It's the Narrative, Stupid

It’s the Narrative, Stupid

Both the McCain and Obama campaigns understand, in ways that no campaigns since Reagan’s have, that elections are about narrative. Campaigns are stories. As I have written in this space before, the classic story is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in end (something I learned from Michael Goldman at Emerson College 20+years ago). In other words, hope, loss and redemption. Through these stories the candidates are able to demonstrate they are heroes and in so doing remind us all that this American story continues to be true.

This is a story America has heard from McCain and Obama for eight and four years respectively, and it is a story Americans will hear every night from Denver – and probably every night in Minneapolis, and every night until November.

A few days ago we started hearing this story about Obama’s running-mate, Joe Biden. We’ve learned that he is a working class kid from the hardscrabble streets of Scranton, PA who faced adversity and through diligence and hard work has achieved success. We know his first wife was killed in a car accident while shopping for a Christmas tree when Biden was in Washington right after his first election. We learned that Biden was persuaded to stay in the Senate and took the oath of office from his son’s hospital room. We know that after a failed run at the White House in 1988 he rededicated himself to working values he believes in, and has become a senior statesman.

Tonight we will hear the story from Michelle Obama, a working class kid whose parents wanted something more for her, and who went on to Harvard. According to an Obama campaign press release, “[Tonight] Michelle will also talk about her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago. Her story is a great American story: modest means but big dreams—and encouragement from loving parents that she and her brother could accomplish whatever they put their minds to if they worked hard.”

Tomorrow we will (hopefully) hear this from Senator Clinton. On Wednesday we’ll hear the story again about, and from, Biden. Hopefully we will also hear it from President Clinton whose story of a belief in a place called hope helped elect him 16 years ago.

And on Thursday night we will again hear the story about a skinny kid with a funny name, with white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, whose story is only possible in America.

Through these stories we will be reminded that America was born to greatness (boy meets girl, hope), that we are in a mess not of our own making (boy loses girl, loss) and that by electing Obama and Biden we be great again (boy gets girl, redemption). By reminding us of this story Obama and Biden are not only telling us their story, they are telling us our story. We know this story. We like it and believe it. And if told well, we will vote for it.

Russia, Georgia and the Metaphor War: XM Interview

As promised, here is the interview I did with Scott Walterman on XM Radio's P.O.T.U.S '08 station.

It's a long clip (about 25 minutes) - I reccomend bringing a bottle of wine and a date.

Episode Two: Unsolicited Advice and Solutions

At the end of Episode One: A Plug and a Whack I promised to offer unsolicited advice and solutions to The Concord Coalition, a force behind (and focus of) the debt doc I.O.U.S.A.

It’s compelling and entertaining film that explains the history of our federal debt and deficits, the problems they create and what the future could look like of we don’t act a.s.a.p.

Unfortunately after 90 minutes of explaining why we’re doomed the audience isn’t given anything meaningful to do about it.

Before seeing the movie my wife and I had dinner at Meiwah and my fortune said something like it’s easier to be a critic than to solve problems. With that in mind, here are some specific steps that Concord can take, or could have taken:

Tell people to pull out their Blackberrys and immediately sign up for I.O.U.S.A. online campaign. Oh, create an online campaign to which people can sign up.

Tell people how to order the film. Make the film available on iTunes and other online movie outlets.

Tell people how to contact Concord to organize screenings at house parties, civic groups, in schools, at churches, etc.

Bring back and promote Concord’s “Hard Choices” game, and develop an interactive online version. This was (and may still be, no one mentioned it last night) a terrific exercise that makes small groups of people balance the federal budget using government numbers and government descriptions of programs.

Tell people to increase their own savings, and give them easy ways to do that. A major point of the film is that low personal savings rates contribute to the problem, and that if the government goes broke we’ll all need to rely on our personal savings to finance our futures. So how about a palm card or magnet or something with tips like, “pack a lunch” “make coffee at home” “insulate your home” etc. Create a website with these ideas and drive traffic to it in film screenings.

