Friday Talking Points [72] -- The Unfairness Doctrine

[ Posted Friday, April 3rd, 2009 – 16:33 UTC ]

In the world of framing issues (or "political spin," if you prefer), there are a few cardinal rules. One of them is when you are trying to scare people, it helps if the example you use (and the words you choose to describe it) are actually scary.

[I should mention before I get going here that this article's headline has nothing whatsoever to do with the FCC, or radio or television broadcast rules... just so no one winds up disappointed.]

I read a recent opinion article by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, and I found myself actually agreeing with him. This, I should point out, was not his intended purpose (since he's a pretty conservative guy, and I am decidedly not). Because I was agreeing that his "nightmare scenario" actually sounded pretty good. Read it yourself, and see what you think.

Because (are you sitting down), Krauthammer's big bugaboo, his big boogeyman spectre designed to send us all screaming out into the night... is "fairness." America being "fair" is such an awful, frightening, downright terrifying future for our country, that all good citizens should rise up against it. To the barricades! To fight for Unfairness For All!

You just can't make this stuff up. Conservatives apparently have nothing else in their bag of tricks to scare the heck out of the public. The Dow's back up to 8,000 and rising, and even Newt Gingrich is suggesting that maybe a third party breakaway from the Republicans might be the way to go in 2012; so it's not like you can really blame conservatives for getting a little bit desperate.

I can still sense some of you out there who think I'm somehow twisting Krauthammer's words. Well, decide for yourself:

[President Obama's] goal is to rewrite the American social compact, to recast the relationship between government and citizen. He wants government to narrow the nation's income and anxiety gaps. Soak the rich for reasons of revenue and justice. Nationalize health care and federalize education to grant all citizens of all classes the freedom from anxiety about health care and college that the rich enjoy.

Wow, that really sounds like Hell on Earth, doesn't it?

Krauthammer restates his case, just to be sure you understand:

Obama is a leveler. He has come to narrow the divide between rich and poor. For him the ultimate social value is fairness. Imposing it upon the American social order is his mission.

Fairness... gosh, what sort of horribly depraved society would want that? Next thing you know, they'll want "decency" too....

He ends his article warning once again of the dangers of fairness:

Bizarre and constitutionally suspect as these interventions may be, the transformation of the American system will come from elsewhere. The credit crisis will pass and the auto overcapacity will sort itself out one way or the other. The reordering of the American system will come not from these temporary interventions, into which Obama has reluctantly waded. It will come from Obama's real agenda: his holy trinity of health care, education and energy. Out of these will come a radical extension of the welfare state; social and economic leveling in the name of fairness; and a massive increase in the size, scope and reach of government.

If Obama has his way, the change that is coming is a new America: "fair," leveled and social democratic. Obama didn't get elected to warranty your muffler. He's here to warranty your life.

Once again, gosh, that just sounds revolting, doesn't it?

Well, um, no. Not really.

Reading this article purely from the point of grading his framing (or spin) on its effectiveness, I have to say this is a miserable failure. Krauthammer is trying to be subtle, and use language as a "dog whistle" (only conservatives can "hear" it and know what he really means). They tried using "socialism" for a few weeks, but it didn't really give them the response they had wanted, so I guess they're looking around for a new scary term to frighten folks with. But Krauthammer's repeated use of "fairness" as his nightmare example winds up completely undercutting his case.

Because, while this undoubtedly will come as quite a shock to many conservative pundits, most Americans actually think "fairness" is a good thing, not a bad thing. I bet if you did a poll and asked people "Do you think fairness is good or bad?" that you would get near-universal approval of the basic concept of "fairness."

In fact, since this is being offered on a plate to Democrats, I suggest they start calling themselves the "party of fairness" and using Krauthammer as a bludgeon against Republicans everywhere.

Now, when the right wing comes up with effective issue framing -- even when I disagree with it -- I always at least admit they came up with a good one. A bit later, I'll discuss the "Death Tax" (one of the best-ever frame jobs from the right), and a new term which needs to be countered soon -- the "lightswitch tax."

But when they do a miserable job of framing, I feel duty-bound to point that out as well. And Krauthammer's call to arms against "fairness" is one of the worst I've ever seen from his side of the political spectrum, I have to say.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Senator Chris Dodd had a rollercoaster of a week, full of ups and downs. He is facing very tough re-election prospects, evidenced by a poll released this week showing a Republican challenger with a 16-point lead over him in a matchup (which is very dangerous territory for any incumbent to be in). Then the news broke that a Democratic primary challenger has already jumped into the race as well.

