Mario Cuomo Was Wrong: You Govern in Poetry

Gov. Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Well, a kiss-and-tell column by former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren has been making the rounds. It’s a very good encapsulation of the Republican political and governing strategy of the last two decades. But what stuck with me the most is this part (boldface mine):

But the faux-populist wing of the [Republican] party, knowing the mental compartmentalization that occurs in most low-information voters, played on the fears of that same white working class to focus their anger on scapegoats that do no damage to corporations’ bottom lines: instead of raising the minimum wage, let’s build a wall on the Southern border (then hire a defense contractor to incompetently manage it). Instead of predatory bankers, it’s evil Muslims. Or evil gays. Or evil abortionists.

How do they manage to do this? Because Democrats ceded the field. Above all, they do not understand language. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The what? – can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative “Obamacare” won out. Contrast that with the Republicans’ Patriot Act. You’re a patriot, aren’t you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn’t the White House call it the Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?

You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. “Entitlement” has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is “entitled” selfishly claims something he doesn’t really deserve. Why not call them “earned benefits,” which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats. Republicans don’t make that mistake; they are relentlessly on message: it is never the “estate tax,” it is the “death tax.” Heaven forbid that the Walton family should give up one penny of its $86-billion fortune. All of that lucre is necessary to ensure that unions be kept out of Wal-Mart, that women employees not be promoted and that politicians be kept on a short leash.

First, remember this was written by a lifetime Republican operative. And Lofgren is absolutely right: suppose that, instead of the PPACA (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?), Obama and the Democrats had offered a “Medicare for All” plan, which could have either been a single-payer plan or a public option. “Medicare for All” makes sense and is easy to understand. The aftermath of the healthcare fiasco makes it clear the PPACA is a muddled mess.

Yes, the technical details of policy are prose–and turgid, dull prose, at that. But rallying people and changing the political landscape on which politics occur requires, perhaps not poetry, but attention to language. Which brings me to this hippie-bashing screed by Jonathan Chait. Chait seems to have internalized the consensus of centrist-progressive political scientists* who seem to think that President Obama institutionally has very little power (except when it comes to air pollution). But we Dirty Hippies have realized all along that we wouldn’t get that much, but what we did expect is some rhetorical groundwork for more liberal policies–the kind of thing Lofgren is talking about. Over the long term, rhetoric really matters.

It worked for the Republicans, and they were pushing shitty policy.

Poetry matters, not just in getting elected, but in convincing the other side to back down. Even if that takes a while.

*In a few years, I think many political scientists are going to appear as irrelevant as neo-liberal economists.

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1 Response to Mario Cuomo Was Wrong: You Govern in Poetry

  1. Selling policy proposals is what the president is supposed to do, to try to get people to call their Representatives and Senators to back the president’s plan. The current president seems either unwilling to or incapable of selling what he wants to get done. The closed door meetings with Republicans is not what I voted for in 2008, the “expediency” thing doesn’t even warm up to the “vision” thing.

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