With the health reform battle in Congress over (at least for now), Democrats are teeing up the next big legislative fight -- reforming the way the American financial sector does its business. This may be the last big non-budget piece of legislation Congress manages to pass this year, before the fall election season really consumes everyone's attention in Washington. Some "jobs" legislation may pass, but Democrats are wary of the "second stimulus" label, so these bills likely won't be that big in scope. Other minor agenda items may pass as well, but as for the remaining large-bore issues on the Democratic agenda, reforming the financial system looks like the only one positioned with a good shot of actually making it through Congress. Some progress may be made on other fronts (immigration reform, education reform, energy policy, etc.), but most Congress-watchers are betting that none of these will succeed in becoming law before the midterm elections. On other contentious issues (such as "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" repeal, and tackling the deficit), the White House has already punted the ball down the field by "studying" things for a while longer (with reports conveniently not due until after the election). Which leaves us with financial sector reform. Which the White House, of late, has been calling "Wall Street reform."
This is good politics, and all Democrats should pick up on it immediately. Now, the fights over what should be in the bill (and what shouldn't) have already begun, and I'm not going to address these arguments here yet (there'll be plenty of time for that when Congress comes back from their leisurely vacation and the Senate begins debate on the issue, next week). Today, I'd like to just talk about the "framing" of the debate itself. Some may say this is a crass and overly political thing to start with, but the whole point of correctly framing these debates is to start off with the best terminology, because if you do it right everyone (even your opponents) soon starts using your default term. And "Wall Street reform" is actually a dandy frame to hang around the issue, because it cuts to the heart of the debate, it is a catchy phrase, and it also defines the opposition perfectly. The mainstream media has already paved the way on this one, as all their "Main Street versus Wall Street" breathlessness over the past year can now come in quite handy for Democrats.
The issue is tailor-made for Democrats, and they are smart to schedule such a debate now, because politically it could prove to be a winner for them. Republicans already realize this, and are not exactly enthused about having such a debate in the first place. Many Republicans have even publicly admitted that Democrats are likely to get this passed before the elections -- a stunning admission after all their bravado on the health reform debate. And now, to oppose the Democrats and President Obama (and try to prevent another legislative victory for them), Republicans are going to have to take the side of the big banks and hedge fund managers. Which is not exactly going to endear them to the anger of the voters right now. Just ask any Republican who voted for TARP, if you don't believe that siding with Wall Street is currently seen as a political liability on their side of the aisle.
President Obama seems eager to have this fight, as well. And he also seems to be eager to be seen (this time around) as drawing the line on watering down the bill, and fighting against Wall Street instead of cozying up to them. But there's little (if any) "benefit of the doubt" left for Obama on the issue, even among some of his most dedicated supporters. Obama talked a good line on the public option, and we all know what happened with that. So, this time, Obama has to prove that he's not willing to compromise to the point of passing something weak, just for the sake of passing anything. He's got to send a very strong and very clear message to the Senate on what he wants in the bill -- instead of letting them dither endlessly, as they did on health reform.
But, as I said, we'll have plenty of time to delve into the politics and different facets of this debate in the next few weeks. A quick rundown of where we are is in order, however, to begin with. The House of Representatives has already passed a fairly strong bill. The Senate has not (I know, shocking, isn't it?). The senator in charge of the Finance Committee is Connecticut's Chris Dodd. Dodd is stepping down this year, since he doesn't have a prayer of getting re-elected (and was smart enough to realize it early on). One of the reasons for his election woes is that he is seen as simply being too close to Wall Street and the banks. Dodd tried to get some bipartisan support in his committee for the Senate's version of the bill, but was getting nothing but the old "stall, stall, stall" tactic from the two Republicans he reached out to. So he wrote his own bill, which is weaker than the House bill, but still much stronger than Republicans would like. This bill made it through his committee in blinding speed (the debate before the vote lasted, by one account, all of eighteen minutes), and will move to the Senate floor when they all get back from spring break. As we've all learned by watching health reform, anything could still happen at this point.
That's the scope of the battlefield, from one perspective. But, as in any battle of ideas in the political marketplace, it matters what you call things. And "Wall Street reform" is an excellent opening bid in the "framing" struggle. Much better an opening bid than Democrats usually come up with, I should point out. But for Democrats to really win this phrasing game, they've got to speak with one voice. And that means never admitting that it's called anything else. If an interviewer starts a question with "Let's talk about financial sector reform," immediately interrupt with "You mean 'Wall Street reform,' of course..." After a week of this (from every Democrat on television), the news anchors themselves will start using the term.