Give viewers specific input to give to legislators: Keep Pay-Go Rules, No New Tax Cuts, Raise the Social Security Eligibility Age Faster, and so forth. This is tricky for a lot of reasons, but if budget hawks can’t make hard choices about legislation, how can we expect Congress to?

Give viewers a list of questions they can ask legislators and candidates – and a list of what good answers are. Concord has done this in the past and should be doing so around the film.

In the film we’re told that cutting all pork, ending the war in Iraq and letting the Bust tax cuts expire will only solve 13% of the problem. That’s 13% better than where we are now. We have a spending habit, we should get a savings habit. Voters should applaud every step to save money.

There are lots of other steps Concord, and all of us can take. And as the movie points out, the stakes are too high to not to act.

A Plug and a Whack

Last night my wife and I saw I.O.U.S.A., a documentary that wants to be the Inconvenient Truth of the federal deficit. The event was a nationally syndicated showing of the film followed by a town hall style meeting (meaning a bunch of folks in an Omaha auditorium got to ask questions of Warren Buffett, Pete Peterson, Bill Novelli, William Niskanen, and Dave Walker while people in movie theatres around America watched). I was there because back in the day I was a regional field director for The Concord Coalition which was a focus of the film, and the federal budget deficit remains one of the issues about which I am most passionate.

The film is compelling and entertaining, mostly because the two people who get the most screen time – the Concord Coalition’s Bob Bixby and former U.S. Comptroller Dave Walker – are a fun team. I.O.U.S.A. explains the history, impact and threats posed by chronic deficits and federal debt. It makes a pretty compelling case that we’re pretty screwed if we don’t fix this thing.


After nearly 90 minutes of doom I am convinced that the federal debt is a huge deal. But I am never given specific steps to solve the problem

A problem this big, second only in magnitude to Islamic extremists smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the U.S. (an argument made by a member of Congress in the film), surely has solutions that I can begin to implement. And indeed there are. I can “hold elected officials accountable.” The problem is I’m not sure what that means. If getting out of the Iraq, banning earmarks and rolling back the tax cuts only solves 13% of the problem (according to the film) then what will? You can’t tell legislators to “end bad stuff” and expect to by happy with the results. I am told I can learn about the problem; I just spent 90 minutes doing that, what more do I need to know? Several people in the film said solving the problem will take political leadership and a president willing to do what’s right even if it means losing an election – setting aside the political silliness of that assertion, if it’s up the president then why should I do anything? Other solutions include better energy policy – seems like a good idea, but the connection is never made in the film, and transitioning to a non-carbon economy will cost a lot up front which seems to run counter to the message of the film. Another solution is fixing health care – again, seems like a good idea that isn’t connected to anything in the film and that most folks agree will cost a ton.

So what do I do? Unfortunately I’m never told, and as such probably won’t do anything and the problem will continue to get worse.

Stay tuned for Episode Two: Unsolicited Advice and Solutions

Upsetting My Friends to Win - Net Neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine

The last several blog posts led to an interview on XM Radio’s POTUS 08 station – hopefully I’ll be able to post an audio file of the conversation soon.

Changing the subject, here’s an idea that’s bound to upset my friends in the media reform world: to advance net neutrality, support legislation banning the Fairness Doctrine from applying to the Internet.

This summer I oversaw an independent study with a graduate student at George Washington University. His final paper was an analysis of the network neutrality debate, drawing on work of people like Prof. Frank Buamgartner to explain where the debate is, how it got there and what happens next.

His analysis found that net neutrality has not been clearly defined and as such is stuck. There is no clear “about” or “abouts” over which people are arguing. Advocates on both sides claim to support freedom, innovation and openness and a number of policymakers on both sides have trouble articulating what net neutrality is and why it matters. Until those questions get resolved it is unlikely that net neutrality advocates will win.

Last week FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell argued that net neutrality mandates would lead to reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. This is, on its surface, absurd – the Fairness Doctrine mandates control of content while net neutrality prohibits control of content – yet absent clarity in the debate such claims can stand.

