In a recent radio show, Rush Limbaugh said something that encapsulates the dilemma of achieving the genuine fiscal reform envisioned primarily by the newly-elected class of Republican Congressmen and their standard-bearer Sen. Paul Ryan (R-KY). “Republicans own the facts,” said Mr. Limbaugh, “but Democrats own the narrative.” The facts are simple: the Obama administration is running a deficit of $1.6 trillion for the current fiscal year and our national debt is approaching $14.3 trillion. The narrative is equally simple: any significant spending cuts constitute an “assault” on the American public. So how do we achieve genuine fiscal reform?
In my early twenties, I taught study skills in after-school programs at various locations in New York City. This was a time when the crack cocaine epidemic was in full bloom. It wasn’t unusual to see rows of drug dealers openly hawking their wares along several major thoroughfares throughout the city. It was also not unusual to see police cars drive right by without stopping. Thus, for many young New Yorkers, selling crack was seen as a lucrative way to generate a fairly substantial income with relatively little risk.
Whenever the subject of earning money came up in class, kids would ask me what they should do. I told them I used to work in a hamburger joint when I was their age, and that taking a job at McDonald’s seemed like a pretty good choice to me. Such advice was always greeted with a level of scorn, and there was always one kid who asked the inevitable question: “Why should I work at McDonald’s when I can make ten times as much selling crack on a street corner?” My answer was always the same: “The only way I can convince you to work at McDonald’s is if I can convince you that selling crack is morally wrong.”
In terms of morality, or more accurately, faux morality, Democrats have owned the narrative for decades. Thus, while Sen. Ryan offers facts, as in “I asked CBO to run the model going out and they told me that their computer simulation crashes in 2037 because CBO can’t conceive of any way in which the economy can continue past the year 2037 because of debt burdens,” House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweets the all-too-familiar narrative that fiscal responsibility “is a path to poverty for America’s seniors & children and a road to riches for big oil #GOPvalues.”
Typically, Republicans respond to such charges factually, as in saying they’re not true, even as they abandon the narrative that Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency until 2010, failed to produce any budget at all for the first time since 1974 when the current procedures for enactment were adopted–and that such gross irresponsibility is immoral and has done far more to endanger all Americans than any attempt to address the problem would.
Republicans must also explain that taking revenue from the future to pay current expenses is fundamentally immoral because it consigns the very same children and seniors Ms. Pelosi ostensibly cares about to a future which, absent fiscal reform, will yield a dramatically lower standard of living than Americans currently enjoy. They must seize the narrative and tell Americans that borrowing from the future to pay for today is nothing less than stealing–and that stealing is immoral.
So is lying. “Any plan to reduce our deficit must reflect the American values of fairness and shared sacrifice. Congressman Ryan’s plan fails this test,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday. “It cuts taxes for millionaires and special interests while placing a greater burden on seniors who depend on Medicare or live in nursing homes, families struggling with a child who has serious disabilities, workers who have lost their health care coverage, and students and their families who rely on Pell Grants.”
The truth: this chart from the Heritage Foundation demonstrates that “shared sacrifice” consists of the top one percent of earners paying 40 percent of all income taxes while the bottom 50 percent pay less than three percent. What the chart doesn’t show is that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes at all. Furthermore, absent substantial reform, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, which consume almost 60 percent of the budget, are on a trajectory towards bankruptcy.
Yet Democrats are never pressed to explain why allowing America to go bankrupt is not only illogical, but indecent. They are never asked to justify why the obvious moral failure of keeping millions of Americans dependent on government with all its attendant pathologies, most brutally expressed in the destruction of the nuclear family, is better than fostering self-reliance. They are never taken to task for fostering fear instead of hope, for playing one group of Americans off another, or why the accumulation of wealth is something to be envied instead of aspired to. They are never challenged by Republicans to explain their “compassion” whose goal is to put more people on government programs instead of weaning them off such unseemly dependency.
Republicans must understand that while facts matter, they are less important than countering a narrative with a narrative. For the last five decades, American school children have been taught that feelings are just as important, if not more so, than thinking. Thus, facts, no matter how compelling, will never resonate with a substantial portion of the electorate, unless the narrative which accompanies them is equally compelling. They must realize that Democrats, going as far back as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, have been fostering a culture of self-entitlement for fifty years and many of it adherents, five decades later, are virtually immune to facts.
I’ve mentioned this in previous columns, but it bears repeating: one of the best emotional appeals Republicans could make would be to announce that, as part of their overall budget plan, Congress will forego their Cadillac heath and pension plans, and put themselves into the same Social Security and health programs available to ordinary Americans. Factually, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the budget deficit, but it would be one of the most compelling narratives ever engendered by Congress, and would demonstrate that “shared sacrifice” is high on the Republican agenda. It would simultaneously expose the hypocrisy of any member of Congress in either party who dared to vote against it.
There is no question that Republicans have the facts on their side. No one can argue that we are not $14 trillion in debt or that the current annual deficit is not approximately $1.6 trillion, or that America isn’t headed over a fiscal cliff. But they have to learn how to fight emotional fire with emotional fire. And they must do so proactively, not reactively. If they can’t put the most spendthrift administration in the history of the country on the defensive, America may never recover. More importantly to Republicans, they may never recover.
In 2010, a substantial majority of Americans, via the Tea Party movement, demonstrated that they are no longer interested in a choice between bad and awful with respect to the nation’s fiscal integrity. Republicans should recognize that the rise of that movement was as much a desire to change the narrative as it was to explain the facts. With so much at stake, the 2012 election may be one of the most emotional election campaigns the republic has seen in quite some time. Republicans can ill-afford to cede so much of the playing field to Democrats. Governing with facts is fine. But without winning the hearts of Americans along the way, Republicans may never get the chance to govern at all.