Now that Barack Obama has announced  that he’ll be releasing a jobs plan, talkers on the right are winding down a long season of debt and budget debates in which it seemed people could not be reminded enough that Obama had not put forth any plan of his own. The day he releases his plan (campaign literature though it may be), he will pull the rug out from under that whole chorus.

Sure it was instructive to note as a matter of process that the Republican House proposed and proposed and the Democrats merely disposed, but that’s hardly the take-home message and it’s not even particularly well-suited to the purpose of deflecting accusations that conservatives were ‘embracing extremism’.

The test is this: if Obama did have a plan, would that satisfy us? Of course not. And it’s not that we have some irrational need to attack him, but because we basically do know what his approach to the issues is and we know that we have better solutions.  The problem with telling people our objection is to the lack of a plan is that it doesn’t express that bottom line: that his plans are based on all the wrong assumptions.

We only have so many terms for growing government or incentivizing businesses and it’s natural to want a new pointed statement to make that ties in to current news, especially when you have the chance to go on TV, but most of the voting (and working) Americans who have lives to juggle outside Washington aren’t going to do background research on your segment to tie process to policy and determine where they stand.

People aren’t stupid but they are busy, so at the risk of sounding like a broken record don’t forget to make the talking points serve the point. We have a superior vision than the left, and we should never forget to say so.

Much has been made over the last week about the Focus on the family Super Bowl ad featuring football star Tim Tebow, and feminists and leftists were up in arms about both the message and the approval of the ‘pro-life’ ad even before it had seen the light of day.  It was a PR win for Focus on the family as they got the kind of attention you can’t pay for as well as the Super Bowl audience they did pay for.  But we got our final confirmation that they had played the whole thing masterfully when the spot was shown to the world and made their critics look like the villains.  As you can see, it more invites the criticism of being too cheesy than being controversial.

This was  a clever tactical retreat.  You don’t win over the public simply by being right or even by proving it.  Maybe it should work that way, but the fact is that there are other factors that cloud people’s view.  Sometimes you win by being yourself and being friendly and approachable, and sometimes you win by catching the opposition in an embellishment or showing that they aren’t exactly as they present themselves.

Those are the things this ad did wonderfully.  It related to people like a friend on the couch or at the kitchen table.  Meanwhile, ‘women’s groups’ howled at this inviting ad without serious complaint about ads from GoDaddy that clearly present women as sex objects and the ‘pro-choice’ movement revealed that it couldn’t stand someone making a choice against abortion and encouraging others to follow.

This is perhaps a  microcosm for a larger tactical retreat on this issue.  We all know the basic arguments: the pro-abortionists believe that would-be mothers can improve their lives by avoiding having unwanted children, and that abortion can prevent bringing children into unforgiving situations while the anti-abortionists believe that abortion constitutes killing  and so should be illegal.  Basically, conservatives are talking about principle while liberals are judging outcomes, but the point is that the two talk past each other and at this point the debate is at something of an impasse.

So it’s smart for pro-life groups like Focus on the Family to concentrate their energies on friendly efforts to build support for their cause rather than taking a confrontational approach which can turn a lot of people off or at least cause them to tune out.  Hence, they no longer make the complete argument that abortion should be outlawed.  This prevents getting into policy specifics like cases of incest, but possibly even more important, it embraces the mantle of choice.

They need only convince people of the first principle that there is value to the life of an unborn infant in the context of making a personal choice during pregnancy.  That alone is enough to serve the cause of defending the defenseless and at that point if you believe that abortion is killing, you’ll want the law to treat it as such.

Of course pro-lifers would like to see a legal ban on abortion, but we need not be so bold.  Pam Tebow shows us that so long as the issue is about choice, we can tackle the issue on those terms and gain ground without worrying that we’re sitting out important parts of the argument.

Especially in his recent State of the Union address, the President has taken to bragging of his record as a tax-cutter. If that seems incongruous, it’s because it is. For an examination of the specifics from the SOTU, see here, but yesterday we found out that a pet talking point of the Obama administration is being quietly retired.  The Making Work Pay tax credit, which we were told last year would be permanent and the first stage of the middle class tax cut promised during the campaign, is in the budget for 2011, but then set to expire at the end of the year.

It seems the camera-ready tax break for middle class working families was intended as a fix for a Cap & Trade plan that was going to hit them hard with increased costs.  And the administration’s number crunchers were willing to part with the $63 billion only on the assumption that they’d make it up in revenue from the massive new energy tax.  But now, with the fate of health care reform, the administration’s top priority, anything but certain, it’s hard to hold out hope for Cap & trade.

Giving, or taking away?

