Facts and Elections

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in Ashland today
(Photo credit: tvnewsbadge)

My first reaction to the selection of Paul Ryan as Vice-Presidential nominee was similar to the views of many others. Ryan is a policy wonk and we can now have a serious national discussion about entitlements. While there are many facts to be argued in this campaign, the results will not be determined by facts but rather by emotions and beliefs.

The facts are clear. The government has made more promises than it can keep. Social Security and Medicare are pay-as-you-go systems which only work when the ratio of taxpayers to recipients is fairly high. With the Baby Boomers hitting retirement that ratio is not high.

The system is already in trouble. The “surpluses” in the account are in the form of U.S. Treasury Bonds. The money wasn’t put in the stock market (which, right now sounds good). But it also wasn’t stored in Fort Knox. Treasury bonds are the government’s version of an IOU. The Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds are a bookkeeping device. The real money to pay for current benefits comes either from current revenues or borrowed money. It is part of why the national debt is approaching 16 trillion dollars. The current state of the economy is adding to the entitlement problem. Many people are going on Social Security and disability in part because there are fewer jobs.

Romney and Ryan may be tempted to stay on the facts. They believe they are making necessary changes to Medicare and Social Security. By leaving the systems unchanged for people over 54 they are giving younger people time to plan for a different system. This is a rational view, but their opponents are going to talk about the “end of Medicare as we know it” and “old people starving without Social Security.”

The question before the public sounds like a factual one but the Obama team knows a campaign is very emotion based. The question is, “What does our future hold?” the answers to that are very different. It is the difference between fear and hope.

In a fear-based view, we are doing the best we can possibly do. We have been dealt a bad hand and it will take a long time to recover. We have to get used to the “new normal.” In this environment, everyone has to work to keep what they have because the “pie” isn’t growing. The Democrats ran on Hope and Change in 2008. That option is no longer open to them. They will run this time on Fear of Change. The Republicans need to understand that if fear rules, they will lose. And arguing facts does not counter fear.

Before the Ryan announcement, all we were hearing from the Republicans was about Romney’s competence. That ain’t the issue. At the Ryan rollout, I started to hear what is needed. I hope the Republicans keep it up.

The themes are about hope and based on an optimistic view of the capabilities of and the future for America. They described themselves as “America’s Comeback Team.” They derided the idea that the current state of the economy is the “new normal.” And they openly embraced American Exceptionalism and the belief there is no problem America can’t solve. The theme is – we’ve come back before and “we can do this!”

In bad times America has benefitted from looking to and for leaders with a sunny optimism. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan came into office in difficult times. They shared the ability to show optimism and convince their fellow citizens that our problems could be solved. Obama had the chance to do that in 2008. The magazine cover with him as FDR in the car with the jaunty cigarette holder was what we were looking for. We did not get it.

Romney has the chance to be the sunny, optimistic leader we are seeking. By nature, he seems to be more reserved and self-abasing. That is not what we or he needs. It is helpful to know he has experience turning companies and the Olympics around. That lives in the world of facts. The election is in the world of emotion.

Paul Ryan seems to have the ability to project that optimism. Romney needs to pay attention and be aware of the emotional connection people are seeking in a political leader. If Romney and/or Ryan can make the optimistic emotional connection, they will win handily.

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