When the White House Embraces Right Wing Messaging
It was 12:44pm or so on Monday, and in the White House briefing room, Jay Carney was asked about taxing olympic medals (well, mostly the prize money from the US Olympic committee that comes with the medals). You see, on Tuesday of last week, Grover Norquist had written a blog post saying the medal and prize should be exempt from income tax. Marco Rubio quickly made it into a bill. And now the White House was being asked about it.
Carney said the President would sign such a bill if it reached his desk.
This is what we call a messaging exercise. Grover Norquist and Marco Rubio know exactly what they're doing. The White House took the bait.
After Carney endorsed the bill, not much happened, at first. The initial press stories missed the point. It turns out we're pretty used to this White House signing on with right-wing messaging programs.
I'm sure there were some criticisms, but they didn't get much attention until Matt Yglesias called bullshit on the whole thing 27 hours later (you can read more critiques from, i.e., Howard Gleckman in the CSM, Josh Barro in Bloomberg, and the LATimes editorial page).
There are a few possibilities here for how this works in the White House; none of them are good. The first is that they don't get that this is bad policy. This seems particularly unlikely. The second is they know it's nonsense policy-wise, but they don't get that it's serious messaging damage. They think Rubio's bill is a potential problem for them, and that the best choice is just to jump on board, and try to make the problem go away, and that will be that. The third is that they know it's nonsense, and they also get that it's part of a long-term anti-tax messaging campaign they're being drawn into -- but they've decided that it's worth sacrificing the future message battle somewhat to do what they think they need to do in the short term. The long term is someone else's problem, after all.
They're screwing us over in the long term; the question is whether they even get that or not. And it's notable that, just looking at the short-term picture, they think the can win by immediately giving in to the other side. Things have a way of not working that way.
Doing the other side's messaging work is not entirely new; certainly some previous Democratic presidents have done so as well. One easy example: Clinton did some sizable work to build the notion that welfare is essentially a bad thing. My feeling, though, is that President Obama has done this far more. He has, as Ari Berman put it, "successfully used the bully pulpit to undermine the case for progressive governance." From budgets to deficits to regulation to indefinite detention, he's done some serious work for long-term Conservative messaging projects. This is not good.