Monday, April 2, 2012

Go for the Gut

Remember this moment from the 1992 Presidential campaign?

This was one of the moments that swung the election in Clinton's favor. The exchange encapsulated the differences between Clinton and George Bush, Sr. Whereas Bush looked uninterested - checking his watch and seeming annoyed by the question - Clinton demonstrated empathy and concern. (Ross Perot doesn't address the question, as far as I can remember.) The moment when he takes the microphone, steps forward, and looks the questioner in her eyes was classic Clinton. It clearly resonated with the audience and was one of the signature moments of Clinton's political career.

What strikes me as important with regards to what we're discussing here, though, is the fact that Bill Clinton got the question wrong. The questioner asked, "How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" (A poorly worded question, to say the least, but a question nonetheless.) But instead of discussing how the national debt impacts the economy, which is what Bush did in his discussion of interest rates, Clinton deflected to his economic record in Arkansas, all while throwing in some digs at Bush.

In other words, he said nothing about the national debt at all. And guess what? It didn't matter.

What Clinton grasped - and what Bushed missed - is that people have no idea what the national debt is. Decades of finger pointing over the national debt and federal budget deficit has served to make people aware that these are bad things. But most people simply think of the national debt as the cause of a bad economy, a tenuous connection to say the least.

This was true in the early 1990s, and it remains true today. And going into the November election, I think we'll see a number of questions like this. My worry is that Obama (and Democrats down the ticket) are prone to give an answer more like George Bush, Sr.'s than like Bill Clinton's.

Fortunately, Mitt Romney is no Bill Clinton. But on many issues - climate change, business regulation, state budgets - conservatives seem to understand that when it comes to getting elected it's less important to be correct on policy and more important to appeal to people's very, very low level of political knowledge.

1 comment:

  1. I've always heard "Answer the question you want to answer, not the question you were asked." It's annoying when it doesn't go your way, but it's a much better way to communicate than to sound like a policy wonk.