Economic Hearts and Minds

The term "hot button issue" first appeared in the mid-1980s, but came into common usage during the 1988 presidential campaign, when the nation soberly contemplated such questions as whether Michael Dukakis was planning to unleash a horde of dusky criminals to prey upon our precious white women. Alas, this year's campaign is nearly devoid of hot buttons for the candidates to push. God? Mitt Romney is the last person who wants to talk about religion. Guns? The Obama administration has done nothing to restrict their ownership, and the NRA's fevered warnings of government confiscating your weapons grow ridiculous even to gun owners themselves. Gays? Just a month and a half after President Obama surprised almost no one by announcing his support for marriage equality, Republicans haven't bothered to make it an issue, probably because they understand that the public has little taste for their past demagoguery.

So aside from the occasional temporary flare-up over things like contraception or immigration, we're left with a campaign mostly about the economy, with nary a hot button in sight. Economic issues are certainly important to all of our lives, but turning them into something that rouses passions and sends voters stomping determinedly to the polls takes a bit of creativity. And it takes personalization, a willingness to make voters feel angry or disgusted with your opponent and what he represents. It requires you to make an argument not only about what he wants to do, but about who he is.

If you listened to the speech President Obama gave on the economy on Thursday, you might have been persuaded that his course is a preferable one to that of his opponent, but you probably wouldn't have gotten riled up. It was a carefully constructed explanation of the different economic philosophies of the two parties, free of exaggerations or distortions. "Governor Romney and the Republicans who run Congress believe that if you simply take away regulations and cut taxes by trillions of dollars, the market will solve all of our problems on its own. If you agree with that, you should vote for them," Obama said. "If you believe this economy grows best when everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules, then I ask you stand with me for a second term as president." There were no thunderous denunciations, no imputation of nefarious motives, no call to whip out pitchforks and torches.

And there certainly was no mention of Bain Capital, the company where Mitt Romney gained the experience he says qualifies him to sit in the Oval Office. That doesn't mean Bain has left the campaign, but it now exists almost solely in television advertising, a realm where emotions rule and reasoned argumentation is, if not impossible, at least challenging. The Obama campaign weathered a bipartisan elite backlash over its attacks on Bain, and decided to proceed anyway. That backlash came because those elites, even within the party that is supposed to represent working people, have a lot of friends and donors in the world of finance, and so they reacted against the Obama campaign's message. But there are really two messages the campaign is sending, one logical and one emotional. The logical argument is the one Obama offered in his speech last week, and one he will continue to make on the stump, about the consequences of policy choices and the course of our recent history.

The emotional argument is the one you see in the ads. It's personal, both in the storytellers it uses (laid-off workers) and the ads' target (Mitt Romney). The ads may not say so explicitly, but their intention is to make people think that Romney is uncaring and insensitive, a representative of a class that has spent the last few decades enriching itself while the rest of America struggles harder and harder to stay afloat. The campaign would be only too happy if voters saw those ads and concluded that Romney would happily step on your head to grab another million dollars off a high shelf. That's the message that sticks in those elites' throats, the Republicans because they think that wealth is a measure of virtue, and the Democrats because they've grown to like and rely on more than a few of those capitalist titans.

But the Obama campaign has shown that it doesn't much care if some Democrats don't like them talking about Bain; you can bet that their polling and focus groups tell them the attacks work, which is why they're continuing with them. And even here, there is both a logical and an emotional argument. The logical argument goes like this: Mitt Romney was successful in business, but that doesn't mean he'd be successful as president. He understands how to maximize profits for investors, but even in the private sector that's not the same thing as creating jobs, and it certainly isn't the same thing as creating and implementing government policies that will lead to job creation. That argument is perfectly reasonable and accurate, and it's one that Obama himself and his surrogates make often.

Then there's the emotional argument, which goes like this: At Bain Capital, Mitt Romney was a rapacious vulture capitalist whose endless greed led him to destroy whatever was in his path, including people's lives and entire communities, in his search for profits. It shows that he's a bad person, and he shouldn't be president. That argument isn't made in those terms, of course, but that's pretty much what's being implied when Obama airs ads like this one.

Let's be honest: if you wanted to personify a criticism of our widening class divide in an individual, you couldn't do much better than Mitt Romney, a guy who made a couple of hundred million dollars buying and selling companies, has dressage-related tax deductions greater than the typical American family's income, and becomes painfully, embarrassingly awkward in the presence of people who aren't rich enough to own their own sports teams. It would be electoral malpractice of the highest order for the Obama campaign not to stir up at least some populist resentment at a figure like Romney, particularly when his policy proposals, like those of all Republicans, are such a pure expression of trickle-down economics.

That's where the emotional and logical arguments come together. Even if you consider it uncouth for Obama's ads to encourage negative feelings about Romney, what they ultimately hope voters to conclude is that as president, he won't be on their side. Obama's speeches want you to think that, while his ads want you to feel it. And if Obama is going to win, he needs both.

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