The Power of Political Narrative

Greg Sargent, whose Plum Line blog is really one of the best political blogs on the Interwebs, has a good post up today poking holes at Matt Bai’s latest effort at High-Broderism. Bai makes the following assertion about Obama’s support for tax increases on the wealthy:

No matter how popular such a tax increase may be in isolation, Obama’s proposal is very likely to affirm the fears of some sizable contingent of voters who pulled the lever for him last time — fears that he is, at bottom, a conventional liberal of the 1970s variety.

As Greg wisely points out, this argument is contradicted by a whole mess of evidence. A) Obama ran for President on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy in 2008 B) There is tons of public opinion data (nicely assembled here by Sargent) that suggests voters want Congress and the President to raise taxes on the wealthy.  Indeed, if there is any issue on which Obama is probably vulnerable of being defined as a conventional liberal of the 70s variety it is on spending – and not taxes. Hence the White House’s almost maniacal focus on achieving a grand bargain with Republicans during the debt limit negotiations.

But having said all that Bai has a point (ish). Public opinion polls that suggest voters want higher taxes are certainly powerful, but what’s even more powerful, particularly for low-information voters, is the dominant political narrative around taxes. And let’s face it; if there is one narrative that defines our national discussions about taxes and spending it is that Democrats like to raise taxes and Republicans like to cut them.

For example, as the President likes to say all the time, during his first two years in office he cut taxes for 95% of Americans . . . and yet poll results showed that less than 10 percent of Americans knew their taxes had gone down, while a third think they went up. (The rest think their taxes stayed the same). In addition, six in ten Americans think the country is over-taxed . . . even though taxes are at their lowest level since the 1950s. Part of this is no doubt a result of low-information voters being low-information voters – but it’s also a result of Democrats being generally perceived as the party of higher taxes.

So while Sargent is right that Obama ran on raising taxes in 2008 – and it didn’t seem to hurt him very much – his tax proposals were heavily constricted. Only those making more than $250,000 would pay more under Obama’s plan; and of course the President repeatedly bragged that most Americans would pay less in taxes even though US tax rates are historically low. There are of course all kinds of reasons why Obama took such a position, but I’ll go out on a limb and argue that it’s because he was afraid of being tarred as a tax-and-spend liberal. Only by threatening to soak the rich (albeit quite tepidly) and offering to cut middle class taxes was he able to neutralize the tax issue.

It’s also worth remembering that in the Fall of 2010 when Obama wanted Congress to have a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and extending it for the middle class he couldn’t even get a Democratic Congress to hold a vote on it because they were afraid of being attacked by Republicans as “tax hikers.”

So the narrative is nothing if not powerful and pervasive.

But here’s why I think Bai ultimately gets this wrong – Republicans have fundamentally weakened the power of their tax narrative by adopting such an extreme position on taxes. As I wrote over the summer, it’s not some form of political hyperbole to accuse Republicans of keeping tax rates low to be their number one priority – it’s a fact. If you look back at the debt limit debate the one issue on which Republicans absolutely refused to bend was tax cuts – even if it meant sending the country into default. Of course, it wasn’t even a 1-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes that they rejected. By some accounts, more than 80 percent of the cuts would have come in spending and the rest in revenue increases.  Yet, that was still unacceptable to Republicans.

As a result it has become much easier for the White House and Democrats to portray Republicans as handmaidens of the plutocratic class; because it actually happens to be true! Democrats now have a handy response to charges that they want to increase taxes on everyone – they only want to raise them on the rich. And while they’ve used such defenses in the past because of the GOP stubbornness on the issue today — and because of the sense that the deficit is a serious national crisis — the Democratic counter-argument resonates far more deeply than it has before.

Indeed, a very similar thing happened with the Republicans and national security. For years, the GOP was by far the most trusted party in keeping America safe and standing up to the country’s enemies. Then the Iraq War happened and the Republican advantage was squandered – so much so that a Democratic presidential nominee who opposed the war in Iraq would not only suffer from taking such a position, but in fact prosper. That the Democrats and GOP are today reasonably evenly matched on national security (indeed at this point Democrats probably have the advantage) is a testament to the extent to which the GOP threw away perhaps the most powerful advantage in all of American politics.

Now granted in order to “win” on national security Obama felt the need to escalate on Afghanistan so clearly this isn’t a done deal yet – and on taxes, Obama’s “class warfare” approach of taxing the wealthy is a nod to the continuing power of the GOP’s tax rhetoric.

Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that while political narratives are powerful things, they are not immutable.