Here I should note that several Republican legislators are pushing legislation banning funding for any re-imposition of the Fairness Doctrine, a policy rejected 20 years ago.

Bearing in mind my student’s observation, what if net neutrality advocates took McDowell seriously? What if they argued for legislation banning the imposition of the Fairness Doctrine to the Internet? Democrats would be promoting a “hands off” mandate, staking a claim that the Internet should be open and free for all. Net neutrality would be a provision in the legislation – if the government can’t play favorites, if the consumer should get to decide what a good argument is without artificial outside interference, shouldn’t the same rules apply to ISPs? Content providers should be allowed to produce content and get it to consumers, and consumers should be allowed to choose the content they like. Net neutrality would become a rejection of the Fairness Doctrine. Republicans would either have to vote for net neutrality or against banning the Fairness Doctrine – a tricky place to be.

The part my friends won’t like about this (one of the parts, I’m sure there are others) is that it puts Democrats in the position of voting against the Fairness Doctrine, a policy many of them support. But the Fairness Doctrine isn’t coming back. It won’t pass Congress, if it did and if McCain is elected president it would be vetoed, and if it did pass and if president Obama signed it into law, the Courts would reject it. The Fairness Doctrine is gone. So why not use it as a foil to help get net neutrality?

Dragons, Maidens and Nightmares: More on Georgia/Russia

My past two posts have focused on the importance of the metaphors used to describe the Russia/Georgia conflict. In this post I look at the larger story that the metaphors help tell.

In “Framing the Wars in the Gulf and Bosnia: The Rhetorical Definitions of the Western Power Leaders in Action” in The Journal of Peace Research Riikka Kuusisto argues that a handful of stories explain and therefore determine U.S. foreign policy. These stories put the events into a context or narrative, explain the motives of the actors and ultimately determine the appropriate response.

Borrowing heavily from Hayward Alker, Kenneth Burke and others, Kuusisto writes that two common stories are heroic tales and tragic plots. A heroic tale has a white knight rushing in to rescue a maiden, while a tragic plot has inevitable demise to it, it is a nightmare from which the characters cannot escape. A heroic tale has a victim, a victor and a vanquished – there is a maiden who is pure, a dragon that is evil, a tower in which the maiden is kept, and a kingdom to which she can return. The motives are easily understood, the lines clear and action obvious. The first Gulf War provided an example of a heroic tale with Kuwait playing the role of the maiden and Hussein the role of the dragon. The U.S., of course, was the White Knight that drove the dragon back into its lair and then rode into the sunset. Conflicts in Eastern Europe often get defined as tragic plots. There are decades old – sometimes centuries old – ethnic and religious divisions, with countries cobbled together by various treaties pulling apart at their artificial seams. There may be evil-doers, but it is unclear who the good guys are and there is no clear order to restore.

Seen in this framework, the implications for the definition of the Georgia/Russia conflict are clear. (As an aside, does it matter if the conflict is Russia/Georgia or Georgia/Russia?) If this is Cold War II: Return of the Kremlin then Georgia is the innocent victim being mercilessly marauded by Moscow. We know the role the US and West play in this movie – we’re heroes protecting outposts of civilization. If on the other hand there are break-away republics, a Krazy Kremlin and a power hungry local leader in Georgia trying to cobble together his own kingdom by forcing innocent ethnic minorities to join his own little empire, then there is no clear role for the U.S. or other western powers, it is unclear who needs to be rescued from whom, and once rescued precisely where they should go. We’ve seen this movie as well, and it ends badly.

How Russia/Georgia conflict gets defined, the narrative into which it gets placed, will determine in large part how the presidential candidates talk about it and how Western leaders respond to it.

Russia, Georgia and the Cold War Metaphor II

The Russia/Georgia conflict is quickly becoming characterized as a renewal of the Cold War. There is an airlift that The Wall Street Journal says “Echose of the Cold War” and "This does have echoes of the cold war," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" according to The Note.

