“We as Americans and as humans have very selective hearing and very selective memory. We only hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.” – Frank Luntz, Republican strategist...
Shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President on January 20, 2009, Vice President Joe Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate fostering cooperative relationships with Senators from both parties, visited Capitol Hill to seek his former colleagues’ help in passing legislation to stop the freefall in the economy. He was taken aback when his former Republican colleagues and friends told him not to expect any cooperation on the orders of Mitch McConnell. “I spoke to seven different Republican Senators who said, ‘Joe, I’m not going to be able to help you on anything. The way it was characterized to me was, ‘For the next two years, we can’t let you succeed in anything. That’s our ticket to coming back.’ ” Republican Senator, Jerry Lewis, said it more bluntly, “‘We can’t play.’ What they said right from the get-go was, it doesn’t matter what the hell you do, we ain’t going to help you. We’re going to stand on the sidelines and bitch.”
Note the reference to two years. Republicans had already plotted a strategy of how they were going to take back the House in 2010, by not only “not helping” but also obstructing, as they engaged with impunity in an unprecedented number of filibusters to stop President Obama from succeeding at anything…and then mock Obama for not being able to enact his program of “hope and change”. As in Sarah Palin speak, “How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?” The Republican Party became the “Party of No”…but even the simple “no” was not enough. It became a more caustic “hell no” and “hell no you can’t”, the latter a John Boehner charge that the media played over and over again.
“Just Saying No” was the simple plan developed the night of Obama’s inauguration when, as reported by Robert Draper, 15 Republicans met over a four hour dinner at the Caucus Room in Washington D.C. to plot how they would sabotage Obama’s presidency. Organized by Republican strategist Frank Luntz, those in attendance included Congressional members Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Pete Sessions, Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority," said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. "We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign." In other words, no thinking involved, except perhaps to master the art of “bitchin’ about Obama.”
Republicans left that dinner feeling “almost giddily” about their plan which included: going after Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner; showing united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies; immediately attacking vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves; winning the House in 2010, and the White House and the Senate in 2012; and jabbing Obama relentlessly. What is appalling to Democrats when they learned of this plan, is that Republicans put party ahead of country in plotting how they could use the economic disaster to their political advantage, especially if somehow the recovery could be made to take a long time. Where Obama saw the need for bipartisan collaboration to help the millions of suffering Americans who had lost their jobs, Republicans saw it as an opportunity for them to turn the tide against Obama. Mitch McConnell in a moment of candor in 2010 summed it up accurately, “our number one goal is to make President Obama a one term president.”
To refresh people’s memories, on the day that President Obama took office, the economy was in a nosedive, and jobs were being shed at the rate of 700,000 jobs per month. The election year 2008 alone saw the loss of 3.6 million jobs, the worst year for job losses since 1939, when the statistics started being kept. Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman declared in January 2009 that the United States was “headed for another Great Depression”. It sure appeared that way as an additional 1.6 million jobs were lost in the first two months of 2009 before Obama could get approval of an economic stimulus package to halt the carnage and start turning the economy around.
Not only were jobs being lost at an alarming rate, the stock market was in a panic with the Dow Jones index having dropped from a peak of 14,198 in October 2007, right before the official start of the recession, to a low of 6,547 on March 9, 2009. President Obama also inherited a spending deficit of $1.3 trillion. In other words the economy sucked big time and the job picture sucked even more, the absolute opposite of what it was eight years earlier when President Clinton handed off a robust economy and an unemployment rate of 4.4 percent to George W. Bush.
Paul Krugman and other economists believed that the stimulus was not nearly enough and should have been 2 to 3 times higher. Yes, in retrospect the stimulus should have been bigger, especially considering that the Bureau of Economics later revised downwards its estimate of how much the fourth quarter of 2008 had contracted. It was not the annualized rate of 3.8 percent reported to the incoming Obama administration, but far worse at 8.9 percent! While prior quarter numbers are always adjusted upwards or downwards based on later information, this enormous adjustment was the largest revision in history. We do not know why the Bureau missed their estimate so badly, but it certainly did have implications on projections of jobs growth for the next few years. It meant that the hole that Obama had to dig us out of was much deeper, but for the Republicans that bigger hole meant more opportunities to “jab Obama” on jobs.
Despite the Republican efforts to not let Obama “succeed at anything”, Obama in his first month in office was eventually able to pass the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 or the “Stimulus Package” as it is better known, by compromising with three moderate Republicans, Olympia Snow, Susan Collins and Arlen Spector, who put country first in helping Obama overcome the Republican filibuster threshold of 60 votes. That bit of bipartisanship by the three Republican senators was short lived.
