Legislative Marketing: Fooling None of the People

December 06, 2012

Republicans in the House are looking for a way out of their predicament. They need a way to satisfy their conservative base who are strongly opposed to tax increases for anyone, while dealing with the reality that opposing the President on this will mean that taxes go up for everyone on January 1, 2013. They are seeking a way to be against the President’s plan and have it happen anyway -- and some Republicans seem to think they’ve found a way. Here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

The Republican-controlled House could adopt two competing bills. One, supported primarily by Republicans, would extend the expiring low tax rates for all households, including the rich. The second, supported primarily by Democrats, would extend the current low rates only on income less than $250,000 a year, allowing rates for the wealthy to increase. Both measures would go to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which would then pass only the Democratic bill.

I think this approach would be a political disaster for Republicans. As any advertiser will tell you, the most prized commodity in branding is authenticity. The public is so used to being sold to and spun at, that they have come to crave anything that feels “real.” They can spot games, tricks, framing, and false appeals five seconds into a TV commercial. People have turned to crowd-sourced web sites for advice from other “real people,” and search engines are working to include social media recommendations in their results. All because public cynicism about marketing and maneuvering is so high.

The same is true in politics. People have a very lower tolerance for gamesmanship. A “show vote,” as Republicans are proposing, will only make them look manipulative and insincere. To arrange a series of votes designed to pass a bill while pretending to try to stop it will further damage their already weak position with the general public. They will not satisfy their conservative base, who will see that they’ve enabled the President’s middle-class-only tax cut, and they’ll be easily portrayed as hypocrites by Democrats and commentators. (I’m sure Stephen Colbert’s writing staff is hoping they try this option.) When Lincoln said you can fool some of the people some of the time, I think it was understood that you shouldn’t be so obvious about your machinations that everyone realizes you’re being insincere.

I’m not a Republican, so perhaps they should ignore my advice. But it seems like their best course is to put up the President’s bill for a vote, free Republicans from more moderate states to support it – quietlying agreeing to help them ward off any primary challenges that result – and let the bill rise or fall on its real level of support. I suspect it would pass with votes from almost all Democrats and several dozen Republicans. It is, after all, a bill to cut taxes for 98% of Americans – not exactly an unpopular measure.

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