February 6 2009
Dems No Longer Control the Stimulus Issue
You know things are getting bad for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid trillion-dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act when regulars on MSNBC, the liberal counterpoint to Fox, start to stomp on the bill.
On a recent "Morning Joe," center-left econ-guru Jim Cramer repeatedly hit the economic stimulus bill, sprinkling his comments liberally with references to Lenin. "It's not even about jobs. There's really nothing about job creation," Cramer exclaimed. "It's a great dodge to say that's what it is. It doesn't address the housing issue, which is the number one issue behind the bad bank situation; it doesn't address banks; it certainly doesn't address jobs."
Opposition to the "stimulus" package has gained momentum in recent weeks, beginning around the time House Republican spines stiffened and mouths opened in opposition, buoyed by an outcry from free-market think-tanks.
There are important lessons here: Obama and the Democrats aren't invulnerable and smart, concerted opposition works.
Republicans and conservatives need to keep it up, because there's no conceivable compromise that would make this bill worth voting for.
A Gallup poll released this week shows support for the plan remains a highly partisan issue; self-identified liberals still overwhelmingly support the proposal and conservatives lopsidedly oppose it. But overall Gallup found only 38 percent of respondents want the package passed as is, while 37 percent want significant changes and 17 percent reject it altogether.
Swing voters, however, show which way the wind is blowing. And support among independents is in collapse.
In the week before the stimulus passed the House, unaffiliated voters were evenly split with 37% in favor and 36% opposed according to Rasmussen. A week later, that margin has swung 24 points against the plan; unaffiliated opposition outweighs support 50 % to 27 %.
This crumbling of independent support for a bill tied so tightly to a widely popular president in the full bloom of his electoral "honeymoon" is a reminder of something Republicans and conservatives need to keep in mind over the next four years. Even in the toughest of political environments, you can win with clear, loud, consistent, and repetitive opposition.
Most researchers studying public opinion agree that mass opinion is, to a large degree, a product of elite discourse. More specifically, most people rely on the beliefs and considerations that are most accessible to them at any given time -- what someone hears or reads most recently often determines his opinion on a subject. And without new considerations, people rely on the old ones in their heads.
The academic guru of elite/mass opinion analysis, John Zaller, explains that we can see the influence of elite discourse by looking at what happens when a one-sided consensus becomes a two-sided flow of elite political communication. It's during these periods of two-sided information flows that political dispositions and individual political awareness really matters -- liberals latch onto liberal-cued considerations and conservatives onto the conservative-cued considerations.
Those with the least amount of information -- the independents -- tend to be the most susceptible to messages but also the least attentive and most difficult to reach. That's why it's so important to have a clear and repetitive message.
In many ways, Zaller's model may appear common-sensical, but Washington insiders often overlook its important truth: the public can't know what it doesn't hear.
In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, then President-elect Obama controlled the information flow on the fiscal crisis, calling for "dramatic action" to prevent a bad situation from becoming "dramatically worse." In short, the political communication was one-sided.
In the two weeks since the inauguration, however, the House Republican leadership has been out front on the issue, criticizing money earmarked for liberal social issues and pointing out, as Minority Whip Eric Cantor did, that it isn't a stimulus: "You can call it a safety net bill, a relief bill. It was a spending bill." And former Republican presidential candidate John McCain has said publicly that he won't support the Senate version of the bill.
Conservative and libertarian think-tanks have added a groundswell of policy opposition that makes it easier for the Republicans to do the right thing. The Cato Institute, for instance, rebutted the outlandish claims of the President and other Democrats that all economists agree with the big-ticket "stimulus" approach with coast-to-coast full-page ads displaying a letter of opposition from 200 academic economists.
The fact is, Democrats control the White House and Congress, but they no longer own the issue. Republicans have started to speak up -- making the flow of political communication two-sided -- and it's having an impact on how the public views the proposed legislation.
Suddenly the conversation has become polarized, allowing the mass public -- Republicans, Independents and Democrats -- to respond to a new set of elite cues.
By exposing the details of the proposed economic plan and offering an alternative proposal with clear differences, Republicans and policy experts have given the public, especially those less attentive swing voters, a new set of considerations to help them form their opinions.
The dominance of the other side can be self-sustaining if the opposition stays silent. Republicans and conservatives need to keep in mind that they can affect the conversation -- and the opposition's strength -- just by speaking up. The public will respond; it just might take a whole lot of noise.
Ms. Schaeffer is a visiting fellow with the Independent Women's Forum and the managing partner of Evolving Strategies. Mr. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is an advising partner of Evolving Strategies.