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Halperin Lives!


I’ve occasionally joked after favorable election results over the last 15 months that Democratic messaging must have greatly improved. I have underestimated the ability of the narrative to survive anything, like a radioactive Twinkie. On this Election Day I bring you a #Slatepitch from the old school:

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector employees who are represented by unions in collective bargaining can’t be obligated to pay dues to those unions. Legal observers say that decision, in Janus v. AFSCME, could presage a similar ruling regarding private-sector unions. More broadly, Janus was a stark victory for the 1 percent, underlining a decades-long trend of working- and middle-class wage stagnation. It was the kind of development liable to outrage both politically engaged liberals and politics-averse but pocketbook-conscious swing voters. It was, in other words, a potentially catalyzing moment for the Democratic Party, a chance to make the case for the practical necessity of progressivism in clear and stirring terms during a crucial election year.

Presented with this opportunity, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi … did not rise to the occasion. “With this decision,” she said at a press conference, “the Supreme Court became the Supreme Corp.”

This is the typical MESSAGING analysis, in that 1)it takes it as self-evident that the pundit’s own reaction as universally shared and 2)assumes, also without evidence, that the political rhetoric only a relatively small number of mostly unpersuadable voters hears is material to political outcomes. But it gets much worse very quickly:

“Supreme Corp.” is not the only egregious Democratic messaging swing-and-miss in recent memory. The most high-stakes such failure may have occurred in 2016’s first general-election presidential debate, when Hillary “Pokémon Go to the Polls” Clinton made laborious work of introducing a disparaging catchphrase for Donald Trump’s economic plan—“Trumped-up trickle-down”—that, suffice it to say, did not actually become a catchphrase. This foreshadowed Democratic efforts at Trump-related wordplay that continue to this day and have a collective batting average of .000. Senate Dems’ painfully awkward slogan during the Obamacare repeal battle, “Make America Sick Again,” was if anything a reminder of how Trump is way better at this stuff.

Whoa, whoa, what?

This foreshadowed Democratic efforts at Trump-related wordplay that continue to this day and have a collective batting average of .000. Senate Dems’ painfully awkward slogan during the Obamacare repeal battle, “Make America Sick Again,” was if anything a reminder of how Trump is way better at this stuff.

So, your example of politically masterful Republicans winning the messaging war over hapless Dems is…health care? Are you shitting me? It’s not just that Republican health care policies poll worse than rectal cancer. If you’re paying attention to the campaign at all, you’ll note that the new Republican “message” about health care is for Republicans to deny supporting anything in the bills they repeatedly voted for. Sounds like a real political coup there!

See, the true masters of the form like Halperin are able to keep their tautologies confined to cherry-picked examples that are at least not flagrantly inconsistent with their arguments. Mathis-Lilly gives you the fatally disconfirming examples himself. You can look at ACA repeal and conclude — as I would — that messaging is just not that important, and the ACA has become more popular and repeal attempts massively unpopular because and the risk aversion people have about healthcare policy now works in the statute’s favor. Or you can conclude that the Dems have used clever messaging to make the GOP utterly toxic on health care. But it’s beyond absurd to look at health care policy and see a Republican messaging triumph. It’s like arguing that the Cavaliers are a better team without LeBron James.

And needless to say, the problem is deeper than that. The only significant legislative “achievement” of McConnell/Ryan/Trump is an upper-class tax cut so unpopular they’re not even campaigning on it. Trump is incredibly unpopular for a president in a relatively good economy. And the Republicans appear headed to a 7 or 8 point loss in the popular vote, although their losses will be sharply mitigated by various undemocratic aspects of American constitutionalism. If 1)messaging is hugely important and 2)Republicans are great at it and Democrats are terrible, how can you possibly explain any of this? Well, you can’t, but you can unleash a cascade of bullshit to justify your conviction that your trivial aesthetic preferences are of immense political importance:

While Donald Trump’s presidency has been the grotesque circus of crude behavior, practical incompetence, and artless corruption that many feared it would be, he has retained enough support in his own party and among independents to keep the bottom from falling out

Ah yes, this old Salena Zito chestnut. The bottom didn’t “fall out” for Jimmy Carter either; most Democrats still supported him in 1980! If only Republicans were better at messaging Reagan would actually have run unopposed like Monroe, I guess. Anyway, whether they come from the center or the nominal left, one feature of the vast majority of MESSAGING punditry is that it grades Republicans on a curve that makes Harvard’s look stingy.

Democrats are doing OK in the polls—they lead on the generic congressional ballot by more than 8 points—but not much better than opposition parties typically do during midterms.

Trump underwater by more than 10 points in favorable structural circumstances: “surprisingly popular!” Dems up by 8 points — “meh.” (The claim that this is “not much better” than typical out-party midterm performance is howlingly false.)

And now…the pivot!

An April Reuters/Ipsos survey, meanwhile, found that support for the Democratic Party declined among 18-to-34-year-old voters by 9 percentage points in two years, and the Democrats are in danger of losing six Senate seats they currently hold

Leave aside the single cherry-picked survey used to handwave away the larger trends completely inconsistent with the argument. Note how seamlessly he switches from structural to individualist explanations — in the same paragraph — to try to salvage a hopeless argument. The Dems getting far more votes is attributed to structural advantages, while (worst-case scenario) Senate losses are preemptively attributed to individual failures rather than the obvious fact that the 2018 Senate map is massively favorable to Republicans. But, sure, Heidi Heitkamp would be totally cruising to re-election in a state Trump carried by 35 points if Nancy Pelosi had hipper catchphrases.

I don’t know how to describe a perspective that is considerably more outraged about a Democratic candidate making a bad Mom joke on Twitter two years ago than neoconfederate vote suppression or an institutional framework that allows a white nationalist minority party to retain power despite being soundly rejected by the electorate, but “left” wouldn’t be in the top 100. Halperinism is Halperinism no matter the politics of the practitioner.

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