Party of "No!"

If you haven’t seen the video by now, it’s easy enough to find. After watching a Bobby Jindal performance featuring a barrage of incomprehensible choices Tuesday night, David Brooks threw his hands up in the air and declared the response, “a disaster for the Republican Party.”

There’s wide agreement on that point, so far as it goes. What set Brooks apart was his insistence that the disaster was not one of style, or even substance, but of politics. Brooks was saying that Jindal erred in making a tax cutting, government hating message the centerpiece of his case.

Which, again, is a fair point. Jindal is the governor of a state that has taken in $130 billion in federal aid following Katrina, so you might think that Brooks was honing in on the hollowness of Jindal’s skinflint posturing.

But, no, Brooks had something else again in mind. The brand is damaged, he was saying. The anti-tax, anti-government brand is all hat and no cattle. A dog that won’t hunt. A well pumped dry.

A disaster for the Republican Party.

Well, I don’t know. The first rule of conservative pundit interpretation is don’t take the advice of conservative pundits. Applied to policy, failing to follow this rule can lead to war, famine, and death. In politics, things are less serious but it remains true that disregarding the rule is highly correlated with consignment to the political wilderness.

As much as I wonder what alternative Brooks had in mind, I know for sure what advice I’d have given Jindal. Focus on the weird religious stuff. Tell ‘em about the exorcisms. America is ready for your testimony, Governor, is what I’d say.

To be completely honest though, I think the tried and true ‘we believe that Americans know better how to spend their money than government does’ is a better message.

Which gets me to this. One of the striking things about Obama’s address and the Republican response was that we seem to have arrived at a point where each party has embraced the framing of the other.

Obama berates Republicans as “The party of ‘No!’” and celebrates Democrats as people who “believe that government isn’t the problem, but can be part of the solution.” Jindal expressly denies that government can solve any problem better than the people, and embraces an argument from generational justice in support of the Republican commitment to stand athwart economic recovery crying “stop!”

It’s big government versus no government, pure and simple.

Much of the online criticism of Jindal’s response has focused on a story he told about a time “during Katrina” when he and Sheriff Harry Lee (“A Democrat!”) took a stand against a bureaucrat and got things done, a story which Jindal apparently embroidered to make it seem as if he played a larger role than he did. The real puzzle, though, lies in the plot itself. Who, after all, are Jindal and Lee but representatives of the government?

The story shows that if you elect the right people, then you can count on government to get things done. Or anyway, that’s what it says to me. To Jindal, and presumably to many Americans, it says that we must elect officials who will say “No!” to the encroachment of government bureaucracy, and thereby enable the people themselves to get things done.

The left says “Party of 'No!'"
The right says “You betcha!”

Contra Brooks, this situation seems to pay Republicans quite a few immediate political dividends. It allows them to establish a clear contrast with the Bush Administration by saying "No!" to the claim that deficits don’t matter. Because they are already framed as a party with an ideological commitment of opposition to everything, Republicans are granted tactical freedom to obstruct anything they choose at very little additional cost. Most importantly, “No” is a big tent, big enough to fit anyone who is put off by any aspect of Obama’s vast agenda.

The emerging picture is of a Republican Party unstained by the mistakes of the Bush Administration and able to dress any and every oppositional impulse in the virtuous cloth of principled opposition to the reckless expansion of government.

Going forward, the political calculation is clear. The economy is in free fall, and there’s a good chance that things will still be bad in 2010 and even in 2012. Rush Limbaugh, who openly declares that he wants the Obama Administration to fail, gets points for being honest. Pure Republican opposition gives Obama and the Democrats ownership of that probably-still-shaky economy, erodes Obama’s coalition by making him less able to satisfy promises to supporters, and lets Republicans score political points whether they succeed or fail at stopping any particular thing.

Not the worst frame in the world. Not a disaster for the Republican Party.

But neither, for all that, is it a disaster for the Democrats. If the Republicans are the party of no, then Democrats can’t be faulted when Republicans rebuff their offers of bipartisan cooperation, no matter how hollow those offers might have turned out to be. More to the point, the change that Obama talks about isn’t something new and scary that voters have never heard of. He’s merely proposing to implement a Democratic agenda that has been in place for years, is well known, and is broadly popular.

Implementing that agenda, however, was always going to require joining the debate about the role of government in society. Looking back at the squandered opportunity that was the Clinton Administration, surely one of the lessons is that Democrats cannot accomplish their policy goals while refusing to defend the ideology under which those policies are justified.

Clinton’s solution to the problem of Republican messaging was to triangulate away from it. In other words, his administration sought to create a message which accepted the premise of Republican talking points while identifying the administration as being in opposition to whatever it was that the Republicans happened to attack. This worked well enough for Clinton, but it hamstrung the party because it reinforced the perception that Democrats had no principles but were mere political opportunists.

Obama’s approach in the present situation is both strikingly different and strikingly conventional. To my eye, we’ve got a straightforward application of the message box. Obama has taken what the Republicans say about themselves and recast it in entirely negative terms while also punching it up to make it much catchier. This creates the implication that the Democrats are the party of yes, which in turn resonates with Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan which, in message box terms, fits into the category of what we say about ourselves.

For my part, I think Obama's approach gives Democrats a their best chance to make progress on core issues like improving access to health care and moving the country toward a sustainable path. Does this mean that Brooks was right after all? Not nearly. The Republican anti-government message has some clear immediate advantages and has, when the debate has been joined directly, had great success in the past. Obama is willing to engage on these terms because he has to, and he has done a good job of preparing the ground, but it's worth remembering that it has been decades since Democrats last gained ground in this fight.

Oh, and speaking of Brooks, I told you the video was easy to find:

And, because this post has gotten unduly substantive, here's Kenny the Page:

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