On the surface, I’d say this is a nice sign that Obama doesn’t expect to be able to get a Cap & Trade bill passed, at least not this year, but on the other hand, this is still a tax hike and if Cap & Trade does pass, it will now lack an important counterbalancing mechanism.

The best illustration, though, is one in contrasts and inconsistencies.  The State of the Union brags of a record of tax cuts, then the budget proposal quietly retires them.  The President insists that the deficit is a problem he’ll focus on immediately and not leave to future generations, then he presides over record deficits, which will of course only grow when the stimulus-esque “jobs bill” is worked out and pushed through. And “as recently as Friday” he praised the virtues of the very “Making Work Pay” credit he intended to couple with a huge new tax and is now proposing to ax.

The White House seems intent on trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other terrorist detainees in the US, though they seem less clear on why. They even hold out hope that they’ll get the venue they want in New York despite growing opposition to the move.

Obviously aware that this agenda at least appears to work at cross purposes with security concerns, the White House messaging on the topic is all tough talk while studiously avoiding the reasons one might choose this approach because they’re deeply unpopular. This leaves them dancing around the point because they’re afraid to actually make an argument in support of the decisions they’re defending.

In other words, the only reason you’d move detainees from military tribunals to civilian courts is to give them additional rights. But there isn’t really a burning need to confer these additional rights while there is in fact a threat posed by doing so and people know it. That leaves them making promises about outcomes instead of demonstrating some need for this new process.

Robert Gibbs gets all fire-and-brimstone about how KSM is going to meet his maker (though only probably due to execution) but gives no justification for the assertion that a US civilian courtroom is the best place to bring him to justice except to say that it was the judgment of the Attorney General.

Gibbs seems so insistent that the process will be produce that outcome that it almost seems like an admission that there’s a greater risk of failing to do so (no one has to defend a military commisions’ ability to convict on Sunday shows in spite of a mixed record).

Putting aside the fact that declaring the verdict in advance makes the exercise look like a show trial, most opponents aren’t even arguing that KSM will be acquitted. If the White House is worried about that turf, then things are pretty bad because they’re not even disputing the conclusions that the trials will provide platforms for jihadist propaganda and they’ll be costly and impractical.

Now of course there’s a leftist cabal that believes (blindly) that civilian trials are needed to better serve the ideal of due process, but since the administration is running up against reality in so many ways on this one, don’t they owe it to themselves if not the rest of us to step back for a second and ask, “why are we doing this?” Paging Eric Holder.

Re-energized by the rhetoric of last night’s State of the Union address, Democrats who have been feeling defeated lately set out to showcase their fighting spirit today with the message, “We Don’t Quit”.  Maybe this is to reassure their base of their commitment to the liberal agenda, but it’s in conflict with the rhetoric they employed to reassure their base during the Bush administration.  Mindy Finn tweets:

Received emails from Obama and Pelosi with “We don’t quit.” Yet, pursuit of unpopular policies is what they harshly criticized Bush for.

And she’s pegged the left’s inconsistency.  But if the right is supposed to defend the pursuit of your goals whether they’re popular or not, isn’t it at least a little disingenuous for us to suggest that the Democrats have failed to learn the lesson of Massachusetts ie that it was a rejection of the liberal agenda?  Of course Brown’s victory did represent a response to that agenda and of course we’d like the Democrats to abandon it since we oppose it on policy grounds but do we really want to make the statement that politicians are supposed to subjugate principles to poll numbers?

Maybe we do.  There’s a good enough argument to be made that the primary purpose of representatives is to reflect in official action the desires of the people and that being responsive to public sentiment serves the interest of Democracy.  At its root the question is whether inconsistency or unresponsiveness is the greater betrayal of constituents.

But the game in Washington is to change the answer to this question based on the present set of circumstances.  That neither side has an interest in espousing a consistent view of how the game is supposed to be played creates a situation in which there’s no winning, a paradox which probably contributes to Americans’ dim view of politicians in general.

I tend to think the honorable thing to do is stick to your principles and strive for the policy you believe best for the country (and yes, this means liberals are supposed to pursue liberal policies, much as I hope they fail) even if it means bucking the trend or risking your reelection.  But I think I might settle for politicians who are at least clear and consistent on their view of how their craft is supposed to be practiced.

You probably missed it in the frenzy and speculation that was the run-up to the recent special election in Massachusetts, but a story caught my eye in which house majority leader Steny Hoyer was quoted as saying that passing the Senate’s health care bill would be “clearly better than nothing”.  Perhaps it was just an odd turn of phrase or an expression of frustration, but the idea that passing nothing can be considered as a possibility, particularly in public, is revolutionary in Washington.  Of course Hoyer was really addressing the difference in preference between the House and Senate versions, but the specter of not passing a bill at all had to be raised.

