Political icons

I know, I know, but sometimes when I pass the USA Today paper box I scan the headlines for what’s up in the moderately right-leaning mainstream zeitgeist. Those guys fluffed McCain something fierce in 2008 — they seem a little less enthused about Romney, at least, so far. But the other day they had a one-column where the headline was "voters trust Romney more on economy." So I rolled my eyes and walked on. But it got me thinking about why that would be. Why would voters trust Romney more on the economy? Is it because they know about his ideas for turning the economy around (hint: more tax cuts for the rich! party like it’s 2007!) and are convinced that’s totally the way to go?

I doubt it. They trust him on the economy because he’s the Republican. Republicans are stereotyped as better on the economy and national defense. They kind of "own" those issues. Democrats similarly "own" the social safety net, labor, infrastructure, and civil rights.

This presents two problems, for Democrats. One, is that, much as we might not like it, the economy and national defense have a more simple, universal and immediate emotional punch than the things Democrats own. "The economy"is seen — not very accurately, true — as a single universal entity shared by all Americans. If "the economy"is doing well, the presumption is that we all have jobs and money to spend. The fact that the economy is hopelessly bifurcated these days, with one economy for the very wealthy and a completely different (and much suckier) economy for everyone else — well, the very acknowledgement of that fact is coded as liberal/Democratic.

Two, the Republicans don’t really own those things honestly. That is, Republicans are iconically better on the economy even though the data suggests the economy does better under Democratic presidents. Republicans are iconically stronger on national defense, even though a Democrat beat the Nazis, a Democrat successfully stared down the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Republican failed to prevent 9/11, and a Democrat finally actually took out Osama Bin Laden.

(Note: I am not implying that there have been no Republican national defense victories and no Democratic failures, just pointing out that the actual record doesn’t fit the stereotype)

So, Romney is the Republican, and he doesn't even seem to be trying to run on national defense. His schtick is, "I’m a businessman, I know how the economy works, I know how to make money." The Democratic counter is, "Nonsense! He knows how to make money for MITT ROMNEY and super-wealthy people like him! He doesn’t know how to make money for you. He knows how to ship your highly paid manufacturing job to China and then maybe if he’s feeling magnanimous get you a stipend for retraining so now you can operate the cash register at McDonald’s."

Does this counter-narrative stand a chance? Romney comes off as very Thurston Howell III — unlike Bush the Younger who was just as privileged in truth, but came off very good ole’ boy. This personal iconography means there is a chance the Democratic message can become sticky enough to undermine the traditional Republican advantage in that area, at least where Romney is concerned. But can Democrats ever undermine that advantage in general?

I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic about it. Certain iconic ideas are very sticky, and the Republican ownership of the economy seems to be one of the sticky kind.

Note: I originally wrote this before the Ryan VP pick, but I see nothing in that pick that changes the fundamental narrative.