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The Moral Of The Story

How can you know for sure that Barack Obama has regained the upper hand in the political messaging department as we head into the 2012 reelection year? The other side is talking about the need to reframe its case in "moral" terms. And when's the last time we heard a party doing that? The Democrats, after George W. Bush's dispiriting reelection in 2004.

The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel penned an eye-catching column just before the holiday weekend conceding that Obama "perhaps has found a winner in his 'I'm-for-the-middle-class' argument." Her solution? Morality.

As a result, the constant GOP refrain that Mr. Obama has overspent—the "fiscal" argument—washes over these voters; they are convinced anyone in Washington would do the same. What resonates instead is the "moral" argument about the size of government. Complain to voters that Mr. Obama has "overspent," and they tune out. Explain to voters that Mr. Obama—in keeping with his vision of all-powerful federal government—wasted millions on Solyndra with a loan that impeded private markets and created no jobs, and they are enraged.
Presidential aspirants and congressional Republicans, take note: To make a moral argument against the president, you also have to make one for yourselves. To the extent the GOP is lobbing the usual Obama complaints or going to the mat over who cares more about a piddling payroll tax holiday, it is wasting time.
If Republicans want to take the White House or the Senate, the next 11 months have to be an exercise in crisp compare-and-contrast. They have to explain Mr. Obama's tax and regulatory and energy and health-care policy and make the "moral" argument against it. But to do that effectively they must simultaneously embrace and sell their own sweeping alternative vision of the universe. If Mitt Romney thinks he can win by out-pandering Mr. Obama with the middle class, he's never seen Democrats pander. All he does is muddy a debate that demands clarity. (emphasis mine)

If this rings a bell, it should. After the 2004 election, Democrats fumed over exit polls suggesting that voters choosing Bush over John Kerry had been driven in part by "moral values," a catch-all that seemed to take in the hot-button issue of gay marriage, which the Bush campaign had capitalized on to seemingly good effect. There was much talk among frustrated Democrats that the party needed to rebrand its own proposals in "moral" terms, making clearer to voters why a stronger safety net and more equitable taxes were not policy talking points but value statements. Howard Dean's call to arms a month after the election was typical:

The pundits have said that this election was decided on the issue of moral values. I don't believe that. It is a moral value to provide health care. It is a moral value to educate our young people. The sense of community that comes from full participation in our democracy is a moral value. It is a moral value to make sure that we do not leave our own debts to be paid by the next generation. Honesty is a moral value.

If this election had been decided on moral values, Democrats would have won.

It is time for the Democratic Party to start framing the debate about values.

From this followed the 2006 midterm elections, in which Democratic candidates such as Pennsylvania's Bob Casey and Ohio's Ted Strickland went out of their way to emphasize their faith, and then the 2008 rise of Obama, who, in his more secular way, managed to imbue his pitch with its own sort of moral aspect. It is a sign that, despite all the troubles of the past three years and voters' lingering suspicion of an activist government, he has not entirely lost the luster of that campaign, what with Republicans still looking for a "morality" that can counter it. And it is interesting indeed that Republicans seem on the verge of turning to a quarter-billionaire private-equity titan to produce this alternate vision.