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A lame line

PH2010080906398.jpgTime for some ostentatious even-handedness: I dinged Mitt Romney today for some lazy anti-Democrat rhetoric, but this bit from the president has been bugging me. The quote comes from his Tuesday remarks at a luncheon for Sen. Patty Murray:

They spent almost a decade driving the economy into a ditch. I mean, think about it, if this -- if the economy was a car and they drove it into the ditch. (Laughter.) And so me and Patty, and a bunch of others, we go down there and we put on our boots and we’re pushing and shoving. And it’s muddy and there are bugs and we’re sweating -- (laughter) -- and shoving, pushing hard. And they’re all standing there sipping Slurpees -- (laughter) -- and watching and -- “you’re not pushing hard enough.” “That’s not the right way to push.” (Pretends to sip a Slurpee.) (Laughter and applause.)

So finally, finally, Patty and I and everybody, we finally get the car up on level ground. We’re about to go forward. And these guys come and tap us on the shoulder, and they say, “We want the keys back.” (Laughter.)

You can’t have the keys back. You don’t know how to drive. (Applause.) You don’t know how to drive. (Applause.) You can’t have them back. (Applause.) Can’t have them back. You can’t have them back. We are trying to go forward. We do not want to go backwards -- into the ditch again.

You notice, when you want to move forward in your car, what do you do? You put your car in “D.” (Applause.) When you want to go backwards, you put it in “R” -- (applause) -- back into the ditch. Keep that in mind in November. (Applause.) That’s not a coincidence. (Laughter.)

Maybe I'm just breathing too much of The Washington Post's air, but that last bit bugs me. The driving analogy? Fine. It's a colorful way of making a fair point about Republican mismanagement of the economy. But that bit about "D" and "R"? It doesn't feel presidential. It's more like the sort of joke that your liberal grandmother would forward you. It's lame.

Photo credit: By Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  August 18, 2010; 6:08 PM ET
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Grandmother? Talk about lame.

Posted by: tallfl | August 18, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Presidents tend to sound less presidential when they are at campaign events. That "R" and "D" line has been used before, and it tends to draw a lot of chuckles in the crowds, so count on the fact that it will be used again.

However, when one reads the most recent Matt Taibi Rolling Stone article (about the role played by key Democrats in gutting what would have been the most effective parts of Wall Street reform), it is hard to take this kind of partisan rhetoric (about the role played by each party in repairing the economy) altogether seriously.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 18, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Have to disagree with you on this one. I think it's kind of clever. (But it's the first time I've heard it. Undoubtedly it will seem less so after the 30th or 40th repetition.)

Posted by: Leon7 | August 18, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

I agree that it's not the best, but it's better than the whole lot of nothing that they've been using before. It is time to admit that democrats have serious problems communicating to the public, or at least are having a hard time competing with the campaign/messaging machine that is today's GOP.

We are, sadly, not going to be able to make a strong argument to the masses using quantitative regression analysis and nuanced intellectual musings. Those things are highly persuasive to the intellectual leadership of the American center-left (as the should be!) but they don't work for everyone, and that's okay.

The challenge we face is how to make our argument for center-left governance and against the right-wing GOP. This blog often postulates that communication (e.g., raming, language, messaging, among other things) doesn't matter. I think that's a deeply dangerous and defeatist attitude. We may get thumped this election, but we cannot stop making our case. When we stop making our case, our political culture becomes centered on right-wing values and memes. When we make our case, we must do so in an effort to win, not just to feel good about what we said. My sense is that democrats, both inside and outside the Beltway, are deeply frustrated that they have not gotten through to the public. The proper response is to launch a concerted effort to reshape democratic communications and outreach (second part is super important), not to give up on politics and drown our misery in academic policy studies.

So, yes- R backward, D forward ain't great, but it's one million times better than "Recovery's just around the corner!"

Posted by: phillycomment | August 18, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

btw, that was supposed to be "framing" not "raming."

Posted by: phillycomment | August 18, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. The Republicans distill things down to "death panels" and "death taxes"--false but catchy.

American voters are not the brightest--if they see D and think Drive, and see R and think Reverse...well, why not?

Posted by: stevie314 | August 18, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Mr Klein:

This post is lame! Don't you have something useful to do? Perhaps more defense of your spurious praise of the "Ryan Plan"?

Posted by: tc125231 | August 18, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

>Have to disagree with you on this one. I think it's kind of clever.

But then I'm reading "Going Rogue", so almost anything sounds clever to me at the moment.

Posted by: Leon7 | August 18, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

So, three posts to one thread is excessive, but I have to offer an answer to your question "why are the republicans going after the mosque thing" that you posed yesterday.

