It’s not what you say about your issues. It’s what your issues say about you

This is my favorite campaign insight, provided by the Roosevelt Institute’s Mark Schmitt. I think it goes a long way to understanding Governor Romney’s difficulties in the second debate. In this unintentionally funny low-tech video, I say more.

PS: Winning is a lot more fun than losing.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “It’s not what you say about your issues. It’s what your issues say about you”

  1. I think you give Obama and Romney too easy a pass on climate change. Polls consistently show solid majorities recognizing the threat (according to the latest Pew survey, currently 67% of Americans accept global warming and 64% believe it is at least a “somewhat serious” problem – 39% “very serious”). And that is in spite of the successful mystification campaign by denialist shills over the scientific consensus: only 43% think that “scientists agree that the earth is warming mostly because of human activity”, an obviously true statement when >97% of actively publishing climate scientists accept AGW.
    Of course, the public’s approval numbers would drop if you asked about things like gasoline or carbon taxes; but the art of political leadership is to sugar such unpleasant pills by tying them to the principles people do support. Instead, Romney is pandering to his oil funders, and Obama to his pollsters.

    1. I think it’s mostly the very solidity of the evidence that drives things. Other than starting off yet another screaming paroxysm of The Crazy, what would it do to mention climate change in a debate?

    2. What you say about “political leadership” is exactly right, but that’s not what a “Presidential debate” is about.

      Last night was about salesmanship…who could sell himself better to the voters. Political leadership is largely about shaping the country to accept an alternative that is less bad than all the others. You do that when you’re in power, using your “bully pulpit” and also your political leverage. When you’re the opposition, you do it by arousing the opposition to the worse policies of the folks in power, and also your ability to offer a quid pro quo to the folks in power.

      But in a “debate” consisting of short paragraphs, to delve into the incredibly difficult problems related to climate change would be to tell the viewers a bunch of awful sounding alternatives while your opponent pushes you deeper and deeper into the tar pit.

      1. This is the liberal version of “trust Mitt, he’s a moderate at heart”. What hope is there that a reelected Obama will turn round and suddenly offer a bold plan on an issue he’s buried during the campaign? It’s just possible – levelling on the future of coal would be risky in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Let’s pray for a ruthless double-cross of the miners by Machiavellian Barack, not more wishy-washy censensus-seeking by Broderist Obama.
        Random dipping suggests that Democratic candidates in close Senate elections are much less apologetic: Baldwin, Tester, Carmona, Warren.

        1. This (my comment, that is) is not the liberal version of anything; it’s the salesman’s version of Salesmanship 101.

          Presidential candidates making speeches (the way they used to do, back in the day) can explain their policy opinions and intentions carefully, in well crafted sentences and paragraphs that all fit together, like a nicely constructed jigsaw puzzle of a complex picture.

          I remember well the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaigns of ’52 and ’56. They made speeches, and the voters listened to, and read, their words. Commentaters commentated on ideas and how they were expressed, not on sound bites and up-check/down-check who-won-who-lost polls. My parents, and consequently my eager nine-year-old self, were convinced that Stevenson was the better candidate. More Americans were convinced that Eisenhower was the better candidate. But most of the people who voted did so because of reasons based in reality as they perceived it, not because of a bunch of b.s. about the other guy.

          But we just don’t have that anymore. Once the candidate makes his acceptance speech at the convention, that’s it for speeches. The next one will be at the inaugration. Instead, we have months of advertisements; very few (if any) feature the candidates themselves.

          Meanwhile, contrasting today’s Presidential electioneering to Senate electioneering is ill-advised. Tip O’Neill wrote famously that “all politics is local.” Either (a) Presidential electioneering is the exception to the rule, or more likely (b) Presidential electioneering isn’t really politics at all, but just salesmanship taken to its ultimate abstraction from reality.

          (Please note that I keep referring to electioneering, which is a noun form of an active-voice verb. Of course I understand that there is underlying policy at stake. But my point is that’s not what’s on display in a debate when one of the sides has no policy to present.)

  2. I suspect you could have typed that faster than it took you to film it. I know I could have read it faster. So what’s the point of having a video of you talking to the camera?

    1. This. I’d be interested to hear Pollack’s ideas – but not ten minutes interested. I can read much faster than I can listen, and most people’s written deliveries are much more polished than their oral deliveries.

  3. Actually, I enjoyed listening to this while I was doing something else but really, you can find a more impressive background, can’t you? Maybe a nice wall of books? Even a blackboard would be better than a stack of boxes.

    1. This is how I use Bloggingheads (I understand there is also a video component, but I refuse to believe people avail themselves of it. Heck, the interlocutors can’t see each other, so if that’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me). But I can’t as easily use youtube like that – it doesn’t load into my iPod’s podcasts easily.

  4. my issues last time were surveillance and warmaking.
    this time those same two issues, plus the War on Workers.

    1. not much to choose between the candidates (unfortunately) on the first, probably better with Obama on the second, and absolutely definitely better with Obama on the third. But you knew that…

  5. Brilliant video. Yeah production values were uh thrifty, but you speak well and also are good looking.

    I agree that it is very odd for Romney to brag about balancing a budget with a 1.5 billion dollar federal bailout. But what exactly does it mean for a manager of a firm to balance a budget ? I’d say the very minimum is to keep the firms you control out of bankruptcy. By this standard Romney is not a budget balancer at all. At Bain he made huge amounts of money relying on limited liability. Several Bain controlled firms went bankrupt. Those were budgets under Romney’s control (sole shareholder CEO and all that) which were as un balanced as budgets can be.

    I know I am mixing up budgets and balance sheets. I am doing that to bend over backwards to try to meet Romney half way (now that the upper hand is on the other foot). Really a corporations budget isn’t balanced if it issues debt. Unbalanced budgets are the key to private equity. Romney’s whole career as a businessman is based on understanding that an obsession with avoiding debt is costly.

    On this he is consistent in practice as well as being consistently dishonest, since as you note, he proposes a huge increase in the US budget deficit. The approach of loading an entity up with debt and not worrying about what happens if it can’t pay has worked very well for him so far, so why shouldn’t he stick with it_

    I’m very sorry I wrote an outraged comment on your post critiquing #rateloweringbasebroadening (RLBB)for not critiquing it completely enough. In this video you make the key point that extremely high income people will gain money they sure don’t need from RLBB as they just don’t have deductions on the order of their income (importantly this refers to Romney style RL and maybe a bit of BB (but no details) and things are different if the BB includes raising taxes on capital income and capital gains).

    On Gas prices, I note that US consumption is a large fraction of world consumption. A US gas tax probably would cause lower petroleum prices in the medium run (not immediately only after people trade in their SUVs for cars). It makes no sense for a country to pretend it is tiny when it is large. Laissez faire is optimal only when price taking is optimal. In the world petroleum market, the US acts as a monopsony which has no interest in maximizing profits. It’s as if Saudi Arabia ignored the effect of their exports on prices. Of course you know this (you praised Mankiw on the gas tax). Fleet economy standards may be a silly way to do it based on the US obsession with low gas prices, but I suspect that Obama’s policies are causing lower petroleum prices and will eventually cause significantly lower petroleum prices. “There is nothing [more] a US President can do” is true given and only given political limits.

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