“You Just Don’t Get It”

The most popular put-down of the 2010 campaign so far.

Barack Obama

Do you get it? It is the question of the 2010 campaign so far, and the answer is always the same: no. “Republican leaders in Washington just don’t get it,” President Obama said this weekend after the GOP senators voted to block an extension of unemployment benefits. During the House debate last week over financial services reform, Mike Pence, the Republican conference chairman, criticized the Democrats: “When you look at this legislation, it is proof positive again that this majority just doesn’t get it.” In Arizona, backers of the state’s controversial immigration law are selling T-shirts that read: “The President Just Doesn’t Get It.” When the Justice Department announced Tuesday that it would file suit to overturn the law, Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona responded, “The only thing this lawsuit will do is demonstrate to Arizonans that Washington still doesn’t get it.”

Voters are angry this election year. A recent Washington Post poll showed that only 29 percent of Americans said they would support their House representative in November, even lower than before the historic 1994 election. Politicians who claim their opponents “don’t get it” hope to stoke that anger into rage: The politician disappointing you does so not because he’s incompetent, but because he doesn’t care what you say. This is the animating sentiment behind the Tea Party movement. “The government doesn’t want to hear us,” said one protester at an Obama health care rally in Iowa earlier this year in the final days of the health care debate. “We have to make them listen.”

I’m sorry, were you saying something?

Both sides are focusing on highlighting just how bad the other party is in part because they can’t satisfy voter anger by talking about solutions. People aren’t in a mood to believe in promises from Washington. And, for different reasons, neither party has much to say. Democrats can’t excite people with the programs they’ve passed. Only 33 percent of those asked in a recent Pew poll think the stimulus bill has helped create jobs. Health care reform is getting more popular, but even in the most optimistic polls, fewer than 50 percent of respondents view it favorably. Republicans aren’t offering detailed solutions because they have made a tactical decision to stay vague about what they would actually do if they took control. They don’t want to offend anyone, and they’d prefer this election be a referendum on unpopular Democratic programs.

If politicians can’t recognize problems, how can they solve them? That question was at the center of the charge Obama made last week in Wisconsin when he criticized House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, for seeming to compare the financial crisis to an insect. “If the Republican leader is that out of touch with the struggles facing the American people, he should come here to Racine and ask people if they think the financial crisis was an ant.” Those who aren’t out of touch don’t hear you because they are compromised. When the Senate was debating a version of the financial reform bill, the president charged that the Senate Republican leader was ignoring the obvious benefits of the legislation because he was beholden to the Wall Street bankers he was courting for campaign donations.

Democrats charge willful incompetence. Republicans blame arrogance. For months, Republican leaders have peppered their public statements on a range of issues with the charge that the president and Democratic leaders are so ideological they are deaf to the outcry from the public. “Americans want us to listen to them on health care,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during the health care debate. “They’ve been telling us so for an entire year. Incredibly, our friends on the other side still don’t seem to get it. But Americans see what’s going on. And that’s why they’ll reject this bill again.”

Obama has given his opponents ammunition. On issues from stimulus to health care to his handling of the BP oil spill, he and his aides have blamed their problems on poor communication. “He seems to think we just don’t understand what’s going on because he hasn’t had the chance—in his 411 speeches and 158 interviews last year—to adequately explain his policies to us,” Sarah Palin wrote during the health care debate. “Instead of sensibly telling the American people, ‘I’m listening,’ the president is saying, ‘Listen up, people!’ This approach is precisely the reason people are upset with Washington.”

When politicians aren’t accusing their opponents of not listening, they are trying hard to show how much they themselves are. After Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat last winter, Obama made “I hear you” the theme of his State of the Union address. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is credited with reviving her candidacy after airing an ad in which she professed that she was listening. “I’m Blanche Lincoln, and I know you’re angry at Washington. Believe me, I heard you.”

Republicans have constructed an elaborate listening exercise called “America Speaking Out,” which seeks to solicit ideas from voters that will inform the future GOP agenda. By hearing from the people, Boehner promises, Republicans will “change the way Washington works.” The theory underlying the Republican position is that if something isn’t popular, the president shouldn’t be doing it. Boehner has taken this view one step further. When debating whether the stimulus bill has worked, he has cited not the number of jobs created, but public opinion polls that show people don’t like it. As Steve Benen pointed out recently, Boehner is using the listening exercise to avoid being specific on policy.

This view is a complete reversal from what was once the prevailing Republican view of leadership. During the Bush presidency, public opposition to the war didn’t matter. As Dick Cheney put it: “It may not be popular with the public—it doesn’t matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re not running for office. We’re doing what we think is right.”

This was also true of domestic affairs during the Bush era. When the president launched his plan to create Social Security private accounts, he cited the idea’s unpopularity as one of its virtues. “That’s why we run for office,” Bush said in a 2005 speech about the political opposition he faced. (Only 35 percent of Americans approved of the plan at the time.) “Someone said, ‘It’s a steep hill to climb, Mr. President.’ Well, my attitude is, the steeper, the better—because when you get up top, you realize you have left a significant contribution behind.” By this unpopularity/elevation calculus, Obama’s health care plan puts him above the treeline.

Politicians have been saying their opponents are out of touch for ages. But it’s a terrible idea to link a politician’s fortunes to his ability to “hear” the public. This is not a claim that comes from the cable-news era. It is the thesis of Walter Lippmann’s book Public Opinion, published in 1922. Some 88 years later, politicians are debating how to stimulate the economy and tame the deficit, which will require making hard choices. Yet according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the people politicians are supposed to be listening to in order to show they “get it” are themselves incapable of making those hard choices. Respondents said that, yes, they wanted states to balance their budgets—and then large majorities opposed specific measures required to do so. In short: They don’t get it.

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