with the statement: “Since both Republicans and Democrats are concerned [about the bill], this probably is not a good economic plan.”
And finally, the memo recommends the old-fashioned technique of straight-up lying. In this case, the lie is that Obama would raise taxes right away:
67% of respondents agree, and just 29% disagree, with the view: “President Clinton has said he doesn’t ‘believe we should be raising taxes until we get this economy off the ground.’” Not only does Clinton’s position perform well, it reemphasizes the bipartisan concern about Obama’s economic agenda and where it’s taking us.
In reality, Obama’s proposal cuts taxes through 2012, does not increase taxes at all before 2013. But, really, what does that matter? The American Crossroads memo is the latest and most explicit account of the political theory that has guided the Republican Party throughout the Obama era. Politicians have long trembled before public opinion, but the Republicans have come to understand how ill-formed and malleable public opinion can be, especially on economic policy issues. Most voters, and especially most swing voters, simply don’t know enough about the issues for their opinion to have any political weight.
The American Crossroads memo is a useful road map to the rhetoric Republicans will be using against the American Jobs Act for the next year. It's a testament to the conviction that almost no position in economic policy is too unpopular to be successfully defended.