We're mad, but at whom?


The latest pundit refrain -- also known as the latest pundit hedge -- is that maybe the Republicans peaked too soon.

The Democrats are closing the prevailing public opinion gap and, maybe, the forthcoming rout won't be as overwhelming as we thought.

At times such as these it always is good to reconsider the two dominant rules of American electoral politics. One is that it is all about the prevailing public mood. The second is that it also is about the prevailing public conversation.

The mood will always rule. More to the point, the people possessed of that mood will always rule. But sometimes the more clever politicos can massage the conversation within the mood.

That mood this year is plain, simple and beyond argument. It is anger. This rage, and I doubt I overstate by calling it that, is about health care mandates, spiraling deficits, mounting debt, unemployment and, perhaps more than anything, a sense of injustice regarding the regular guy.

The anger is less about government bailing out the financial sector than about the fact that nobody bails out the working man when he stares down his mounting pile of bills, his anemic checkbook balance and the oppressive calendar. It is that he gets no bailout if the old pickup goes on the blink. It is that some people don't pull their fair share and yet they get the favors.

Yes, the unemployed man gets bailed out partially with unemployment compensation. But we're talking here about the working middle-class man.

Such anger gets directed at those in office, of course. Federally, that has meant a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.

Thus we have beheld for weeks the generic advantage for an "R" over a "D" and the specific advantages in individual races that have raised the prospect of a Republican takeover of one or both of the congressional chambers.

Lately, though, we have seen the gap narrow on the generic preference and we have seen individual Democrats rally a bit.

It is not that the mood has changed. It is that the conversation is changing.

It is shifting a little into whether our problem is less a matter of the Democrats having the current majority than of the Republicans having had that majority for much of the previous decade, or of such a vexing combination that it is not always so simple as an "R" or a "D."

In my home state of Arkansas, we have a U.S. Senate race that is not an ideal example of this dynamic on account of the Republican insurgent's remarkably large lead over the Democratic incumbent, a margin that has polled as wide as 30-plus points.

But this race does present a worthy example of what I mean about the conversation.

Each of the candidates was given a chance in a recent debate to question the other directly. The Republican challenger asked the Democratic incumbent if she was proud of having cast the deciding vote for health care reform. That's the conversation he wants; its prevalence is largely why he leads.

The Democratic incumbent asked the Republican insurgent about a "flat tax." That is the conversation she wants because it has him defensive about liking the idea of a national consumption tax in place of an income tax, an idea that, she contends credibly, would hit the beleaguered working man hardest.

For the last two or three weeks, the television advertising has had the state's electorate talking a lot about the flat tax and not at all about health care. As an obvious result, she has cut the margin to the high single digits.

The variable is not the mood or anger. That is the constant. The variable is the direction we choose to vent that anger, or, perhaps more precisely, the direction we get manipulated into venting it.

John Brummett (jbrummett@arkansasnews.com) is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau.

 

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