But there was some good news this week for Dodd. Tuesday, Dodd's bill to reform the credit card industry, the cleverly-named "Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act" (or "Credit CARD Act"), passed the Senate Banking committee. Dodd himself explains the bill on the Huffington Post. Later in the week, the House moved a similar bill forward as well, which increases its chances for passage.

The window is wide open for such populist measures as reforming abuse in the credit card industry. While neither bill goes as far as I would like, enactment would be a serious step in the right direction of curbing the abuses of the banks and credit card industry.

The problem has been, up until now, that the banks had such enormous influence in Congress that no reforms at all were even possible. But with the torches-and-pitchforks feeling in the country today, it is a perfect time to stand up to the banks. This window won't be open forever, so I have to award Chris Dodd the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award for pushing this issue now. This is Dodd's sixth award, leaving him in sole possession of second-place on the all-time MIDOTW list (only Barack Obama, with 10, is higher).

I have no idea what his ultimate chances of re-election are, but I have to give Dodd "credit" (OK, cheap joke, sorry) where credit is due. Keep pushing your bill, Senator Dodd, and maybe this will be the year something actually gets done to rein in the worst abuses in the credit card industry.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

Sadly, we have a four-way tie for this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

First up were Senators Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson, for being the only two Democrats in the Senate to vote against the budget blueprint. Bayh, from Indiana, and Nelson, from Nebraska, are flexing their "centrist Democrat" muscles. Or something. In any case, for being the only defectors on Obama's budget (this round, at any rate), Bayh and Nelson are hereby awarded the MDDOTW for this week. It's worth noting that this is the second week in a row for Nelson to be (dis)-honored, and his fourth overall. Bayh wins his second overall MDDOTW award.

Next up is Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat from Arkansas. Who joined with Republican John Kyl to fight that old Republican monster, the "death tax." Salon's War Room column has the story. I will speak to this later, in the talking points part of the program, but had to mention her here in order to hand out a MDDOTW award to Lincoln (her third) for cosponsoring this bill.

And finally, we have Representative Melissa Bean, Democrat from Illinois, who apparently led the fight to retain executive bonuses for Wall Street. Yes, you read that correctly. Jane Hamsher has this story over at Huffington Post. While the New Democrat Coalition bears responsibility for this as well, Melissa Bean led the fight, and so "earns" her very first Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

Come on, guys, you can do better than this. With friends like these, who needs Republicans?


[Contact Senator Evan Bayh on his Senate contact page, Senator Ben Nelson on his Senate contact page, Senator Blanche Lincoln on her Senate contact page, and Representative Melissa Bean on her House contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 72 (4/3/09)

We've got kind of a mixed bag of talking points this week. Most of them have to do with the budget in one way or another, but there's no overarching theme to the Friday Talking Points this week, I have to admit.

As usual, these are cheerfully provided for Democrats everywhere to use in conversation (or media interviews, for officeholders) in the coming weeks.


   American values

President Obama, while on his tour of Europe, actually took the time to have a town hall meeting in France. From the quotes I've seen, Obama is doing a masterful job of reclaiming the word "values" from the Republicans, and showing that there are American values that Democrats can be proud of as well. Of course, they're not the same as Republicans define "values," but that's to be expected. But this is a generation-long fight over the word, and Barack Obama has done more to deny its use as a political weapon against Democrats than anyone I've seen in the last few decades. Here are a few excerpts, to show other Democrats how to do this sort of thing:

In dealing with terrorism, we can't lose sight of our values and who we are. That's why I closed Guantanamo. That's why I made very clear that we will not engage in certain interrogation practices.

I don't believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure. When we saw what happened in Abu Ghraib, that wasn't good for our security -- that was a recruitment tool for terrorism. Humiliating people is never a good strategy to battle terrorism.

. . .

[W]hat I found at a very young age was that if you only think about yourself -- how much money can I make, what can I buy, how nice is my house, what kind of fancy car do I have -- that over the long term I think you get bored. (Applause.) I think your life becomes -- I think if you're only thinking about yourself, your life becomes diminished; and that the way to live a full life is to think about, what can I do for others? How can I be a part of this larger project of making a better world?

Now, that could be something as simple as making -- as the joy of taking care of your family and watching your children grow and succeed. But I think especially for the young people here, I hope you also consider other ways that you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now, there's so many opportunities to make a difference, and it would be a tragedy if all of you who are so talented and energetic, if you let that go to waste; if you just stood back and watched the world pass you by.

Better to jump in, get involved. And it does mean that sometimes you'll get criticized and sometimes you'll fail and sometimes you'll be disappointed, but you'll have a great adventure, and at the end of your life hopefully you'll be able to look back and say, I made a difference.


