7/14/2008

Lamentations of an Educated Voter: On Whiners, Pragmatism, and Reality

Barack Obama and John McCain are experiencing great difficulty keeping their surrogates in check and on message. Last week, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson got in trouble by making a vulgar remark in regards to his frustration with Obama. The media had a field day with this, as they couldn't stop talking about Jackson's diminished stature or possible fissures on Obama's left.

The McCain camp, however, would not be outdone. Shortly after Jackson's mouth got him in trouble, chief economic advisor and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm created even more controversy by claiming the United States was in a "mental recession" and accusing us of being "a nation of whiners." (You can access the video clip here.) Obviously, voters don't like to be called names, but on top of that, in an election in which economic anxiety is weighing heavily on voters' minds, these remarks could not have come at a worse time.

Of course, this brouhaha was catnip for pundits and journalists. Gramm tried to backpedal a bit by claiming our political leaders were the "whiners," not the actual voters. But he did not retract his statement at all, nor did he apologize. McCain has since cut ties with Gramm and said that he doesn't speak for his campaign. McCain and Gramm are personal friends who share a long history, but he really didn't have much choice because had Gramm stayed on board, that would have made McCain risk looking out of touch with voters' needs. And lingering complaints about Barack Obama waiting so long to dissociate himself from his church would ring hollow because McCain would still have his association with the advisor who claimed that voters were whiners.

That's politics. Fine.

But what if there were real kernels of truth to what Gramm was saying? I wrote about the need for consumers to practice fiscal responsibility earlier this year when the economic stimulus rebate checks were being debated in Congress. I argued that the economy was worse for people who brought about their ruin through their own poor financial decisions:

"Consumers who paid their bills on time never had to worry about subprime mortgages. Consumers with tight wallets who bought board games or comic books for Christmas instead of DVD players and laptop computers aren't worrying about paying down credit card debt. Lower-income consumers who are driving Corollas instead of Camrys and station wagons instead of SUVs aren't worrying about expensive car insurance and high car payments."
Gas prices notwithstanding, Gramm was likely arguing that consumers should live within their means and that those who haven't been doing so are really feeling the pinch now.

Many consumers seem to have forgotten this and tried to live above their paychecks. This was made easier by offers of no payments for 6 months, 0.9% financing, and two-for-one specials. Nice cars with powerful engines and big homes in well-to-do neighborhoods are expressions of wealth that usually take years to acquire. But telling voters that they should have bought a 27" regular television instead of a 40" flat-screen one or that they should have bought a base model car instead of a limited edition model car is the exact kind of "eat your vegetables" rhetoric that voters tune out. President Jimmy Carter learned this the hard way when he talked about the need for voters to conserve energy and reduce waste only to be ridiculed and have his message be dubbed the infamous malaise speech.

Solutions without sacrifice seems to be a common theme that voters respond to.

Voters want to find a solution to our nation's energy crisis. But they don't want to drill in certain areas or increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

Voters want to pay less for gas. But they don't want to drive slower on the highway. And they want to keep driving their SUVs and cars with V6 engines.

Voters want to increase social services and have a better transportation infrastructure. But they don't want to pay the higher taxes necessary to support them.

Voters want to win the battle in Iraq. But they don't want to send their own family members over there to fight even though the military is stretched thin.

Voters want to increase border security and crack down on illegal immigrants. But they don't want to pay the higher prices that would result from their deportation.

Voters want the best possible health care they can get. But they don't want to give up their smoking, drinking, overeating, junkfood, and couch potato lifestyle.

Voters don't want to be overwhelmed by the economy. But they don't want to give up the houses they should not have moved into or the cars they should not have bought.

Voters want the best, brightest, most pragmatic, most worldly, and most prescient people to occupy the White House. But they (voters and the media) don't want to ask them any substantive questions during the campaign because they get bored (or they think their audiences will get bored) by gory policy details. (What happened this primary season was a travesty.)

This mentality seems to start young and only become more glaring with age.

