Political battles are not won with facts and figures but with figures of speech. Year after year, we see Republicans overcome a massive onslaught of empirical evidence by winning the battle of language. In the midst of the victories of 2012, we must remember exactly how Mitt came so close to the White House.
The side that dictates the terms of an argument wins. For an instructive example, look no further than the first presidential debate. With one strong performance, Romney erased months of bad campaigning from his etch-a-sketch screen. There are a lot of different explanations for why Romney won, some substantive, and some stylistic.
In my estimation, the most revealing fact about the first debate is this one. By my count, the first debate transcript contains a total of 36 references to a Romney presidential plan (22 from Romney, 13 from Obama, 1 from Lehrer). By contrast, that same debate transcript contains 8 references to an Obama presidential plan (4 Romney and 4 Obama).
Set aside for the moment that Romney didn't really have a plan, and that his policy proposals didn't make any mathematical sense. Set aside for the moment that, even within that first debate President Obama made a great number of strong points about Romney's proposals. Obama won the first debate purely on the intellectual level, using deductive reasoning to demonstrate the huge deficiencies in the Romney so-called plan. But even for a man like Obama, with such remarkable talent for rhetoric, his first instinct as a liberal was to try to win the a battle of intellect, by defeat his opponent on his opponent's terms.
The undeniable fact remains that Obama lost that debate. He lost badly. He forgot that he was speaking on a stage, not critiquing a rival's Harvard Law Review article. Viewers didn't hear Obama's salient reasoning. They only heard that positive, one-syllable word PLAN, over and over again in connection to Mitt Romney. The message they heard was that Romney had a plan for the future, and Obama did not (even though the opposite was true). Just days later, voters wouldn't remember any of the specifics of Romney's policies, but they would still carry around an image in their brains of a smart business guy with his five bullet-points, his foolproof map to success, his magical list of five short items that we just need to check off in order to fix everything that is wrong with the country.
In the second presidential debate, President Obama brilliantly erased Romney's advantage. He accomplished it, not with reasoning and not by citing facts and studies as he had attempted in the first debate. He did it with rhetoric. He took Romney's most memorable figure of speech, his five-point plan, and he transformed that asset into a liability.
“Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.”
Obama accomplished in two sentences what he had previously failed to do with hundreds of words. He turned around Romney's preferred language into a weapon against him and then pivoted to his own preferred figure of speech: people playing by the same set of rules. The effect was devastating. Even without Governor Romney pleasingly proceeding into that act of terror, Obama won the war of words.
Metaphor is the most important device in the rhetorical toolbox. The human mind understands abstract concepts by drawing comparisons to more concrete ones. Metaphors create visual images that endure in the human memory whether we want them to or not. (Highly recommended reading: Joseph J. Romm's Language Intelligence.)
Right now, the Republicans are dominating the national conversation with a memorable two-word phrase: Fiscal Cliff. You will hear this phrase repeated over and over again by Republicans in the next few months. Then, on cue, you will hear this phrase parroted over and over again by the media. And then, predictably, you will even hear it spoken by Democrats and then even on threads here in the DailyKos. As liberals, we tend to follow that same instinct that Obama heeded in that first debate. We want to win with logic and reasoning instead of language and rhetoric.
Doing so is a losing strategy. The Republicans have a winning metaphor. They have a metaphor that makes it impossible to argue against their proposals. The expiration of a tax cut is not scary. Sequestration might sound a bit nefarious, but not enough to scare ordinary Americans. Cliffs are scary. People imagine their retirement statements and employment numbers suddenly falling and falling with no end in sight. "Avoiding the fiscal cliff" is something every voter would prefer.
But even tough the so-called Fiscal Cliff is great rhetoric, but it is also a lie. There is no cliff for us to avoid. As Jonathan Chait explained in his outstanding piece in NY Magazine about the dueling economic plans of Romney and Obama:
This is not the story you have heard about the budget. You have probably heard a terrifying tale of dysfunction and impending doom, with the catchphrase “the fiscal cliff” used by budget wonks to describe all the automatic changes scheduled for January 1. It’s a story of disaster that could arrive by accident and must be prevented at all costs. Every aspect of this narrative is inaccurate.