I'm not nearly as good as you or other observers but the answer seems fairly obvious. They are using it to discredit the President. Portraying democrats as weak, mealy-mouthed wimps is a mainstay from the GOP playbook. Why? I think for two reasons 1) it convinces unengaged moderate voters that the dems aren't tough enough to be behind the wheel (to continue the driving analogy) 2) it demoralizes democrats. The republicans are so, so good at making democratic leaders look like girly-men and often that means that democratic voters become alientaed. For example, when Obama made his initial mosque statement, my Facebook newsfeed lit up with excitement. When he added nuance a day later, people seemed disappointed. Now he's just being kicked around by republicans and being made to look even worse.

Does this mean our political/media culture sucks? Sure does! But that just sends us back to the drawing board, not to the showers. There is nothing wrong with defending a nuanced position on this issue, unfortunately, no one is standing up to do so.

Posted by: phillycomment | August 18, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

But Ezra, that line will be repeated and it will stick. Who cares if it's lame? It's still the truth and they need a clever, memorable way to convey the truth so it sticks.

Posted by: baponte | August 18, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Oh my, someone pass Ezra the smelling salts. It doesn't feel "presidential"? He's on the campaign trail trying to grab votes for Patty Murray and stoke up some good old fashioned enthusiasm for his party. He's not in the Oval Office pontificating about war or religious freedom. This is one president who actually knows the difference between political stumping and presidential pronouncements, and he is actually quite adept at modulating his registers to accommodate the two in appropriate situations.

And the grandmother remark. I don't think so.

You're right: maybe you need to exit the WaPo offices once in a while and chill with the real people. It was a colorful and clever remark.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 18, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

It sounded like Harry Truman to me.

And yes, you have been breathing too much of the WP air.

Posted by: jak201 | August 18, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

I can see how one might find his comments slightly lame or dorky, but characterizing them as unpresidential is overly harsh. By that standard, nearly every word that Bush ever uttered would qualify as unpresidential. This was a pretty thin topic for a post.

Posted by: kluhman | August 18, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

"By that standard, nearly every word that Bush ever uttered would qualify as unpresidential."

Uhhh, by what standard would they not?

Sorry, that was too easy.

Posted by: dpurp | August 18, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Well, the air at the Post does seem to be affecting your judgment but mostly that shows up in the cover you give to the GOP to 'temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts for the over $250K crowd'.

Quit opining that "this will probably be the path". Make them own the bad decisions. It's indefensible from a tax justice point of view. It's indefensible from a stimulus point of view. Don't let it be 'the expected outcome'.

Come up with a better POLICY if you need to write about it. And please make Kent Conrad (Senator from the State of North Dakotan with a population of 641,481) be a visible, certifiable, phony-deficit-hawk if he wants to pass an extension of Bush tax cuts.

Posted by: grooft | August 18, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: tps12 | August 18, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

"But that bit about "D" and "R"? It doesn't feel presidential."

Yeah, I had the same reaction. I think the only way it wouldn't sound lame is something like: "Remember, when you're filling out the ballot form, look at the letters next to the name and think of your car: if you want to go forward, go with D. If you want to go backward, that's when you choose R."

Posted by: quickj | August 18, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm more upset about the slurpee line frankly. Why are they drinking slurpees? and don't you slurp a slurpee- not sip? I liked the driving metaphor but it certainly is hokey. But I guess that's what they like out in Washington.

Posted by: Owen_Truesdell | August 18, 2010 9:38 PM | Report abuse

It may be piling on with all the comments already made about this, but what the hell...Ezra's post illustrates in miniature why the smart-guy progressives(ie liberals who lack the balls to call themselves that) have lost very significant political battle of the last 40 years. In order to win in politics, you have to tell memorable stories that make a distinct moral point about you, your opposition, and the difference between you. All the 37-part plans that Ezra and Matt and Nate cream over won't undermine the basic human need to have narrative and pithy stories about why the world is the way it is, hooks that are easy to remember. Maybe D and R isn't all that sophisticated and a bit corny, but it represents an effort to tell that kind of story in a way that's easy to recall. It's basic human nature, and even a credentialed psychological researcher like Drew Westen (he went to all the right schools, like Matt and Ezra!) made all these points not too long ago in his book "The Political Brain." But, hey, let's follow Ezra's advice and have Obama continue giving lofty, presidential speeches that no one can remember later and that don't help anyone recall why he or she should vote for a Democrat rather than a Republican. After all, it's the strategy that's working SO well.

Posted by: redscott1904 | August 18, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Wow - way to stick it to Obama. Every time someone says Ezra Klein is just an arm of the Democratic party and Obama Administration I am going to point to this rough and "even-handed" critique of Obama.

