Alex Steer

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Why the Republicans are getting their strategy wrong

1373 words

I don't normally talk about politics on this blog, largely because I'm not very good at it; and US politics, in particular, is a crowded space that you don't wade into lightly if you don't know what you're talking about.

However, I have spent a lot of this year tracking and trying to make sense of the attitudes, sentiments and values of people in the US on different issues (no easy task for a Brit). And I reckon whoever's running the Republicans' political strategy at the moment is basing it on flawed insights.

Even beyond the Tea Party movement, there's a new wave of Republicans in the House of Representatives who are trying to focus the political agenda on public debt, spending and the deficit. These more activist Republicans in Congress have forced the issue of the debt ceiling, and generated an equally stiff response from Democrats and the White House, leading to the current deadlock in debt talks - and, today, abandonment of the talks by the Speaker of the House.

The strategy, if you hadn't guessed, is to make the most of control of the House by showing some muscle, roadblocking initiatives coming out of the White House, and taking a firm and very simple line on debt, deficit and spending (summed up neatly, if cheesily, in the term 'cut, cap and balance'). I think the intended message to the American people from all this activity is: 'In a tough economy, you're learning not to spend more than you have; you expect the federal government to do the same; we're going to make sure government lives within its means.'

But that's not the message that's getting through. The reason is a combination of old insights and flawed planning.

When I say old, I don't mean that old - but that's the problem with public attitudes: they do have that awkward habit of changing on you. The Republicans seem to be assuming that, because economic conditions and consumer behaviour haven't shifted all that substantially since about mid-to-late 2009, insights into people's values around the economy and personal and public finances haven't changed all that much either. The thing is, that's not true.

When the shock of the recession first hit, people reacted by battening down the hatches - spending less, aggressively paying down debt (though, admittedly, only to about 2006 levels), trying to balance their personal budgets. It was around that time that sentiment began to shift away from the idea that decisive collective action was the best way to redress the balance of a catastrophic market failure: by December, when Time named Ben Bernanke their Person of the Year, the idea of celebrating Big Government's Mr Fix-It already seemed a little out of date.

The later part of 2009, and much of 2010, was characterized by exactly the kind of attitudes that the Republicans are currently betting on. Trust in institutions - government as well as business and finance - fell through the floor. Just as one of the purest expressions of the 'collective response' stance had been Obama's election victory, so this new 'won't get fooled again' self-reliance was captured in the emergence of the Tea Party movement into mainstream discourse (regardless of the very atypical demographic makeup of its support base). In 2009/10, the idea that the best thing government can do is pay its late bills and cut up its credit cards would have felt just right to a lot of people.

But in mid-2011, the landscape of attitudes has changed. In part, it's changed precisely because conditions have not. In July, when the latest employment data came out and showed that only 18,000 jobs had been added, instead of the roughly 101,000 predicted, it signalled another period of 'same old, same old': depressed growth, no jobs, low security. So it's easy to assume, looking at those numbers, and at consumer spending and economic confidence, that people will still be huddling from the howling storm, receptive to the same messages about fixing the roof and getting the house in order. Ask about people's attitudes, though, and it's a different story. I've mentioned before, in a post about the problem with consumer confidence, that pollsters too easily assume that attitudes are tied to hard numbers in the economy, and that consumer confidence in the economic future is a good barometer of the kinds of ideas and actions they will respond to in the present. That's broadly true of consumer behaviour (though even then it assumes that the conditions for consumption don't change much, and that businesses are largely reactive - in fact, they can create the conditions for stronger or weaker consumption, but that's another story). For attitudes, there's no such short-cut, and we're seeing that now. Yes, the economy's as bad as it was. Yes, job security and availability are unlikely to improve. But no, people are not still focusing on 'panic cutting' in the immediate present as their priority response.

Instead, people are starting to think about the future. It's clear there's no light at the end of the tunnel, so people are learning to live without it. I've described the mood in the US at the moment as 'post-optimistic', and I still think that's right. Rather than focusing on the immediate situation and waiting for things to change, people are adjusting their lives and their spending to equip them to cope with a longer-term future whose outline they can't yet see. I'd describe this as planning for everyday resilience. It's the reason why New Yorkers pack an umbrella, even on a sunny day (except me, apparently), or why you always carry a few notes in your wallet in case you end up somewhere that doesn't  take your debit card (note: not a credit card, not these days).

Post-optimism is driven in part by lack of trust, just as panic cutting was. In the last year or two Americans have felt let down by powerful institutions in all sorts of ways, from mortgage lenders to banks, to oil companies, to banks again (bonuses), to government (ask those teachers in Wisconsin). But planning for everyday resilience doesn't mean people expect government to just step aside. There's a recognition that government can help build resilience, file smooth some of the spikes of a market economy. It has to be accountable, and measurable, and it has to show that, in the face of uncertainty, it's focused on making the country tougher - not just cheaper.

And that's the problem for the Republicans. By making the conversation all about cutting the deficit and paying down debt, they've forgotten to remind people why any of those things might be a good idea when it comes to planning for everyday resilience, and trying to get a fairer deal for the next generation (and this generation as it ages). That's the big flaw in the strategy, and it's led to an even bigger flaw in the execution. By treating this as fundamentally an issue about public spending and government now, and not about securing the future, the Republicans in Congress have opened themselves up to accusations of grandstanding. People look at the situation and see it as a vast, remote political game, played for its own purposes, irrelevant and childish and stubborn. When they stop caring about the outcome of that game, they will support its fairest and most pragmatic player, not its victor.

If you happen to be reading this, and you happen to be a Republican political strategist (unlikely, I know, but possible), you need to start talking about the future in ways that are meaningful to the rest of us. You should know that I'm not a natural supporter of yours, but the current deadlock is self-serving and will do the opposite of what you intend in terms of sentiment and support.

# Alex Steer (23/07/2011)