Sunday, April 03, 2005

Fake Town Hall Meetings

I'm WAY behind the curve on this, but I've been thinking about the scripted "town hall meetings" that the president is holding to promote his efforts to change Social Security. Last week, the Washington Post ran a story on the lengths the president's handlers will go to ensure there's no dissent in the audience. Three nicely dressed individuals were escorted out of the hall because some Republican operative noticed a "No Blood For Oil" bumper sticker on their car in the parking lot. (The Post doesn't say how, exactly, the individuals were linked to the car.) Mind you, they had no signs, no buttons and hadn't done anything to suggest they were going to disrupt the event (and they certainly hadn't actually done anything of that sort). This is an administration that really is committed to preemptive strikes!

On Friday, E.J. Dionne wrote about the incident and Bush's "Stepford Town Meetings." As usual, Dionne has a great take on the matter. Here are a few tidbits:

Lately the president has been chastising Democrats for not sitting down with him to fashion a solution. "I think there is a political price for not getting involved in the process," Bush said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday. "I think there is a political price for saying, 'It's not a problem, I'm going to stay away from the table.' " But when Bush's critics show up at the president's taxpayer-financed events, they are often told there is no place at the table for dissenters.


Do we live in a country where the president's representatives are authorized to read citizens' minds to determine who is suitable to hear his speeches?


And so you wonder why a president who sells himself as a tough, confident bring-'em-on type of guy seems so anxious about facing average citizens who disagree with him. Why does he insist on being surrounded, always, by people who tell him that he's right and great and wonderful?
What interests me most about these events is that they're having no impact (and maybe even a negative effect) on public support for his plan. Why? There are two possibilities. The first is that these sham town hall meetings are seen for what they are - campaign-style events where the president preaches to the choir. As a result, many citizens may wonder, if the President's plan is so good, why can't he answer his critics? One possible answer is that the President's plan isn't any good.

The second explanation is based on what political scientists call "issue ownership." This is one of the most important concepts in American politics, though it isn't often invoked in popular analysis. The concept explains what's happening as follows: The two parties "own" different sets of issues. The Republicans are thought (by a majority of voters) to be better at handling taxes, crime, national security, foreign policy, and "values." Democrats are more trusted to handle education, the environment, health care and jobs. Importantly, they are also more trusted to protect Social Security. Thus, the more President Bush talks about Social Security - particularly in hermetically sealed situations - the more people are primed to apply their preconceived attitudes about which party they trust on the issue.

To be sure, a politician who devotes considerable time and effort to "leasing" an issue that the other party owns, can do it (particularly if something in his/her political history makes him/her uniquely credible on an issue). But leasing an issue is difficult and even when successful is only temporary (e.g., Clinton gained an advantage on the issue of crime during his time in office, but Republicans own the issue again). So it's unlikely that Bush is going to win on this issue; but if he wants a chance, he ought to open up the discussion.


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