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Are So!  Am Not!
by Gary M. Galles 6/19/08

With the highly partisan primary season ended, Americans’ reward is not a break from political name-calling, but an immediate increase in it.  Parties are intensifying their efforts to frame issues in a way that puts them in white hats and their opponents in black hats, such as Barack Obama characterizing John McCain as offering another George Bush term, triggering McCain’s response that Obama would offer another Jimmy Carter term

This reflects the political maxim that “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”  Candidates know that if they must spend most of their time and energy defending their positions against others’ charges, they have lost the framing fight.  The debate has been defined in a way that makes them look as bad as possible (the nonpolitical equivalent is asking the famous double-bind question: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”, which impugns your character however you answer).  And if the framing fight is lost, so is the election.

Gary M. Galles

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]

However, the “Are so!  Am not!” exchanges such charges trigger, as parties try to sell their spin on each issue, follow a long tradition of political name-calling.  In fact, many of 2008’s debates are essentially re-runs of earlier campaigns.

Remember when Bill Clinton was attacked as a “tax and spend liberal” who never met a government program he didn’t like, but he insisted he was “investing in America,” instead?  Voters bought into the latter view, and Clinton won.  The current campaign is already dividing along similar lines.

Similarly, the “supply side” versus “trickle down” interpretation of taxes on “the rich” (not to mention variants like “voodoo economics” or even “déjà-voodoo economics”) are being recycled.   
The “supply side” argument is that where government policies create particularly adverse incentives for productive activities (e.g., high tax rates or overly burdensome regulations), they should be made less adverse.  More production would take place, benefiting all concerned.  Who could oppose that?  Calling that approach “trickle down” re-frames it to imply that it is really giveaways to the wealthy at others’ expense, where the rest of us only benefit to the extent they eventually spend some of their gains, and a few benefits dribble down the economic food chain.  Who could favor that?

The even older confrontation between “knee-jerk” conservatives and “bleeding heart” liberals is also being recycled.  To be called a knee-jerk conservative implied that you just didn’t care about others—that you opposed every government program that would help people because you callously only cared about your own wallet.  The bleeding heart liberal response implied that while you consider yourself caring, you so misunderstood the real world consequences of your attempts to help that your “solutions” often actually hurt the intended beneficiaries, as well as others.   

These examples do not exhaust the recycled rhetorical gambits Americans will be carpet-bombed with in coming months.  Phrases like “cut and run” and “Bush lied, people died” will do battle.  “Extremist” will be resurrected to portray candidates, their supporters and their Supreme Court appointments.  And new pejoratives, claims and counterclaims will be born to recycle in future campaigns as well.

As election spinning builds toward November, the search for magic phrases to frame debates to partisan advantage is already well-advanced.   But knowing that the fight is often about how to present issues in incomplete, misleading ways can protect Americans from being victimized.  The key is remembering that policies are more complex than reductionist phrases and that adequate evaluation always goes beyond name-calling.  Despite desires for a simple world of white hats and black hats, no turns of phrase or sound bites can replace careful consideration of the details of proposals and their effects.  Only that can keep the “lies, damned lies and statistics” that comprise so much of campaigns from hoodwinking voters. CRO


copyright 2008 Gary M. Galles



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