Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Issues for Incumbents in an Angry Year

It looks like it's going to be a bad year for incumbents. We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore, whatever "it" is. Politicians have responded as politicians usually do, like a bunch of frightened bunnies heading for cover. They're shocked, shocked at the goings-on in Washington, and they're going to do their outsider best to change things. What things? Oh, things in general. Do candidates think voters actually buy this?

Instead of assuming, "Voters are idiots and I'm doomed if they find out the truth," why not talk about issues they might care about? For example: 

Political reform. Periodically voters decide it's time to throw the bums out. Then they discover they've elected new bums, and they decide that politicians as a class are no good. This is not good for democracy. Incumbents should suggest that just maybe, the problem is with the system.

This is easiest if you're running for the Senate. A lot of things that many voters assume are in the Constitution, like the filibuster, are actually part of the once-clubby, insider System. If you want to start small, why not go after the hold, which allows a single person to hold up bills and nominations indefinitely? And what about the fact that C-Span reveals that nowadays those speaking to world's greatest deliberative body have no audience most of the time?

If you're running for the House, why not go after the three-day workweek? This custom really goes back, if I'm not mistaken, to Newt Gingrich (who told Republicans not to move their families to Washington), and was something the Democrats had said they would change. Gingrich's idea was that they would show they were not part of evil Washington by going home every weekend, but nothing says "privilege" and "out of touch" like a public servant with a three-day week.

Anonymous money. The Citizens United decision has, as expected, resulted in a huge flood of money from corporations and billionaires into political advertising. Rather than whimper, incumbents should make that the issue. Who are these people? Who's behind Citizens for a [whatever] America? Do they live in-state? Whom do we hold to account if they're lying? Are they motivated by the public interest, or their own interest? Do they think they can buy the election? Get people sensitized, so every anonymous attack ad makes your opponent look like a tool of special interests. Make fun of those voice-of-doom voiceovers.

Unfairness in the tax system. No one, ever, thinks the tax system is fair. This year, it's a real policy issue. Use it. "In 1981, one-tenth of all the income in America went to the richest one percent. Today, it's almost a quarter. Now, I've got nothing against rich people. God bless 'em. I don't want to take away all their money. I'm just saying that when the country is facing kind of the fiscal problems it is, they ought to pay their fair share. They've done really well for themselves recently, when everyone else has been struggling. Now it's time for them to pitch in."

The Future. How about some optimistic, future-oriented (yet values-oriented) ads? "In the 1950s and 1960s we built the interstate highway system, which knit the country together and laid a foundation for strong economic growth. Over that period, the real income of the average family almost doubled. But since that time, we've been consuming our children's future-- letting our roads crumble and our bridges collapse. And family income growth has slowed to a crawl. Our education system used to be the best in the world. Now we're struggling to catch up. It's time to stop coasting, and get serious again about this country's future."

Civility. Polls and focus groups have been showing for a long time that people are unhappy about a lack of civility in public life, from politics to driving. This seems like a winning issue for incumbents, since they are the ones most likely to be targeted by those voice-of-doom attack ads.

If people are mad, they've got plenty of reason to be. Give them a reason to vote for you.

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