As much as politicians like to imagine themselves men and women of action, what they mostly do is talk. They talk to the cameras, they talk to constituents, they talk to contributors, they talk to each other. It's almost impossible to be a successful politician without the ability to lodge words and images in the public mind.
The result is that a really adept politician has to be part linguist and part semiotician. This is particularly true when you're out of power and there's so little you can actually accomplish. As Republicans are faced with the possibility that this week, Democrats might actually succeed in passing their most critical domestic initiative, is their mastery of the symbolic really enough?
Imagine that you are strongly opposed to abortion rights, and what you'd like is for all abortions to be illegal. Then you're faced with two alternatives:
1. In Path 1, federal funds will not be used to give anyone abortion coverage, but the number of abortions will either stay the same or increase.
2. In Path 2, federal funds will not be used to give anyone abortion coverage, but the number of abortions will decline.
A few days ago, Dan Ariely of Duke University, was on NPR to discuss his research on the way doctors make decisions, which mirrors the troubling ways consumers make decisions. If a pizza menu starts with the pie with everything, then descends into options with fewer and fewer toppings, people will order more toppings than if they're looking at a menu that puts the plain pie at the top.
Today's Washington Post features a piece by two Democratic pollsters, Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, advising Democrats to jettison health-care reform, because "the battle for public opinion has been lost. Comprehensive health care has been lost. If it fails, as appears possible, Democrats will face the brunt of the electorate's reaction. If it passes, however, Democrats will face a far greater calamitous reaction at the polls."