11 thoughts on “The Power of Political Narrative”

  1. I would argue it is less about narratives and more about marketing and branding. The Republican party excels at this and were successful and rebranding the GOP from the party of Bush to the Tea Party, even though they endorse essentially the same policies. At the same time any successful marketing campaign involves controlling the image of your opponent. The GOP went to great lengths to try and push a brand image of Obama that he was some sort of foreigner out of touch with regular Americans. Hence the birther nonsense, and people writing books about how the father he never knew profoundly influenced his political philosophy, and the secret Muslim stuff.

    This is all marketing and branding.

    The GOP has spent a lot of time and money creating a brand that resonates with people. When it fails they have aggressively rebranded themselves. They relentlessly market against the Democratic brand (this is the control the narrative bit where they try to change people’s perceptions about the Democratic party. Like the whole Obama raised our taxes bit). The Democrats have spend much less time and money on branding, and thus have a major problem with it. Really I’d say Obama’s 2008 campaign was the best bit of branding since Kennedy or maybe Roosevelt.

    The GOP has abandoned the “keeping America safe” marketing for now, but don’t be surprised to see it return in 2012. I think it was a low profile issue simply because the lack of national elections.

  2. …a Democratic presidential nominee who opposed the war in Iraq would not only suffer from taking such a position, but in fact prosper.

    Should be “would not only not suffer…”

  3. For another nitpick, the sentence with the phrase “in the past” is crying out for a comma just after that phrase. I was scratching my head wondering how the Democrats could have been so clairvoyant! But anyway, yes, welcome aboard.

  4. as the President likes to say all the time, during his first two years in office he cut taxes for 95% of Americans

    This is implausible. Just the massive increase in cigarette taxes would count as a tax increase for at least 10% of the population (remember, 30% of the population smokes, and that portion skews low-income, so income tax cuts aren’t very offsetting.)

  5. Republicans saying “OMG X raised taxes!!!” only serves as a reason not to raise taxes if Republicans could be counted on not to say this about any Democrat, whatever his record on taxes. The opposite is true: they can be counted on to claim that any Democrat has raised taxes, whatever that Democrat’s actual record. That being so, I don’t see why Democrats don’t just disregard them and do what they want, since whatever they do, they’ll be excoriated for raising taxes.

  6. If he’d raised taxes on the wealthy 2 years ago, most people would have seen that their taxes didn’t go up and the wealthy would have seen that the tax increase on them was minor. The problem is trying and failing to raise taxes in an election year.

  7. They may not be immutable, but matt Bai sure is trying hard to make sure this one doesn’t mutate. The fact is that recent polls are similar to old polls dating back to 199 (in 1992 US adults were much much more enthusiastic about raising taxes on the rich).

    You note a gap between what policies people say they want and which politicians they reward. You note that the problem is that the vast majority of people don’t know what current policy is or when it was changed.

    You don’t mention the possibility that reporters and commentators (such as, say, Matt Bai) might have some trace of responsibility for the massive difference between policy reality and public perceptions of policy reality.

    I think the simplest explanation is that the MSM decided to hide the facts that
    1) most US adults want higher taxes on the rich from most US adults.
    2) Reagan raised taxes on the non rich (the Greenspan commission did it ? It didn’t sign the bill).
    3) Republicans want to raise taxes on the non rich (you didn’t even mention this nor did Bai, but they are back to opposing an extension of the payroll tax holiday).
    4) Republicans only want to cut rich peoples’ taxes.

    There has been so much polling, that fact 1 is out in the open (but people believe this is a new phenomenon the fact that over 60% US adults said the rich paid less than their fair share in poll after poll from 1992 on is still over looked).

    Frankly, the simplest explanation is that the MSM has joined on side in the class war. The gap between reality and reality as it is reported is so huge that mere stupidity is not an adequate explanation.

    I mean Cui bono ? I think it is clear that Bai’s false claims help Bai (and much more so Penn’s).

    I don’t expect people reading this comment to all be convinced. If you aren’t, then I ask, “what would convince you ?”

    See also reporting on social security.

  8. Robert Waldman: what do you mean, “joined”? When was the last time the MSM didn’t act as a voice for the rich and the powerful? On purpose?

  9. Benny Lava writes : ” I would argue it is less about narratives and more about marketing and branding.”

    The brand is the narrative. It’s the story they tell, what they sell.

    His next sentence:

    “The Republican party excels at this and were successful and rebranding the GOP from the party of Bush to the Tea Party, even though they endorse essentially the same policies.”

    Wrong. Bush started two wars and gave the pharmaceutical companies a bonanza with his changes to Medicare. He was a spender and cut taxes which drove up the deficit by trillions.

    To gloss over this is to muddle the distinction between Bush who was a traditional conservative in some ways, for example, his relationship with the business and financial communities and the Tea Party who are a rogue minority of the Republican party willing to close down or otherwise obstruct the business of government.

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