Don't Talk Like an Elephant

Democrats should stop affirming the GOP message.

By Brendan Williams January 8, 2013

The latest Elway poll is encouraging in one respect: Voters trust their policymakers.

Told repeatedly no new taxes are needed, Washington voters believe. Of course, from a progressive perspective the bad news is “waste and government spending”—to which must be added the complementary belief government is too big—has made a comeback as the culprit that 55 percent blame for state budget woes.  In a triumph of messaging, only one-fifth of voters believe tax revenue is inadequate.

Meanwhile the legislative session begins January 14.

It will be tempting for progressives to blame the Senate “coalition” of two quasi-Democrats and 23 Republicans for coming disappointments. Yet the seeds of those disappointments have long been sown.To paraphrase Maximus Decimus Miridius in “Gladiator,” are we not entertained?

It will be tempting for progressives to blame the Senate “coalition” of two quasi-Democrats and 23 Republicans for coming disappointments. Yet the seeds of those disappointments have long been sown in fertile soil.

After the 2004 election, linguist George Lakoff’s book “Don't Think of an Elephant!  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” was all the rage. His argument, which I thought more than a bit facile, was that conservatives frame issues better.  I’m not sure that is true anymore.  The Elway Poll suggests that, by co-opting the Republican message, Democrats too, have also sold the message all-cuts budgets do no harm.

Where does one find the message to the contrary?  For example, on the Senate Democratic website a leader is quoted stating, “No one can argue that all public services are being delivered as efficiently as possible.”  I agree. In fact, no one is arguing that.

Rhetorical statements like that add to a self-defeating narrative. As a statement of progressive conviction and government’s purpose, it falls short of, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unapologetic 1936 Democratic Convention speech: “We seek not merely to make government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.”

Compare two statements about the outcome of the all-cuts 2012 session. One celebrates an all-cuts approach that “makes no reductions to K-12 and higher education and keeps our safety net intact.” The other exults over “a fiscally-responsible budget and a number of solutions that will save taxpayers money and put our state on a more sustainable course.”  Neither relates any human toll from cutting.

The first statement comes from the House Democratic Caucus and the second from a very conservative Senate Republican. Doesn’t sound like we need to do more, does it?  In fact, constituent communications from many Democrats, even avowed liberals, were far more effusive.

To his credit, incoming Senate Democratic leader Sen. Ed Murray—the past Senate budget lead—has been forthcoming in not gilding the budget lily, stating in a press release after last session: “We should not . . . overlook the fact that cuts were still made to public services this year, or that this budget marks the first time in at least 40 years that state spending has declined for two biennia in a row.”

We’ll need a lot more of that honesty lest we keep swirling down the drain. If it sharpens party differences the Senate “coup” may do us a great favor. And there should be a renewed case for new revenue just since the election.  Consider:

•On December 20 the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed it wasn't kidding in mandating more support for K-12 education.  “Steady progress requires forward movement.”

•The New Year’s Day federal fiscal “deal”—by not maintaining the payroll tax cut—will, along with anxiety over two fiscal cliffs (feds run out of money by mid-February under the debt ceiling, while $1 trillion sequestration cuts were only deferred until March 1), begin contracting consumer spending, which means that;

•The March 20 revenue forecast, upon which the state budget will be predicated (assuming session isn’t still going June 19), will show no substantive gain and may decline.

However, the only way to educate the public as to the need for revenue is to stop talking like an elephant.

Brendan Williams is a former state Democratic rep from Olympia. He is a regular PubliCola contributor.

Here's Josh's take on the Elway numbers.

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