Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Wrong Questions

Two men, relative giants in their respective parties, have framed the political discourse for the better part of the last 30 years, each with one line that continues to resonate throughout the strategies of every election.  Both men were wrong.

The two men are Ronald Reagan and James Carville.

The two lines are:

REAGAN:  Are you better off than you were four years ago?

CARVILLE: It's the economy, Stupid!

Lest my essay structure lead you to believe that the lines were originally somehow related, let me remind/inform that then-Republican nominee Reagan's question was asked to the American people during a debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, while Clinton stragegist Carville's comment was a note written to himself to keep himself focused on how to win the election for Clinton in 1992.

Both lines had some hand in their candidate's victory.  But both ask wrong questions, or imply them.

Reagan's question is meant to heap all of the negatives of America at the time onto an incumbent president.  And while I certainly wouldn't try to argue that a president is not responsible for what happens during his watch or that what were once someone else's problems eventually become his, the reality is that, for any of us willing to reflect a little, life does not progress or regress in neat little 4-year packages.  Am I better off than I was 4 years ago?  Absolutely!  I have one child through college and into grad school, another thriving in the college of her choice, my wife has moved to a different job and is considerably happier than she was in her old one, and my house has been renovated to a far more liveable condition than it was in early 2009.  Does President Obama get the credit for any of those changes?  Not in any tangible way that I can think of.

At the same time, my health care is more expensive, my raises have been sporadic, my 401K equally up and down.  Does Obama get the blame for that?  Not really.  Or maybe some.  It's hard for me to say.

But the fact that there is national health care, better consumer protection, reduced rates for college loans, a winding down of foreign wars, and someone in the White House who has become willing to battle for the rights of women and gay people, those are plusses that point directly to Pennsylvania Avenue.

And, if you went back to the original context, Reagan was talking specifically to voters about their personal finances.  Has this president made you richer, more comfortable?  If not, vote for me. 

Which leads to the second point.  Carville's Post-It note implies this question:  "Is there anything that voters give a damn about except the economy?"  And the implied answer is no, or in some bastardized version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the answer is yes, but not until they're satisfied with the economy.

I hope, I pray that is not true, for it is even more short-sighted than a 4-year window of satisfaction?  Consider two things, please.  First, that while we so often counsel children to become part of something larger than themselves, this mode of thinking is the exact opposite, as if the particular economic state of an individual in Little Rock, Arkansas should be that individual's determination of who should lead our country.  Talk about an entitlement!  Spread that thinking over 300+ million people, 2/3 of which have the right to vote, and you can see the complete lack of coherence.  Add to that the idea that the question is only asked to the poor to middling.  The rich do quite well regardless of who is president, thank you very much.

The other way to look at this is the economy itself and what it represents.  The relative strength or weakness of our economy continues to depend on consumers like you and me and how much crap that we don't really need we are willing to buy.  We are urged to consume and consume until there is nothing left to consume.  George W. Bush's first plea to Americans after 9/11 was for us to go shopping.  To focus an election on the economy alone is to ignore all of the other measures of a quality of life.  If you don't have a job, obviously that colors your perspective, but if you think that the actions of a president took that job away, you'd better be pretty sure about that, if that is the only factor in how you vote.

Put Reagan and Carville together and you get:  If elected, we promise to get you more money than the last guy got you so that you can spend more money because that's what keeps America strong.

That is just wrong-headed in so many ways, and moreso in 2012 when we can no longer pretend that our resources are unlimited.

Okay, it isn't really fair to say the Reagan and Carville were wrong.  In terms of the cynical strategies of seeking election, both men are spot on and zero in directly on a predecessor's "weakness."  But what were once campaign strategies are now philosophical benchmarks that people parrot and take seriously completely outside of election language, and because of that, they have done us a great disservice.  That's what their words have reduced us too and, even worse, we've allowed that to happen.

Am I better off than I was four years ago?  Hell, no.  I'm four years closer to death.  What are you going to do about that, Mr. Nominee?

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