Students want to get good grades. But they don't want to study for their classes. So they use CliffsNotes or complain to their teachers when they get a B or a C.

Overweight people want to be thin. But they don't want to go on diets or exercise regularly. So they get surgery or complain about discrimination against fat people.

Adults want to be wealthy. But they don't want to stop spending their money on sales, dresses, and video games they can't do without. So they use their credit cards and spend money they really don't have.

Politicians have unfortunately seized on this "solutions without sacrifice" mentality by making promises they can't keep and offering broad goals that we can all agree with, unencumbered by pesky specifics. And voters lap it up like candy.

After September 11, a grieving nation was solidly behind the president and ready to do whatever it took to get the United States back on its feet and help bring justice to the terrorists who attacked us. President Bush then told the nation to "go shopping."

John McCain talks about fiscal responsibility with government finances. But he won't include defense spending when it comes to balancing the budget. Thus, the Iraq War would essentially be financed by simply printing more money, thus further weakening the dollar--a practice that could have consequences that more than offset the fiscal discipline exercised by working within the non-defense portion of the budget.

Barack Obama talks about the need for standing up to President Bush and his prosecution of the War on Terror. One of the central parts of Bush's anti-terrorism policy is the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act which grants telecommunications companies immunity in the event that accusations of warrantless wiretapping were pursued in court. Obama was long opposed to FISA, but ultimately supported an amended FISA compromise that kept this immunity intact.

Voters from all over the political spectrum are criticizing McCain and Obama for their apparent contradictions. McCain is a warmonger who will break the budget and Obama is an opportunistic flip-flopper. But the truth of the matter is, both politicians' decisions have merit in that prosecuting a war and gathering intelligence are complex issues that cannot be reduced to 30 second campaign ads or a slogan on a bumper sticker. So voters are excoriating both candidates for actually taking the complexities of geopolitical reality into consideration.

Back to Phil Gramm.

As was the case with Wesley Clark, perhaps Gramm should have been a bit more tactful when giving his remarks. As a result, like Clark's remarks, the central part of his message was obscured by how the message was delivered. However, he has touched upon something very real, not just about our struggling economy, but also about our own responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our government.

You can't get something for nothing. And no complex problem has a simple solution. For voters to expect otherwise is irresponsible. There's only so much that a politician, media organization, or government agency can do. The rest is up to a mature and pragmatic citizenry. And in light of the fallout from Gramm's remarks, it seems that many of us still don't get it.

3 comment(s):

Brett said...

I've actually heard one theory that the ignorant, ill-informed nature of much of the electorate makes our politics possible. Knowledgeable people also tend to be more politically active and opinionated, which can be good and bad; in too good times, they start to get indulgent and less pragmatic, like many voters arguably did for Al Gore in 2000 by voting for Nader. But that wishy-washy middle? They can flow back and forth with the political ideas, giving it flexibility as long as you are consistent and optimistic.

You implied that it would be better if people were slightly wiser as to the image, and I agree partially on that point; I think I would settle just for people actually learning from history. But at the same time, you can't really separate the image from "substance" in politics, because the image itself has real-world consequences other than as a propaganda device.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

now that i think about if we have to tell them all that
hard to think they can understand whats going on

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

I think a vote can be a very dangerous weapon when it is used by people who don't take government seriously. Think about David Duke's near election several years ago. If it weren't for Tim Russert, Duke very well may have been elected president.

I sometimes flirt with the idea of making a basic civics test mandatory for voting, but then you run into accusations of big government and infringing on personal freedoms. And also, who's to say that knowledgeable people know what's best?

I guess there has to be a balance between the serious voters and the casual ones. They're both necessary because they keep everyone grounded. I just wish the balance was a little more skewed in favor of the serious voters sometimes. It's very difficult for me to discuss politics with people who fixate on minutia.

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Torrance,

Well, we tell people this stuff all the time in terms of living within our means, but people don't like to listen. So they learn the hard way and want others to bail them out.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.