What this highlights is the notion prevalent among politicians that the worst thing they can do is nothing.  It’s an article of faith and a point of conventional wisdom that passing a bill that deals with an issue is an inherently good act, and politicians find it very difficult to make the case for inaction.  It’s nice to think that this might be borne of a tendency to want to help or to be responsive to constituents, but it would be even nicer to be able to believe they were judging on policy outcomes.

Proposing alternatives provides them with a way out, but few will advocate anything close to leaving well enough alone.  This can be a nice public benefit inasmuch as the alternatives proposed to bad ideas are frequently helpful, but if they’re minor tweaks in response to a call for a massive overhaul, you can end up with a weak argument for something you have to defend instead of a strong argument against something you need only discredit.  This is not to say that you have to make the argument for the status quo as the ideal, but we need to consider whether it’s superior to the specific proposed alternative.

This trap often ensnares even conservative lawmakers who see a smaller role for government–if not for themselves.  Inside the beltway, ‘party of no’ is wielded as the ultimate mark of shame–the brand of politicians not doing their job.  But we shouldn’t think that Congress’ job is to pass legislation so much as their job is to consider it.  If the majority of bills proposed embody bad ideas, we shouldn’t complain if they fail to pass very much.

But many of us don’t think that the Senate bill (or the House bill for that matter) is in fact better than nothing.  At Tea Parties, “party of hell no” is a popular sign and initiatives are springing up with goals from making state legislatures part-time to mandating that Congressmen spend time in their districts.  The public is unhappy with the politicians, but it’s not because they’re not doing enough for us; it’s because they’re doing too much to us.

Of course, explaining this to a liberal amounts to explaining that Americans want smaller government and, well, we’ve been working on that for years.  But conservative politicians with some understanding that government has a tendency to be more the problem than the solution need to remember that this can even apply to them so long as they are part of government.  And awkward as it is to argue against your own power, it might be refreshing to hear some of them articulate it clearly too.

The Tea Party movement has spawned a number of popular memes from “Taxed Enough Already” to “honk if I’m paying your mortgage” most of them on message, clever, and displaying an appropriate attitude.  But I want to take issue with one that I’ve seen a lot, and which seemingly is spreading of late.  It’s the notion that we the people should dump all incumbents and start anew since they’ve obviously failed so badly.  Here’s an example of how it’s put in one recent blog post:

When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise the power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist. We must vote ALL of them out of office and clean up their mess!

Now I don’t mean to pick on the post, the rest of which I found quite worthwhile, or the blogger who may not even have meant precisely what he said here, but it’s emblematic of what I’m talking about.  Although those 545 collectively share the power of the federal government (ignoring the executive for the moment), and they’re collectively doing a very poor job, they don’t act as one, but rather display competing and opposed interests and agendas.  Luckily, some of those agendas are shared with the Tea Party movement, and it would be a mistake for us to punish the people fighting our fight within government along with those fighting against us.

The problem with this rallying cry is that it assumes incumbency is the problem.  This is a common manifestation of a populist message, but it’s a trap that sets preferences that sometimes depart from our real priorities.  Simply put, incumbency is not the problem, liberalism is the problem.  Incumbency may have some tendency to liberalize, but I think we’re capable of judging individuals by their actions.  The goal, particularly in the case of the Tea Party movement, is to reverse the growth of government and get government out of our business, not to punish people on the basis of our having elected them in the past.  It seems to me that we should consider it a blessing that some of the people who share our values are already serving as it increases our ability to effect policy now and it will tend to help us in upcoming elections.

My guess is that most of the people making this declaration have not really thought through it’s implications.  I’m sorry to make that accusation, especially against so many people who I think are really on the right side of things and offer thoughtful input elsewhere, but I’m trying to let them off the hook on this one.  For instance, would the Tea Partiers demonizing incumbents want that rule to apply to conservative champions like Jim DeMint?  Certainly they would consider celebrity Representative Michelle Bachmann to be an exception.  Although maybe the shame of holding office finally provides a simple and full explanation of Sarah Palin’s resignation.

Certainly, there’s a lot of anger at those controlling government today and I agree that they’re pursuing a dangerously backward agenda and I think that anger is generally a good thing.  But I to want us to be mindful of this point because it gets us saying something that’s not exactly what we mean.  And I think there’s a real danger there of distracting from the important message, which can result in misspent efforts and which risks confusing or alienating those we’d hope would join us.


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