The term “fiscal cliff” has leached into the broader political lexicon, though few people understand what it means, and many of them invoke it to mean its precise opposite. Among Republicans, especially, “fiscal cliff” has come to signify their Obama-era fears of a Greece-style debt crisis. Pete Peterson, an investor and longtime fiscal hawk, has devoted more than a half-billion dollars to lobby for a bipartisan debt-reduction agreement, funding a vast network of centrist anti-deficit activists, like the Concord Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and an organization called “the Campaign to Fix the Debt,” all of which have pounded a national drumbeat warning against the perils of the fiscal cliff. “Rhetoric won’t fix the debt, action will,” warns a statement by Fix the Debt. A “solution to the nation’s fiscal crisis,” scolded the Washington Post editorial page, which closely echoes the views of the Peterson network, “can be implemented only if Republicans and Democrats hold hands and jump together.”
This is all utterly wrong. Bipartisan agreement is not necessary to fix the debt. Nothing is necessary to fix the debt. It is as if the network of activists, wonks, business leaders, and Beltway elder statesmen who have devoted themselves to building cross-party support for a deficit deal have grown more attached to the means of bipartisanship than to the ends for which it was intended. The budget deficit is a legislatively solved problem. It is, indeed, an oversolved problem. In the absence of any agreement between the president and Congress, the deficit will shrink to less than one percent of the economy by 2018, and remain below that level through 2022. The budget deficit declines so sharply and so drastically, and in ways that neither party is entirely comfortable with, that the task for Washington is to pull back on deficit reduction.
It’s true that should all this come to pass and Congress does nothing at all, allowing all automatic deficit reductions to stay permanently, then our economy would be hit by a powerful shock—a massive anti-stimulus. This is the outcome that terrifies moderate liberals like Howard Fineman, who warns that the nation is about to “go over the fiscal cliff with no hang glider.”
But here is a case where a bad metaphor has caused everybody to think about the matter in exactly the wrong way. When you walk off a cliff, the first step is your last. There is no such thing as falling halfway down a cliff. But the “fiscal cliff” is not a cliff at all. The economic damage is cumulative. It is the opposite of the debt ceiling, when the doomsday clock ticked down to a moment of sudden calamity. A full year of inaction would do a lot of damage, but a week, a month, or even a couple of months would not. The president would have enough control over the mechanics of the budget to delay the effects of higher taxes and spending cuts in order to cushion the blow to the economy. Even if the tax hikes and spending cuts go into effect, any deal that gets signed later could be retroactive. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve could also take emergency action to keep the recovery afloat.
As it stands, the word game has been rigged against us. We must make every effort to reject their terminology. There is no fiscal cliff. There is only a road ahead with a slight incline. I don't want to hear any Democrat or liberal or progressive playing their word game. Talking about the fiscal cliff is a losing strategy, just as President Obama's 13 mentions of Romney's Plan in the first debate was a losing tactic. You can lose just be repeating the other side's preferred language.
Everyone is in favor of that thing called "avoiding the fiscal cliff," but in reality those words are Luntzian Republican code for extending the Bush tax cuts and preserving massive levels of defense spending. Grover Norquist wields such power not just because of his well-funded special interest lobby; he wins the word game when he forces the middle and the left to speak about closing tax expenditure loopholes and letting temporary tax cuts expire as if they were tax increases.
Instead of talking about this non-existent cliff, the Message that must be ring from sea to shining sea is this one:
Middle Class Tax Cut.
Middle Class Tax Cut.
Middle Class Tax Cut.
Everyone is in favor of middle-class tax cuts. It is impossible for Republicans to oppose a middle-class tax cut. Framing this debate as one over a middle-class tax cut accomplishes a number of things all at once: (1) it steals the home-field advantage away from Republicans on their number one issue; (2) it leaves defense spending out of the initial conversation entirely, so that there is something to bring to the bargaining table later; (3) it presupposes the preferred outcome of ending the Bush era rates in the top income bracket; and (4) it prepares Democrats to claim an eventual victory as the achievement of something positive ("We fought and fought every day for this middle-class tax cut, and here it is.") instead of the mere avoidance of something negative.
If we have a national debate about avoiding a fiscal cliff, the Republicans will win this showdown. If we have a national debate about passing a middle class tax cut, then Democrats will win.
It's that simple.