In September 2011, President Obama made a major pitch for a second stimulus bill, The American Jobs Act, a $447 billion package including cutting and suspending payroll taxes, a back to work program, extending unemployment benefits, further spending on new and existing infrastructure projects, and education. Obama again included several provisions favorable to Republicans, and went on prime time television to explain the purpose and merits. Republicans opponents labeled it “son of stimulus”…just three words. One House Republican aide said, “Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win? I just don’t want to co-own the economy by having to tout that we passed a jobs bill that won’t work or at least won’t do enough.”
Obama’s Jobs Act of 2011 failed to pass the 60 vote threshold for cloture.
It wasn’t just the Jobs Act, but everything related to jobs, extending unemployment benefits, food stamp programs for the poor, raising the minimum wage bill, and equal pay for women, all came under the Senate filibuster or, after the Republicans took control of the House, Boehner’s use of the “Haster Rule” in not allowing a bill to even come to a vote.
Okay, you might say, none of this is new news. This is what Republicans do. However, what is so excruciating to Democrats is how, despite all the filibustering against jobs bills, government shutdown, outright obstructionism, and the lowest ratings of Congress in history, Republicans were able to win landslide victories in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, taking back both the House and the Senate. Their strategy to keep Americans miserable, angry and afraid about the economy and their jobs, and to blame all the economic troubles on Obama’s policies was working. The Fox News propaganda machine has spewed out the lies and misinformation daily to push that false narrative. And John Boehner, just months into the Obama Presidency mocked the situation: “Where are the jobs Mr. President?” a statement repeated again and again as Republicans blocked anything that had to do with jobs, unemployment benefits, education, and job retraining programs.
Democrats ask, “Why haven’t the Republicans had to pay a price for their shenanigans?” The simple answer is revealed in the Frank Luntz quote at the beginning of this article: “We as Americans and as humans have very selective hearing and very selective memory. We only hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.”
In a 2003 interview with PBS, Frank Luntz revealed that “80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it's something that's inside you. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside…”
“Jobs” is indeed a very emotional issue with Americans if they are unemployed or are in genuine fear of losing the job that they have. There are a host of issues that divide Americans…abortion, guns, wars, LGBT rights, immigration, and others, and Republicans have used these as well to divide Americans. However, for many, having a job that provides for the basic needs of one’s family is paramount, and any hint of losing one’s job, for whatever reason, plays on a person’s mind. And if you have been unemployed at any time in your life, you know how gut wrenching that experience can be. Years later you might wake up to a nightmare about being laid off and becoming unemployed. The psychological effects on your brain of being unemployed for a long period can be permanent.
This is where Frank Luntz rises to the occasion, using clichés like the rich are the “job creators” to play on a worker’s mind. “You don’t create jobs by making life difficult for job creators.” Frank Luntz is the master of messaging and author of such heavily used clichés like “I will never apologize for America,” taken from his “The Ten Rules for 2012 for Republicans. In other words, Luntz appeals to the American emotions, and his Republican followers never have to really articulate the nuances of an issue. It just confuses the public. Just follow “Frank Luntz speak” of catchy phrases that Americans can identify with. It also doesn’t require any thinking.
On January 19, 2011 shortly after Republican gained control of the House, they passed the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”, but that bill at the time was not taken up by the Senate. Nevertheless, the House passed over 50 versions of the “Job Killing Health Care Law Act” over the next few years, and Republicans appearing on the Sunday talk shows dutifully attached the words, “job killing” and “big government takeover” to any discussion of Obamacare, even though various fact checking organizations that sifted through the CBO report on the numbers of jobs lost versus gained said the “job killing” claim was untrue. Nevertheless, facts being ignored, it was factor in the 2010 and 2014 elections as many Democrats ran away from Obamacare as an election issue.
“Numbers don't mean anything. You talk about billions and tax procedures and all sorts of acronyms, and the only people who understand that are government bureaucrats and accountants. Americans don't want to hear the language of accountants; they want to hear the language of teachers and social workers”, as Frank Luntz explained in that 2003 PBS interview.
That’s not to say Frank Luntz has been entirely victorious. He took Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in the 2012 election as a defeat of his own program to play on emotions. What Luntz didn’t count on was Mitt Romney’s “47 percent of Americans” comment. Without his own self destruction, we might indeed have a President Romney presiding over a Republican controlled House and Senate. The last time that happened, Republicans passed the Bush Tax Cuts, which helped aggravate the inequality gap in America.
The 2016 election is 18 months away, and already we see the Republican propaganda machine at work. Instead of “jabbing Obama relentlessly” it has become “jabbing Hillary relentlessly”. Will it work in 2016? If emotions and clichés appealing to the “low information voter” are the keys to success, then Republicans play that game very well. Jobs and the “job creators” will again be a central issue in the debate. For Democrats it will be about numbers. For Republicans it will be about emotions.