Friday, September 15, 2006

Campaign Budget Talk: It's All in How You Say It

Since I don't hesitate to point out bias election reporting at the Journal Sentinel, I figure it's only fair to point out when they get an election story right.

Today the JS is fronting (in the Metro section) an article on the budget plans offered up by Doyle and Green. Not surprisingly, the story finds that the two candidates both talk up fiscal responsibility while simultaneously issuing proposals that increase the state's fiscal burden.

The JS attributes this to good old election year politics, which is true, but to stop there doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. In actuality, what makes it good election year politics is that it's exactly what the general public wants to hear.

To be sure, Tommy Thompson didn't become the most popular Wisconsin governor in recent memory by living up to the fiscal conservative promises of his early gubernatorial days. He gained his popularity by touting fiscal responsibility and new state programs at the same time. In other words, he told people he would save them money and then he gave them stuff. Who wouldn't love that?

And while the extent to which Tommy took this contradiction during his years in office landed the state in a huge fiscal hole once the economy went sour about five years ago (after Tommy had split town), most people still don't regret the programs Tommy approved during his tenure. And that's because as much as most people dislike the high taxes in Wisconsin (although, importantly, our non-tax revenue sources are quite modest), they also like all of the state programs those taxes help to fund.

So getting back to the contradictions laid out by Doyle and Green in this current election race, the key to electoral success is really not what the candidates say about the budget -- they're both going to say contradictory stuff -- but rather how they say it. And on this point, so far, Green is getting slammed.

A look at the JS article this morning tells us that Doyle's election year proposals would cost an estimated $66 million per year, while Green's would run at least $148 million per year. I bolded the "at least" because it's central to the problems Green has been having when discussing the budget.

There are two significant proposals that Green has failed to provide enough details on in order to pin down a specific cost: tax credits for new jobs and money for more police. The $148 million figure, subsequently, does not include those costs.

If there's anything that can upset the delicate public acceptance of contradictory election year rhetoric from candidates, it's unknowns.

It's similar to when a teenager leaves the house for a night out. If he tells his parents specifically where he's going to be, their worrisome minds are put at ease, even if they know he very well could just do something different once he walks out the door. But if he tells his parents he's not really sure what he's going to do, or worse, he doesn't even respond to the question, that sends fears and worst-case-scenario thinking through the roof.

Right now, Green is just walking out the door, and saying very little about where he's going.

Green further sticks his foot in his mouth with his promise to freeze government spending at current levels. You can count broad absolutes right alongside unknowns as a rhetorical dead-end for election year politics.

The most famous campaign absolute in recent memory is probably Bush Sr.'s "Read my lips" statement on taxes, but Doyle also pulled one out of his own in 2002 when he pledged to cut the state workforce by 10,000 -- luckily for Doyle, his pledge is stretched out over 8 years.

So what Green has are proposals with an unknown total cost alongside an absolute pledge to not increase the cost of state government. Add to that Green's thinly veiled support for TABOR and his horrendous fiscal record in Congress, and you have a flammable mix.

What makes it worse is that fiscal responsibility has been a signature issue in the Republican Revolution of the past 40 years, and Green has not only dropped the ball on it, he's made it into a liability for his campaign.

This explains why Green has done everything he can to slip out of providing details and answering specific questions on his budget plans. He even avoided the JS staff for four straight days as they were preparing this morning's story. In the end, rather than sitting down with the paper personally (as Doyle did), he just issued a generic press statement in his place.

After all, it's much tougher to ask a press statement follow-up questions, and, most importantly, a prepared statement comes on the responder's terms, not the questioner's.

It may not be so easy for Green to hide at the debate tonight.


Blogger Sherman said...

This is Ronald Reagan's legacy to American politics: talk like a fiscal conservative while dishing out the pork as quickly as possible.

Let the next guy worry about paying the bill.

September 15, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

You're absolutely right.

I write more about Reagan's spending habits here.

The big difference, of course, is that Reagan could at least get away with unknowns because he could deficit spend at the federal level -- and deficit spend he did, just like our current sitting GOP president.

September 15, 2006  

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