Posted by: HispanicPundit | August 18, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

Of course it doesnt feel "presidential" and thank goodness. Its campaignspeak and successful campaigns are how you get to go around getting "presidential" things done. jak21's "sounded like Harry Truman to me" is spot on. He didn't sound real "presidential" on that campaign. Oddly enough, this could be the campaign season where the Truman comeback analogy really makes sense. That campaign was about two things-reminding people what the Dems had done for them and what the GOP had done to them (or not done at all in the case of the "do nothing" Congress.) That can be a winning formula in this fall's campaign and the D and R formulation is perfect campaignspeak for the point. Truman really was going to lose in August 1948. As with Dewey then, support for the GOP outside of their base is soft and could still be lost back to the Dems and some good campaignspeak against the GOP could get Dems fired up to vote and get out the vote, which will be the key to keeping as many seats as possible. Really, the whole idea of Drive ahead with the Dems or go in Reverse with the Republicans is a good way of summarizing the message we need to convey. After all the GOP really does want to put it in reverse and the things people will hear the GOP saying could really help the D=drive R=reverse theme work. The key thing is good, too. We should be saying that the key to the country's future success is keeping the keys to Congress away from the GOP. A simple message that I think could really resonate with people.

Posted by: gregspolitics | August 18, 2010 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Without disparaging the WaPo air or those who breathe it, our American voters go for this sort of thing, if you scientifically analyze election results from oh, say, any election, ever. Even if it has been used before. I definitely plan to use it on the "undecideds" (do they really exist?) who will still listen to me.

Posted by: CrowIII | August 19, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Wow, Ezra can still i.d. and call out rhetorical lameness, even if the source is Obama.
To take the analogy further, if a wrecker service swore up and down to me that they'd have the car out in a jiff, if I paid three times the going rate upfront, and a week after paying them the car was STILL in the ditch, and they were asking for MORE cash, would you give it to them?

Posted by: OttoDog1 | August 19, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Obama's stand on torture was presidential. But that didn't help the polling.

Obama's stand on the mosque was presidential. But that didn't help the polls.

Obama's stand on saving state jobs was presidential. But that didn't help the polls.

Obama's decision to green light the Seals against the Somali pirates was presidential. But that didn't help the polls.

Unfortunately, being presidential has more to do with being witty and having sound bites than it does in making sound decisions.

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 19, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

It's not the lack of presidential-ness that bothers me; it's the slow, awkward construction that builds to a less-than-clever close. He's been trying this out in various ways for a few months and it always sounds bad.

Maybe--maybe--just make the "they drove the car into a ditch line" followed quickly by a version of the D and R line, then move on. But it's about 80% too long right now.

Posted by: dave231 | August 19, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

For the love of Christ, please stop lunching with Sally Quinn.

Posted by: Rob110 | August 19, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

"the sort of joke that your liberal grandmother would forward you. It's lame." Sooo? .... this whole administration is lame - a lot lamer than my grandmother could ever dream of.

Posted by: IQ168 | August 19, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Sorry I'm going to pile on a bit. That WaPo air is doing you in on this one.

This is after all a President who vocally defended religious freedom against the vilest of attacks from the likes of Howard Dean to Sarah Palin and everyone in between. And got less than nothing for it politically. Time to cut the guy some slack.

Posted by: reader44 | August 19, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: gfafblifr | August 19, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I think you need to lighten up a bit. It's a cute joke coming at the end of a long line of cute jokes. Maybe you don't think it's funny, but I think if you're buggin' enough to blog about it, then you're already considering it too seriously.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | August 19, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Even if it's lame it's better than wimping out. It the Ds don't continue to remind people who drove the car into the ditch the Rs will do it again.

Posted by: jllazaruk | August 19, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

It's more than lame. This practice of trying to get Americans to think about political and economic matters in analogies is nothing less than the dumbing down of the public. Economics is like driving the car, passing healthcare is like "cleaning up someone else's mess" and those who object are like someone saying, "you're using a socialist broom." This is a juvenile, and intellectually very low level of talk to the public. And people say he's too academic! Would that there were any truth to that. What about "Grandma might have to take the little red pain pill." Too academic, too elevated for the public?

Posted by: truck1 | August 19, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"D" as in Drive equals Democrats, and "R" as in Reverse equals Republicans? That joke is easy for millions and millions of Americans to remember.

You want to move poll numbers? Well, then, you'd better make your concept easy for millions and millions of Americans.

Your grandmother forwarded you a corny email joke? Those emails are received daily by millions and millions of Americans.

You think the joke is corny? Well, Americans are corny.

Know your audience.

Posted by: dognabbit | August 19, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes, you're breathing in too much Washington Post air. IMO, this is pretty much standard fare for a 21st century president who is also the leader of his party.

Posted by: Alex3 | August 19, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

This infantile talk about driving the car and putting it in R is not the standard for recent presidents. Neither Bush, nor Clinton, nor Reagan spoke down to people in this way. But then again, they also didn't constantly say that "folks" don't care about the process, about democracy, about anything except where the next buck is coming from.

Posted by: truck1 | August 19, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

" me and Patty..." OMG!!!!! Cannot this man even model halfway decent English grammar? This is not how a president should talk. "Me and Patty and a bunch of other people..." Where are we? In fifth grade?

Posted by: truck1 | August 19, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I can't believe that's the part of the quote you picked out for your even-handed critique. We're just going to let it go that he's saying the economy is now out of the ditch?

Posted by: fakedude2 | August 20, 2010 2:03 AM | Report abuse

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