I see things aren't going so well for you in Massachusetts. Many of my ilk, the independent swing voter, have decided to vote for the nice-looking man with the truck, and as we drift through the middle of the worst recession in over 60 years, we're eager to empower a party that has made a calculated decision to prolong the economic crisis for partisan gain. While it's true that you can win this by turning out partisan supporters alone, I can understand if you're still frustrated about the seemingly random vacillations of loyalty that have brought us to this juncture. After all, just a little over a year ago, my people overwhelmingly voted against that other party for subjecting us to the most calamitous stretch of governing since the 1850's. Shouldn't that secure our support for a good 4 to 6 years?
If you think so, this letter is for you.
You probably know that political parties spend an incredible amount of money trying to figure out how to manipulate my behavior. Consultants routinely herd me into nondescript little rooms where they carefully observe how my opinions shift wildly when different words are used to describe the exact same thing. Politicians strain to stick to a carefully tested internal script in fear that the most minute shade of unintended meaning might anger my unpredictable sensibilities. Our entire media is built around the practice of exploiting my inscrutable thought processes as a blank slate upon which pundits of all stripes can project their esoteric, convoluted agendas.
With this in mind, you should be thrilled that I'm about to tell you exactly what I want:
I want things to stop sucking. Notice how things suck right now? I want that to stop.
If you can do this, you're golden. You've got my vote. If you can find some way to prevent me from feeling bad, I can guarantee you reelection year after year after year. There is really nothing else to it.
But you should be aware that I'm never going to like you while things are still sucking. If you've just been voted into power, I'll give you a couple of months, but that's all. I expect things to not suck, and I expect you to deliver. If you can do that, I'll like you and tell people I agree with you. If you can't, I'll dislike you and tell people I disagree with you. It's that simple.
"But maybe," you think, "there's some message that will convince him otherwise. Maybe there's some kind of narrative, some kind of frame that will bring him over to my way of thinking!"
No. No, there's not. If you think I'm paying close enough attention to follow the elaborate story your consultants hope to play out on CNN, you're already too far gone to be helped. You know that 2% of the population that actually watches cable news on a regular basis? I'm not among them.
I will never pick up on the nuances of your carefully crafted narrative. Worried about the "optics" of attending a campaign event for a losing candidate or using a certain rhetorical style? Don't be. I'm not paying attention. Worried about the opinion of those pundits who claim to speak on my behalf? They're just partisan hacks, guys. Don't sweat it. Think your gestures of bipartisanship will actually appeal to me? They don't. I hate both parties. Ever notice how I say I like divided government while also complaining that Washington never gets anything done? Take a hint! When I say I like bipartisanship, I'm saying I like the idea. Who doesn't like people working together? You might as well build your governing philosophy around kittens and chocolate chip cookies.
At best, you can spend $500,000,000 to hammer a single word phrase that reinforces what I'm already thinking. Change? Sounds good. Hope? I like hope! Bush? Hate the asshole. Your frequent conciliatory gestures will show an earnest interest in working with the opposition to produce meaningful, pragmatic solutions? Buh?
Your public image, as understood by the DC commentariat, is irrelevant. Your actual public image can be ascertained by answering one question: "Are you in charge while things suck?" If yes, then you need to work on changing that. If that involves some tut-tutting from David Broder and Maureen Dowd, you might want to consider just dealing with it. It's not like they want you to succeed anyway.
Now, I do want you to succeed, but you shouldn't get too excited about that. Me wanting you to succeed means the same thing as me wanting to be happy and comfortable. If you can make me happy and comfortable, you can do pretty much anything you want, but I'll address that further in a second.
"So maybe," you think, "I can win him over by appealing to his policy priorities."
Sure, you can do that. If you ask me what policies I want, here's a brief wish list:
- I want a jobs program, but I don't want it to add to the deficit. Since tax revenue has now bottomed out, I would also like for you to begin balancing the budget, but I don't want you to raise taxes or cut any kind of spending.
- I want cheap, accessible health care, but I don't want to risk losing my expensive, obtrusive insurance policy. I might like to buy into Medicare as long as it's not referred to as "government health care." That's scary.
- I want someone to stop powerful corporations from doing whatever they damn well please at the public's expense, but I don't want the government mucking things up with red tape.
- I don't want to lose my job to undocumented immigrants or foreign workers, but I don't want to pay more for consumer goods.
- I want you to reconcile my recognition of the need for major, structural changes to our society with my abject fear of major, structural changes to our society.
You say that's impossible? You say my stated priorities are wholly inconsistent? In that case, it might just be better to focus on materially improving my life instead of worrying about what ideas happen to sound good to me while I'm talking to a pollster. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking I care about how we get from things sucking to things being comfortable.
Sure, I'm scared of anything you plan to do, but the longer things suck, the more scared I get. Think of it like an old bandaid. You just need to rip it off. I'll howl momentarily, but as long as I've got a decent job when I get to the voting booth, any bullshit I yammered a year ago isn't going to matter. If it were anything other than talk, I wouldn't change my opinions on a seasonal basis. I'd vote for a dead raccoon if he brought the unemployment rate down to 5%.
"So," you ask, "all I have to do is make things better and you'll vote for me?"
Well, no, I didn't say that. You've still got to ask for my vote. You've still got to make me aware that there's an election and that you're running in it. Most of all, you've still got to remind me why I'm supposed to vote for you. Sure, the other guy's party left this country in ruins just a little over a year ago. Sure, there's nothing that meaningfully distinguishes him from the people I angrily voted against in the last election.
I know that, but listen... he seems nice... and he drives a truck.
A Swing Voter