   Lightswitch tax, or dooming our children

This one is insidious, and must be countered right away, or Democrats are going to be buried by it, insuring that Obama's energy plan fails to pass Congress this year. Republicans, in a rather good job of framing the issue, have come up with a cute term for the cap-and-trade idea of instituting a carbon tax. They've dubbed it the "lightswitch tax."

This is effective, because everybody uses a lightswitch many times a day. So they immediately associate "tax" with something they do repeatedly throughout their lives. By linking the two together, Republicans paint a bad picture in people's minds. Flipping a switch to turn on a light equals paying a tax.

But they are making a mistake, because in their "budget" argument they are also speaking loudly (and usually in the same sentence as the "lightswitch tax") about the deficit, and how it is "generational theft" and "leaving a burden on our children." Funny how Republicans get so worked up about deficits when the other guys are in control, but never when their own guys are racking those deficits up, eh?

But I digress. Because Democrats need to reframe this argument, and turn it on itself. Fortunately it's not that tough to do.

"The Republicans have been huffing and puffing about leaving debt to our children, as if their only concern in their political lives was bettering our children's future. But when they talk about a 'lightswitch tax,' I notice they never mention the precious children of America. Because we have two stark choices here. One is to ignore the problem for another generation, and then when oil goes back up to astronomically-high prices, our children will be the ones who have to pay -- through the nose. Our other choice, however, is to all start paying a little more for our energy so that we can move America off its reliance on foreign oil. So that when OPEC raises the price on our children to hundreds of dollars a barrel, they won't have to care. America will move beyond our oil addiction, and our children can sit and laugh at OPEC, as a direct result. Because this is the choice America faces: be responsible now, in order to give our children a future where they can laugh at OPEC -- or do nothing, as the Republicans want, and leave out children as hostages to OPEC's whims. I think America wants a better future for our children than to be held in thrall forever to the Middle East, and I'm not afraid to say so."


   Fast track

This is apparently the new term for the more technical "budget reconciliation." Which, of course, means filibuster-proof votes in the Senate. Senate Democrats may have killed the possibility off for the cap-and-trade energy plan this year, but House Democrats are still fighting to keep the option open for the health care legislation (so it has a chance to become reality).

While the argument is the same (I've been hitting this point repeatedly for a while now), the term has changed. Democrats should support Nancy Pelosi's efforts to keep the option available for health care.

"I strongly support fast-track rules for the upcoming health care legislation. Republicans don't like it, because it would somehow 'destroy bipartisanship' in the Senate. Well, at this point, that's not too big a worry. We haven't seen much in the way of bipartisanship in the Senate for any of President Obama's objectives -- outside of Senators Snowe, Collins, and Specter. We will give the Republicans in the Senate until the end of the summer to offer up some bipartisanship, under normal rules. Then we will move forward with fast-track rules. Because this is too important to wait. I don't think fast-track is killing bipartisanship in the Senate, I think the Republicans are killing bipartisanship in the Senate by refusing to work on any of Obama's plans in a reasonable bipartisan fashion. When they stop being the 'party of no,' then I'll worry about bipartisan outreach. Until that time, we think fast-track is the only way to get this done this year."



Krauthammer's column deserves to be used as a bludgeon this week, especially in a one-on-one interview with a Republican.

"One of the most-respected conservative columnists this week warned America that President Obama has a secret plan to bring fairness to America. This, it should be noted, was held up as a bad thing by him. So, I have to ask you directly, do you think fairness is a bad thing? Do you think the American people are fundamentally against the concept of fairness? Because I don't. I think the average American voter would probably agree with me that fairness is a pretty good thing, and a part of mainstream American values. If you'd like to contradict this thought, and argue about why unfairness should be the goal of America, I would like to hear that, personally."


   Democratic Congress the "Do-everything" Congress

This one is short and sweet, to offset some of the longer talking points which have preceded it (ahem). It's an oldie but a goodie, turned on its head. Start pushing this term now, and by the time the media writes their breathless "First 100 Days" articles, maybe they'll have picked up on it. It's worth a try.

"If you take an objective look at how much this Democratic Congress has managed to get done since President Obama took office, versus what other congresses have done, you would have to call us the 'Do-everything Congress.' I have been simply astonished at how many good things we've managed to put on the president's desk is such an incredibly short period of time. If we can keep this pace up, we can put America back on track in a much shorter time than anyone thought possible. This Congress may well go down in history as the Do-everything Congress."


   Kill Medicare? Not on our watch.

Republicans came up with another "budget" this week. No, that's not the opening to a joke (well, maybe it is... "Three Republican budgets walked into a bar..."). Ahem, where was I? Oh, right, the GOP "budget."

