Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Losing A Popular Issue (Blair’s Lessons, part VIII)

Reading about the current government shutdown, ostensibly over Obamacare, reminded me of a story in Tony Blair's autobiography. He wrote about the campaign in 2001, when his government was ultimately voted back into power for another term.

Going into this election, there had been growing discontent with Blair's government. One issue that the Conservatives (Tories) decided to focus on was Blair's unpopular pro-European Union stance. Both the polls and the media revealed that this was a weak point in Blair's platform, so naturally, the Tories thought they could exploit it. Instead, it backfired. Blair explains:
What’s more, while Euroscepticism was just about tolerable, there were—as there always are with such issues—those who wanted to take a position that was already at the outer edge of respectability and push well beyond it. The leadership stance gave them permission to go even further and there’s where the public’s position on Europe couldn’t be entirely guessed by reference to the polls. True, if asked, they supported the Tories on it, but it was never going to determine the election. It wasn’t their priority, so the Tory focus on it gave the Tories a curious, lopsided look that swiftly turned into the thought among the public that, well, maybe they just weren’t ready to govern. Once such a thought takes hold, the election’s over.
In that case, the Tories selected an issue that had popular support, but addressed it in such a way as to appear irresponsible and unprepared to take power. They pushed the issue to hard, to extremely, and consequently severed the popular sentiment from their specific policy stance. The result was another Blair victory—not because the people agreed with Blair, but because they doubted the basic competence of the alternative party.

This demonstrates just how difficult it can be to take a popular issue and translate it to electoral victory. How you address an issue can be even more significant than what the issue is.

I believe that's the issue the Republicans are missing in their attempt to use the government shutdown as an attempt to negotiate delay/repeal of Obamacare. Let's presume for the sake of argument that it really is as unpopular as the Republicans say it is. Stunts like the non-filibuster filibuster that was never intended to block the bill, or the inability to pass a bill out of their own controlled chamber do not instill confidence in the Republican party's ability to govern (were they given power). Nor does the apparent lack of strategy overall.

In fact, I have yet to see a coherent objective to this current tactic. If it's merely about negotiation, than the Obamacare stance is merely a pretext (which is what the Democrats are saying). If it's about Obamacare, than it's not particularly relevant to the budget debate (since the shutdown didn't affect Obamacare anyway, and most of the objectionable stuff isn't a budget question). If it's merely a ploy to make the Democrats give up something, anything, than the Republicans are as petty as they're saying the Democrats are. The only way the Republicans can score even a few points off this is if they are soundly defeated, and then play the victim (a strategy that requires ensuring defeat and claiming it as victory). If it's some combination of the above, which I suspect is the case, well, maybe the Republicans just aren't ready to govern.

Having a popular support on an issue won't help. As Blair warns, "Once such a thought takes hold, the election's over." The people's attitude to the group in power simply becomes (as Blair says a few pages later) "You’ve done OK, the other lot aren’t ready, carry on."

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)
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