Russia, readers are reminded, is the former hegemonic Soviet Union, as The New York Times writes: “The decision Wednesday to send the American military, even on a humanitarian mission, deepened the United States’ commitment to Georgia and America’s allies in the former Soviet sphere, just as Russia has been determined to reassert its control in the area.”

Russia is a post-Cold War nation, an important international player that deserves a seat at the global table. The Soviet Union is an expansionist empire that kills freedom and democracy.

If the dominant metaphor for the current conflict is the Cold War there are important implications for foreign policy, the Bush administration, Europe, and of course the current presidential campaign.

Senator McCain’s strengths are his clear vision, willingness to talk tough (or at least straight) and that he’s a war hero (which itself is a metaphor for strength and integrity). One of his biggest weaknesses is his age.

Senator Obama’s strengths are his optimism, his echoes of the young Kennedys and his “futureness.” One of his biggest weaknesses is his relative inexperience.

A Cold War metaphor is a double-edged sword for both candidates. McCain is a war hero because of the Cold War. He can say, “No one has to tell me about the importance of standing strong against communism, and what happens when politicians equivocate and negotiate with dictators. While some learned about the Cold War in university lecture halls I lived it. I know the stakes of failure.” His age becomes an asset, he demonstrates resolve, and he reminds Americans what it means to be strong against a foe, especially in tough times at home. The Cold War allows America to thrust out its chest even as things get worse domestically. Inflation may be up and employment down, but at least we’re a democracy with God on our side. The downside, of course, is that McCain risks letting people’s minds drift from McCain as POW to McCain as POW in Vietnam, a quagmire, American soldiers dying pointlessly in a war that isn’t winnable, and quickly to Iraq.

Obama is similarly in a tricky spot. If he is Kennedy-esque he would become a solid Cold Warrior, which would run counter to his anti-Iraq invasion message. If he does not come out strong, he risks being labeled Neville Chamberlain. A call for restraint and discussions would leave him open to accusations that he is young, naïve and not ready to lead in times of trouble.

Russia, Georgia and the Metaphor War

The importance of metaphor in shaping how we think has been recognized since at least Aristotle and its role in politics and policymaking has been discussed by political (and other) philosophers for hundreds of years. More recently a number of scholars have been examining the role of metaphor in international relations theory and the practice of foreign policy.

In “Kosovo and the Metaphor War”, for example, Roland Paris writes that there are two levels of disputes over metaphors, each of which informs the policy that will be implemented. First, what is the appropriate metaphor for the conflict (Vietnam versus Munich, for example) and second what the metaphor means (was Vietnam a pointless morass or the result of what happens when you let politicians rather than generals run a war) (Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117 No. 3, 2002). For Paris, the answers to these questions inform the response, or non-response, of the US military. In “Heroic Tale, Game, and Business Deal? Western Metaphors in Action in Kosovo”, Riikka Kuusisto writes that how a conflict is cast – as “heroic story” for example – determines how policymakers approach it (Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 88 No. 1, 2002). Rushing into rescue the maiden is far more likely to garner support than trying to sort out a centuries-old ethnic nightmare.

Which brings us to the Russia/Georgia conflict.

How the US, and the West in general, respond will be determined in large part by which side wins the metaphor war. If Russia can successfully cast Georgia as an “aggressor” who has been “punished” then the West not intervene – this is a quasi-internal, and certainly local, border dispute. Easy enough to keep out of. But if the conflict is seen as “a broader cold-war-style confrontation with the West” (The New York Times) then old cold war responses would be appropriate – starting with making Russia an official enemy of the US and Europe, and putting NATO in the almost inevitable position of getting to re-fight a hegemonic Soviet Union. This metaphor appears to be gaining ground, with leaders of other former Soviet republics expressing solidarity with Georgian president Saakashvili – indeed the declaration from Estonia’s president “I am a Georgian” sounds a lot like President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Not good news for Russia if it hopes to avoid conflict.