If necessary, Democratic officeholders and candidates should practice in front of a mirror. Say "Wall Street reform" one hundred times, and when you're speaking in public, it'll leap to your lips.
Like any good job in the framing department, the phrase has a number of things going for it. It has the benefit, for instance, of being the truth. What Democrats are trying to do is not exactly "bank reform" -- since most of what needs reining in was not your local bank, but the big wheelers and dealers on Wall Street.
Which brings up the second advantage the phrase has, which I previously mentioned -- it already fits into a media talking point. The media has been talking about "Main Street" and "Wall Street" for over a year now. Just by saying you're trying to reform Wall Street automatically puts you on the side of Main Street in that dichotomy -- fighting hard to save Main Street from the recklessness of Wall Street.
Leading to the third good point. In any political debate, framing your opponent's position is almost more important than framing your own. Call it "define the enemy," if you will. "Wall Street reform" has this already built-in. If you're against reforming Wall Street, then you are (by definition) fighting for Wall Street. Putting you against Main Street. This is the corner Democrats need to paint the Republicans into, in order to get the public behind them on this debate.
The "reform" part of the phrase is important, too, because it plays in to the Republicans as defenders of the status quo (or, put another way, the "Party of No"). Most of the public doesn't even realize that Wall Street is still being allowed to play by the very same rules which almost caused financial collapse. Many voters (those who don't follow politics closely) may already assume that "it's already been taken care of, right?" The fact that it hasn't will work to the Democrats' advantage -- "Republicans want to keep the very same system that got us into this mess!" will be an effective line.
And the last reason the phrase is such a good job of political framing is one that many people discount too easily -- it is short, sweet, and to the point. I remember the "politically correct" battles which were waged on the Left in the 1980s, and always marveled at the terms we were all supposed to adopt in our everyday speech, because most of them were tongue-twisters ("vertically-challenged" instead of "short," for instance) -- even when they tried to be short and snappy ("posslq" for "living together with my girlfriend," for instance). But "Wall Street reform" rolls off the tongue so much easier than any other way people are talking about it currently, most of which put you to sleep before the end of the second word ("financial services reform" or "reforming the financial sector" or... yawn...). "Wall Street reform" is instantly identifiable by just about everyone, and needs no further definition or explanation. And, being easier to say, it should be a piece of cake for Democrats to get everyone else to start using the term through sheer repetition.
Democrats shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that framing the issue correctly is going to make it any easier to get a truly tough bill through the Senate, though. There are limits to what framing can do. Republicans are likely going to roll out their own spin, and (if I had to guess) I would assume that they'll be using some combination off of their "old standards" playlist, such as: "freedom" and "liberty" and "jobs-killing" and all the rest of it. Democrats will have to counter these charges as they arise, of course. And the real danger will come from the army of lobbyists, each of whom knows that if they just change a couple words on page 842, they'll create a loophole their clients can exploit later, to do an end-run around the intent of the bill.
But even allowing for all such opposition, Democrats could do themselves a gigantic favor right now -- at the beginning of the national conversation -- by getting everyone to start calling their effort "Wall Street reform." Wall Street isn't exactly the nation's darling right now. There's a lot of pent-up resentment and rage at how the bailouts happened, under both Bush and Obama. Democrats can champion this cause, and saddle up as the defender of Main Street, riding out to kill the dragon of Wall Street recklessness and greed. Republicans will be relegated to fighting on the side of the dragon itself, which is not going to endear them to many Tea Partiers (just to pick one demographic group, at random). Obama could do himself a world of good with independent voters by defending the strongest possible financial reforms, right before an election season begins. Obama could make a very convincing case -- even to those not thrilled with his economic team -- that while the economy was heading for disaster, he had to shore up the banks; but now that we're largely out of those woods, it's time to fix the system so they can never do so again. It'd be a hard pivot for him, but one that could work (and could bring back some of his currently-disaffected previous supporters to his side).
But, again, we'll get to all that as the debate unfolds. Because this argument is going to go back and forth for the next few weeks, and become all-consuming for political reporters (the way health reform just did). But Democrats could score a subtle and early victory in this debate just by refusing to call the issue anything other than "Wall Street reform." Framing it this way in the public's mind, and reinforcing it when everyone starts to use the term early on, gives a boost to the Democratic argument from the very start: "We're for Main Street, and we're taking on Wall Street."
I realize this article has a Nancy-Reaganesque title to it, so I'll finish it on a warmer and fuzzier note (a note so warm and fuzzy, in fact, you can just about feel the cardigan it is wearing), by paraphrasing Mr. Rogers, instead:
"Can you say 'Wall Street reform'? I knew you could!"
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant