Elite Rhetorical Agenda-Setting.

How does an argument move from the "fringe" to the mainstream? The easiest way is if those already considered mainstream figures in good standing begin making it. Right now, people on the left are making an argument -- that Republicans are intentionally doing everything they can to sabotage the American economy (at least by standing in the way of efforts that might improve it) in order to maximize their chances of winning the White House in 2012. Let's put aside for the moment the question of whether Republicans are, in fact, doing this. As of yet, this argument hasn't moved into the mainstream. Kevin Drum explains:

But here's what's really remarkable: virtually no one in any position of authority has picked up on this since [Stan] Collender first suggested it. On the Republican side, practically everyone from the party leaders on down is thoroughly convinced that Barack Obama is one or more of: a socialist, an appeaser, a Chicago thug, a racist, a would-be killer of grandmas, and a president who wants to undermine everything that makes America great because he's ashamed of his country. This is just standard rhetoric from Fox News pundits, radio show hosts, rank-and-file members of Congress, and party poobahs. It's hardly even noteworthy anymore.

But the mirror image of that — Democrats saying that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging economic recovery — is virtually invisible. [Paul] Krugman finally said it yesterday, but that's it among high-profile liberal leaders. For the most part they're just not willing to go there. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the conservative noise machine and the liberal noise machine. One is noisy, the other is....restrained. We'll see if that changes now that Krugman has brought his cannons to bear.

Paul Krugman is probably the most important liberal pundit in the country, but he's got nothing like the influence a Rush Limbaugh has on the right. The fact that he makes an argument doesn't guarantee that Democrats in Congress will soon be making it. And that's what's required to make this a question that Republicans will be asked on the Sunday shows, that network news programs will raise, that gets debated over and over again on cable news. Once the argument is legitimated by important Democratic politicians, it becomes a topic of discussion. But until it does, it will remain something that harping critics say.

The important point is that this process has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the argument or the evidence in support of it. If Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid say it's happening, David Gregory will ask if it's happening, and then we'll all be talking about whether Republicans are attempting to sabotage the economy; if they don't, he won't. (You'll note that I'm not even suggesting Barack Obama would make the argument. He can barely bring himself to utter the word "Republican." The other day in Lisbon he was asked about Republicans blocking ratification of the START treaty, and he said the problem was that "Washington" had become too partisan. Sigh.)

-- Paul Waldman

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