KISS Politics

I wish the Republicans’ message, at their convention, had been gutsier. It’s fine to condemn Obama’s approach as failing (it is), but how exactly would Republican policies differ? By providing only generalities they let Democrats scare voters with dark fantasies about the GOP “Day After.”

Take taxes. I think it’s nuts to be talking about tax cuts now. Republicans seem to do so out of habit. Since (contrary to the picture Democrats paint), the rich already pay far the lion’s share of all income tax, any tax cut has to be mostly a ”tax cut for the rich” – again handing the Democrats the brush and canvas to paint Republicans as caring only for the rich. But as I understand it, Republicans aren’t actually saying the rich should pay less. They want to reduce tax rates, but offset that with eliminating deductions and closing loopholes. That would be terrific. But absent any specificity, any willingness to touch politically sensitive deductions (which is all of them), it’s all just useless talk.

Republicans have a compelling straightforward case to make against Obama (see my “Nobama” post), so why crap it up with dubious stuff? Why give opponents a field day mocking Paul Ryan for lauding the Simpson-Bowles plan which he himself voted against? And pointing to a plant closing that actually occurred under Bush? Couldn’t they have found one that happened on Obama’s watch?

 But I’m too sophisticated a political observer – much unlike the swing voters who are really the targets for all this. The picture of the thoughtful independent voter carefully weighing issues is largely a myth. Each side has around 47% of likely voters committed, and what’s left are mostly those who don’t much care or pay attention, and who will vote, if at all, based not on studious analysis but gauzy feelings.

Thus the Republican convention embodied a certain political logic – KISS politics – Keep It Simple, Stupid. And of course Democrats are at least as guilty – “Republicans will take away your Medicare” – never mind how to pay for it. (We can’t.) And so forth.

 H.L. Mencken famously said nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, and politicians seem to heed him. George W. Bush certainly did, using the KISS approach to sell the Iraq war, rather than lay out a nuanced, multi-pronged argument, which he could have. That instance of underestimating Americans’ intelligence came a cropper when the sole pillar of Bush’s KISS argument (WMD) fell down.

In politics, KISS does make sense if, again, the “American people” is seen as coming down to a small percentage of the least informed. The winning strategy is to hold your base and seduce just enough impressionable others. And this has gotten us into our cul-de-sac of partisan war and gridlock. It won’t end, one Washington Week panelist recently said, until one side or the other gains a final victory.

Indeed, from the 1930s through about 1968, we did not have such partisan bitterness and dysfunction because one side – establishment liberalism – was decisively dominant. Previous periods saw similar dominance by a prevailing political ethos. But since about 1968, two increasingly antagonistic camps have battled more or less evenly for dominance.

 It may be hard to see how either side can defeat the other once and for all. May be. But remember Harold Macmillan’s citing the salience in politics of “events, dear boy, events.” (What, you don’t remember?) In fact, we can’t go on like this for very much longer, because a gigantic storm cloud is gathering on the horizon – a cloud of debt.

Listening to their convention, it’s obvious that Democrats inhabit a parallel universe of clear blue skies (and where prosperity and good jobs are produced by, well, good intentions; certainly not by competitive companies earning profits). Republicans do see reality, and know what has to happen, but are squeamish about it.

I actually think that KISS politics is mistaken. That the American people – as a whole – are smart enough to understand what’s really at stake. They are gravely disserved by the political class’s lack of trust on this. I think there is a huge potential constituency for a “grand bargain” politics that tells the truth, and seeks responsibly to deal with the grave threats to the nation’s economic future, asking us all (especially the affluent majority) to make some sacrifices for the greater good. That this, indeed, could also potentially be the decisive coda to the current long era of political stalemate.

On this score, I frankly believe Romney and the Republicans have far the better story to tell. If only they had the courage to really tell it.

3 Responses to “KISS Politics”

  1. Leslie Neustadt Says:

    So let’s here your case for the Republicans that they would tell if they had the courage.

    [FSR comment: Fair enough, but I have tried to do this not only in the present post but certainly also in the one linked to, as well as others over time; for example about Medicare see this one.

  2. Lee Says:

    The Democrats have a case as well, but are also too sissy to state it. It has to do with cutting budgets when times are good rather than when times are bad. It has to do with using aggressive diplomacy instead of multiple military invasions. It has to do with treating people as the deserving neighbors that they are even if they arrived illegally in this country as a 2-year old. It has to do with giving people control over their own bodies.

    But candidates, Republican or Democrat, who state the truth are too easily labeled as marginal by the media, and they don’t make it past the primaries. We voters are getting what we ask for.

    [FSR: Yes. VOTERS are the prime culprits. I say: throw them bums out! And there is a word for truth-telling by a politician: gaffe.]

  3. Says:

    I quite like reading an article that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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