Congressional Republicans figured that after the fiscal cliff, they’d have the advantage talking about the sequester and, down the road, the continued funding of the government.
Clearly, they were wrong.
One of the reasons Republicans are faring so badly these days is that the Democratic narrative, presented most persuasively and effectively by the White House, plays more easily into the national media’s preference for dramatic stories that evoke emotional responses.
In the lead-up to the fiscal cliff, the debt limit and most recently the sequester, Democrats have simply done a better job than Republicans talking about the allegedly disastrous effects of higher taxes, expiring unemployment benefits and potential chaos in the financial markets.
During the past few weeks, Democrats have raised the specter of key personnel from teachers to meat inspectors being thrown out of work if the sequester isn’t delayed, to say nothing of the surge in unemployment nationally and the possibility of a recession.
The Republican message? Taxes are too high. We just raised taxes. We won’t compromise.
And the party of Lincoln and Reagan wonders why it is losing.
Here is how President Barack Obama put the effect of spending cuts Tuesday during his remarks about the sequester:
“Emergency responders like the ones who are here today — their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded. Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country.”
But that’s not all.
“Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off. Tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings,” he continued.
Television covers this narrative better than it covers the Republican message, which is that the nation’s deficit and debt are at unsustainable levels and cannot go on increasing without profound economic consequences that will hurt all Americans eventually.
The president can line up dozens of teachers to complain about how they and their students will be hurt by spending cuts. TV reporters can show footage of meat lockers and warn that fewer meat inspectors will increase the danger that tainted meat will make it into the stores and onto people’s dining room tables.
It isn’t that the Republican argument about the nation’s long-term economic health isn’t important. But the threat seems further off in the future, and it is more difficult for journalists, and Republicans, to show an immediate human cost to deficits and underfunded entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, though it certainly is not impossible.
Until Republicans figure out a way to re-fashion the political debate and present their vision in a more compelling way — which means telling stories that evoke strong emotions in average people — the White House and Democrats in Congress will continue to have the advantage.
“We raised taxes last time, and we aren’t going to do it again” is not a compelling message against the dire messages and images we hear and see from Democrats and from the media.
Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).