Frames are important in politics. The way an issue is presented is sometimes of greater weight than the accuracy of one’s debating points or the clarity of one’s reasoning. What is critical is how one’s argument plays upon the experience of one’s audience and fits into a larger narrative. When repeated over and over, a theme that “fits” a set of preconceived notions usually sticks. This is why on issue after issue, the Republicans win and the Democrats lose. Republicans tend to be more strategically shrewd than the Democrats, as shown by their recent ability to control the dialogue on taxes, the deficit, and healthcare.
On a tactical level, the Democrats sometimes come up with a decent frame. Their attempt to force a Senate vote on the Buffett Rule is one such case. The Buffett Rule resolution, by requiring that taxpayers with fat incomes pay at the level of the rest of us collides with Republican insistence that “job producers” be given further relief. By showing that billionaires like Warren Buffet generally pay at a lower rate than their secretaries, the issue exposes the obscene truth of today’s system: income from passive investment is treated much more kindly by the IRS than the wages and salaries of working people.
But there is something timid and overly “safe” about the Buffett Rule frame. Certainly it calls attention to one symptom of inequality that Republicans are unwilling to address. But as legislation, it is clearly more symbolic than substantive, since the Democrats single out a very small class of individuals (those with incomes over one million) and put into play a relatively meager amount of money in the overall scheme of things. There is some truth, in other words, to the Republican claim that it is legislative “gimmickry.” Even if it were to gain some traction with the public, the Republicans could fairly easily deflect it by closing a few Wall Street loopholes and throwing a break or two to the middle class.
The minimalist Buffett argument simply does not go far enough. It fails to hone in on the Republicans’ activist agenda, in particular their radical plan (the Ryan budget) to dismantle the New Deal and take us back to an unregulated form of capitalism with a “privatized” safety net. The Dems need to ruthlessly deconstruct this agenda and propose in its place a balanced one of their own.
Obama has called the GOP approach a form of “social Darwinism,” an accurate description, but one that may go over the heads of some Americans. I prefer “Robin Hood in reverse.” Democrats need to emphasize that the approach is not simply one that defends the perquisites of the rich, but reverses the (mostly) progressive direction of history. It attempts to redistribute wealth upward, taking food stamps and education grants from the poor and middle class, then showers the savings produced upon the well-to-do. It is a cynical inversion of the American Dream for average Americans. This message needs to be sharpened and, for maximum effect, combined with the narrative of a right-wing Tea Party movement siding with the haves against the have-nots.
It is time for Democrats to respond vigorously to Republicans who cast themselves as “courageous” and “responsible” agents confronting real economic problems. To any observer, it is not “responsible” to eviscerate the safety net for the most vulnerable or to ask sacrifice from some but not others. And it is certainly not “responsible” to threaten to shut down the government if one’s extreme demands are not met. Progressives must go on the offensive and refuse to submit again to right-wing intimidation. Most important, they must do so with the people on their side.