Actually, I'm being too kind. Their budget was a joke. It was such a big joke that when Nancy Pelosi graciously allowed them to have a floor vote on it, dozens of Republicans voted against it. Because, while it didn't come anywhere near wiping out deficits, what it would have done was wipe out Medicare. The dozens of Republicans who voted against it are probably aware that lots of old people vote, and lots of them love their Medicare. This went largely unnoticed by the media and the public (since it was doomed to failure), but it's worth talking about, and it's worth taking a list of the people who voted for it -- to use against them in election ads in 2010.

"The Republicans put forth a, quote, budget, unquote, this week which did not manage to kill the deficit. What it would have killed was Medicare. After all this time, and after all the noisy screaming from the other side, the only new idea they were able to think up was to kill Medicare. Rest assured, though, that they will not kill Medicare on our watch. And we will remember who voted for this nonsense when election time rolls around again. We will be reminding voters next year that, while 38 Republicans were smart enough to vote against this travesty, the Republicans who did vote to kill Medicare simply cannot be trusted with the country's finances."


   There they go again

Sigh. The "death tax" debate is rearing its ugly head once again. Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles has the funniest commentary on this today (especially that bit down at the bottom). But Salon summarizes the numerical arguments against this silliness the best. These numbers should be used whenever the subject comes up.

"Republicans like to talk about the 'death tax' and bemoan the loss of family farms to the government, even though they've never found a single family who lost their farm this way -- and not from lack of trying! The estate tax does not even affect 997 out of 1,000 people. It does not affect thirty percent, it does not affect even three percent, it only is levied on three-tenths of one percent of the population -- a tiny sliver of the wealthiest of the ultra-wealthy. And out of the estates who do pay this tax, only 5 out of 100,000 are primarily small businesses or farms. In other words, the big bad government is simply not taking people's farms away from them. This is a multi-millionaires' tax, and a billionaire's tax. It is designed to reduce the vast fortunes someone like Paris Hilton inherits -- but not so much that she would ever have to work a day in her life if she didn't choose to. So I reject calling it a 'death tax' since it is really a 'multi-millionaire's' tax. And that is something I think few people would disagree with in these hard times."


Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [72] -- The Unfairness Doctrine”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I am a big fan of fairness and I have been very disappointed in the lack of fairness in our society. I am hopeful that the new administration will right this wrong however I think it may be a difficult task. The "haves" will hold on to their wealth (and power) and fight any redistribution efforts all the while kicking and screaming at the unfairness of it all.

    I wish that our politians were not so focused on getting re-elected all the time. It is one of the reasons why it is so hard to apply real systemic changes to our society that would make it a fairer place for everyone.


  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Really, all the right wing is left with is Dominionist theology and Randist "Objectivism." When Krauthammer complains about "fairness" and "leveling," he's really saying that his movement is bankrupt -- that the Masters of the Universe are naked. Their only goal is power; it is both means and end. The GOP is morally bankrupt but cannot stop its habits of language.

    For a generation, they have turned 'liberal' into a four-letter word. They have done that to so many words now, Krauthammer is forced to overreach and try to change the meaning of 'fairness.' The problem is, it won't work -- some words are just so fundamental that you cannot change what they mean.

    I'd be interested to hear George Lakoff on the subject!

  3. [3] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    Matt (Osborne Ink) -

    I just tried to let you know how much I enjoyed your Friday post on your site. However, being a dweeb with no help available; I had no idea how to tell you on your comments section... Anyhow, congrats and good stuff...I'm glad Chris has added you to his blogroll.

  4. [4] 
    ChicagoMolly wrote:

    should still be a good link to an article by Jim Grote in Planned Giving Today on the Estate Tax (and always remember to say 'Estate Tax', not 'Death Tax'). He brings together such unlikely bedfellows as Thomas Paine, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, and Warren Buffett on the same side! For instance, he says of Carnegie:

    While more suspicious of government intervention than Paine, Andrew Carnegie heartily endorsed estate taxes. The greater part of this steel magnate’s little magnum opus, The Gospel of Wealth, is devoted to a discussion of the three possible ways to dispose of wealth: (1) leave it to the families of decedents, (2) bequeath it for public purposes, and (3) administer it during one’s life. Carnegie abhorred the first, tolerated the second, and encouraged the third.

    Carnegie didn't leave huge bequests to his children because he felt they would have learned from him how to make their own fortunes; having bagsful of money dropped in their laps would only have spoiled them.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    ChicagoMolly -

    The estate tax is a very targeted tax in America, and its purpose is to lessen the rise of any monitary-based aristocracy. People like Paris Hilton, instead of getting $100 billion when her parents die, would get something like $55 billion. The argument against it is that this is somehow taxing money "twice" but this argument falls apart upon examination (plus, money is taxed multiple times anyway as it flows through society). I will check out your link, this is a subject that interests me. Thanks for posting it.


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