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Talking with Jeff Blodgett and dissecting Team Obama’s language

Jeff Blodgett

Jeff Blodgett took over this month as top dog (the actual title is “state director”) of the Obama reelection campaign in Minnesota.

In an interview, I asked him to describe the frame in which the campaign will present the choice facing the electorate in November. He replied:

It’s all about the different visions that are out there. About how we continue to build a sound economy. One choice is with the president, to continue on a path of progress, continue to build an economy that works for everyone, especially middle-class families. And that involves investing in education, American manufacturing and energy solutions. Or do we actually go back to the policies of the last decade that got us into the mess that we are now climbing out of.?

Most people believe that having a fair — having a government and an economy where everyone plays by the same rules is important. That is the other big argument and conversation in this campaign, whether you have people playing by the same rules or some people getting unfairly rewarded. A lot of middle class people feel that that happened in the last decade with the policies of the last administration. Whether you create a public sector and an economy where everyone has the same rules, everyone is paying their fair percentage of taxes, and you don’t have some people with special treatment. His opponent  [Mitt Romney]represents a complete opposite, and lives a complete opposite of that view.

Blodgett — the long-time Paul Wellstone campaign manager, founder of the Wellstone Action organization that trains progressives in the political arts and most recently the head of WIN Minnesota, a liberal fund-raising outfit — is a behind-the-scenes guy, no oratorical tub-thumper. I quote his long first answer to my what-will-the-election-be-about question because, if we deconstruct it a little, it reflects the language that the Obama campaign at all levels wants to use and the concepts that it will emphasize.

While Repub message central likes to lead with “freedom,” the Dems lead with “fairness.” Dems want to raise more tax revenue from the rich and spend it on things that help the middle class and the poor, but they want to talk about it in ways that are harder to characterize as “class warfare” (not that they can do anything to stop the Repubs from characterizing it that way).

In the Dem message, it’s not that they want to soak the rich but that Repubs favor special rules for the wealthy to help them get wealthier, which is why the disparity between rich and poor keeps growing. Romney is rich and lives like a rich guy. He benefits from special rules such as tax loopholes that enable him to pay a lower effective tax rate (13.9 percent in 2010, the only year for which he has released his tax returns). That is a leading example of how, according to the Dem message, Romney not only supports the unfair rules, but benefits from them.

Fairness vs. Freedom

In the Dem vocabulary, government spending is not spending but “investing.” And when you look at the areas Blodgett mentions for these investments – “education, American manufacturing and energy solutions,” they are fairly far away from the kinds of outright welfare-for-the-poor that gets the Tea Party types riled up.

The Repubs will (and do) call attention to the persistent high unemployment rate, and remind voters that Obama said in 2009 that if he can’t get the economy turned around in four years, he will be looking at a “one-term proposition.” Obama and his minions (including Blodgett in his summary) will point to the slow but steady economic recovery (25 straight months of job growth, Blodgett said, most of it in the private sector).

Then, of course, there is the subtle (well, not all that subtle) reminder that the economic collapse happened when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, after he had signed a tax cut that disproportionately helped the wealthy and pushed for deregulation of businesses, including the financial industry, that played such a big role in the collapse of 2007.

Blodgett never mentions Bush by name. It is awkward for a president, in his fourth year, to keep blaming his predecessor. But it is part of the message that Blodgett conveys (and that Obama has also conveyed) that Obama inherited a colossal economic mess (Blodgett consistently refers to it as what Obama “was handed”) and to suggest that Romney’s policies would resemble Bush’s.

“When this president took office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month,” Blodgett told me. “That’s what he was handed… He was handed a deep problem. He’s actually brought us back from the brink.”

Buffett Rule

For the moment at least, the key symbol of how Obama will increase fairness and require everyone to play by the same rules is the proposed “Buffett Rule,” which would require that anyone with more than $1 million of annual income to pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent. (Most people with incomes that high would already be in the top 35 percent marginal tax bracket, which kicks in at the $379,150 mark in taxable income.)

When I asked Blodgett for examples of how Obama would address the “unfair rules” that help the rich at the expense of everyone else, he immediately brought up the Buffett Rule as Exhibit A.

(The estimated amount of additional revenue it would raise vary from about $50 billion a year by the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice to $47 billion over 10 years by the Joint Committee on Taxation.)

And the Buffet Rule has little chance of being adopted as long as Republicans control either house of Congress. But it is a shorthand way reminding America that the wealthy – for all their complaining about high marginal tax rates – don’t really pay at those rates. Rightys will quickly point out the wealthiest 1 percent of households pay about 35 percent of income taxes while that almost half of households pay no federal income taxes at all. (That ignores the FICA payroll tax, which hits most households.)

The $1-million-annual-income threshold for the Buffett Rule is so high it wouldn’t even hit all of the richest 1 percent. But it would hit Mitt Romney, who makes about $20 million a year, which makes it all the more awkward for him to oppose it (as he does) since the Buffett Rule would actually cost his family a sizeable sum. Blodgett also noted that Romney has supported the House Republican budget proposal known as the Ryan plan (for its author, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin), which would change the tax system in ways that, he said, would also favor the wealthy.

Romney Rule

In the last few days, since the Repub nomination race reached its de facto end, Team Obama has greatly increased the frequency of its attacks on Romney, all revolving around the we’re-for-the-middle-class, he’s-for-the-millionaires theme. A lot of it revolves around the Buffett Rule, but it escalates from there. As Vice President Joe Biden launched his first overt campaign trip of the season Thursday, he released text of remarks he planned to use which contrasted the Buffett Rule with a new vague principle that Biden’s text calls the “Romney Rule.” It goes like this:

The Buffett Rule says that multimillionaires should pay at least the same percentage of their income in taxes as middle-class families do. The Romney Rule says the very wealthy should keep the tax cuts and loopholes they have, and get an additional new tax cut every year that is worth more than what the average middle-class family makes in an entire year.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 04/13/2012 - 11:47 am.