For Russia to win (or avoid) a military war, it must first win the metaphor war.

As an aside, when I copy and paste quotes from The New York Times, they font they appear in is “Georgia.” Just noting.

Crime: Mayoral Mistake and Entrepreneurial Opportunity

According the Philadelphia Inquirer, the National Conference of Mayors called on candidates McCain and Obama to address urban violence during the presidential campaign.

This was a mistake.

But it also provides opportunities for entrepreneurial advocacy groups.

Presidential campaigns are not typically the best venues for well-considered, carefully reasoned and data-driven policy debates. Not surprisingly when urban violence – crime – is injected into campaigns the debate is typically dominated by hyperbolic sloganeering designed to scare the bejeebers out of voters. Republicans tend to use crime as a way to beat up Democrats, and Democrats often over-compensate by proving their toughness through visible shows of meanness. It is worth recalling the the Willie Horton ad from 1988 and then-governor Clinton’s leaving the campaign trail to oversee the execution of the mentally handicapped Ricky Ray Rector – who left some pie from his last meal so he could get it after the execution.

That Americans often associate “black male” and “crime” doesn’t help this year either.

The candidates may both jump at the bait, each trying to out-sound bite the other. Doubters need look no further than Obama’s unsolicited opinion on the Supreme Court’s decision that executing child rapists is unconstitutional (the Senator disagrees).

Unfortunately most research finds that growled slogans like “do the crime do the time” and stunts like making inmates wear pink underwear don’t, you know, work. On the other hand, the much-maligned midnight basketball program did appear to work, and was mocked out of existence.

The mayors may have invited attention, just not the type they would find useful.

Entrepreneurial advocacy groups can take advantage of the very brief moment that exists between the challenge from the mayors and response of the candidates.

Both Obama and McCain fashion themselves as “new leaders” – people willing to walk the maverick road, challenge old thinking, and take innovative steps to move America forward. Several organizations including the Pew Public Safety Performance Project (with which I have worked) and the Vera Institute of Justice have proven, if unsexy, methods for improving public safety while save tax-payer dollars. Evidence driven, experience proven and ultimately effective, these policies protect our communities and our wallets.

If these and similar organizations can get to the campaigns now, immediately, stop reading this blog and call your contacts on the campaigns, they can help the candidates shape strong, positive messages that respond to the needs expressed by the mayors and actually help fight crime. If they do not – if the organizations avoid the political process, grimace and roll their eyes then go back to talking to each other about how bad it’s going to be, they will miss a moment to make America safer and risk making their own policy challenges even tougher.

The Future's So Bright

This past Sunday The Washington Post ran an extensive article headlined Hovering Above Poverty, Grasping for Middle Class. The piece offers a valuable lesson for issue advocates – those teetering on the economic edge are optimistic and say they “remain inspired by the American dream, with most saying they are more apt to move up economically than slip backward even if they are frustrated now. Most also expect better for their children.”

Importantly, “just 3 in 10 low-wage workers blame their employers for their plight, while 6 in 10 said they are responsible for their own financial situation. A similar proportion said people can get ahead by working hard.” Many also blame the government, large corporations and illegal immigrants for the nation’s economic woes.

This means that advocates who tell people how miserable they are, how bleak their futures are and how bad life is going to be for their children, are whistling into the wind. Smart advocates will start from the premise that those who work hard and play by the rules can get ahead (as President Clinton said more than a decade ago). From there, advocates can talk about ensuring the rules are fair and that the playing field is level. Campaigns for greater corporate responsibility and closing corporate tax loopholes ensure that corporate America has to play by the same rules that American families do. Environmental protection is about ensuring government and polluters do their part to secure our children’s futures – parents do their part through teaching values and ensuring kids get an education, the government and polluters should do their part as well.

Don’t tell people they’re doomed. Don’t tell them their children will be wrestling polar bears for the last puddle of clean water in Newark. Tell them that if they do their part, and that if we fix the rules so the government and corporations do their part, we can succeed.

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