    A feckless rhetorical strategy

    The Democrats have relied on Fairness since forever. It’s a term with connotations of weakness and victimhood and readily mischaracterized by Republicans as class warfare, envy, income leveling, selfishness, etc. The Democrats should take a page from the Rove playbook and base their rhetoric on Freedom. Take the term away from the Republicans and in this case it would have a strong foundation. The Republicans’ “Freedom” means a lottery in which everyone has the abstract possibility of Freedom but only 1% actually get it while the rest get to work three jobs and lose everything if they get sick. The Democrats’ “Freedom” should be articulated as one in which those who “play by the rules” can benefit from a civic society that invests in infrastructure, ensures basic needs are met, insures for common material risks, and thereby gives all the opportunity to educate themselves, raise families, participate in a community, broaden their life’s experience and, in general, lead self-determined lives. If this concept of Freedom doesn’t resonate more with folks, then we deserve what we get.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2012 - 02:14 pm.

    When you rely on other people

    in a collective to get you those things you want, even people who don’t want what you want, you’re denying them their freedom.

    The reason why republicans don’t flinch when democrats accuse them of being “for the rich” is because they’re just treating everyone the same, rich or poor. The charge doesn’t compute.

    Like I said yesterday, republicans believe that people should be able to keep what they earn … even rich people. That’s called principle. The principle of economic freedom.

    Democrats believe that people who make more than they do should be punished with higher tax rates and have to give it up because “it’s not fair.” That’s called envy. The party of envy.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    Revisionist history

    “Then, of course, there is the subtle (well, not all that subtle) reminder that the economic collapse happened when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, after he had signed a tax cut that disproportionately helped the wealthy and pushed for deregulation of businesses, including the financial industry, that played such a big role in the collapse of 2007.”

    The recession wasn’t caused by tax cuts, it was caused by the housing collapse. And the housing collapse was caused by the refusal of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to rein in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae’s attempt to put everyone in the country into a mortgaged home. When people couldn’t make their payments and started being foreclosed, the value of my house in the marketplace was cut by 30%. Tthe banks got the government to bail them out of their worthless paper and the recession was on. It had nothing to do with the Bush tax cuts or deregulating businesses.

    People wrote plenty of books about it. I don’t understand why Mr. Blodgett didn’t read at least one of them.

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/13/2012 - 08:32 pm.

      Just to repeat the basic facts here:

      1. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was irrelevant to the subprime boom, which was overwhelmingly driven by loan originators not subject to the Act.

      2. The housing bubble reached its point of maximum inflation in the middle years of the nineties:

      3. During those same years, Fannie and Freddie were sidelined by Congressional pressure, and saw a sharp drop in their share of securitization. while securitization by private players surged.

      Of course, I imagine that this post, like everything else, will fail to penetrate the cone of silence. It’s convenient to believe that somehow, this is all Barney Frank’s fault; and so that belief will continue.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/13/2012 - 04:18 pm.

    No, Mr. Tester

    The housing meltdown was caused by the absence of decent regulation of the Big Banks, who sold unsuspecting buyers mortgages the banks knew they couldn’t afford. The banks then bundled good and bad mortgages and sold the bundles to other banks in the US and abroad AND unloaded a bunch of them on Freddie May/Freddie Mac.

    Our entire economy was also harmed by the Bush tax cuts that accounted for roughly half the deficit he left behind for President Obama. The other half was caused by starting two wars — unwinnable wars against “terror” rather than against another country — and paying for them by selling hundreds of billions worth of bonds to China.

    I believe it was an organization called Commonwealth something-something that pointed out that, since the end of Nixon’s term, every Republican president has left behind a large deficit and every Democratic president has grown the economy sufficiently to wipe out that deficit before the next Republican took office.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/14/2012 - 02:10 pm.


    Temporarily stow your partisanship and watch this 3-minute video.

    Barney Frank should be in jail.

  6. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 04/14/2012 - 03:13 pm.

    Here’s what the Democratic expert on Wall Street, former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, had to say about Obama and “fairness” recently:

    “I’m not persuaded that this President has reall been a voice for reform when it comes to Wall Street … has pretended to take its hits, but it really hasn’t.”

    Spitzer said that Obama makes an “occasional speech” criticizing Wall Street practices, followed by no substantial legislative action.

    Obama “has really been on Wall Street’s side since day one.”

    That is why Banker’s Boy Obama is fanatically opposed to restoration of FDR Glass Steagall legislation.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 04/15/2012 - 07:46 pm.

    This table lists the top donors to Mr. Romney in the 2012 election cycle.

    Goldman Sachs $535,680
    JPMorgan Chase & Co $375,650
    Morgan Stanley $323,800
    Credit Suisse Group $299,160
    Citigroup Inc $282,765
    Bank of America $277,850
    Kirkland & Ellis $222,702
    Barclays $221,650
    PricewaterhouseCoopers $191,500
    HIG Capital $188,500
    Blackstone Group $178,800
    Wells Fargo $163,200
    UBS AG $156,550
    Bain Capital $154,000
    EMC Corp $128,300
    Citadel Investment Group $122,125
    Elliott Management $121,000
    Bain & Co $113,300
    Sullivan & Cromwell $107,150
    The Villages $97,500

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