- - Monday, June 5, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite Republicans trying to address unsustainable debt and deficits through the Trump budget, the Democratic Party and its echo-chamber allies are in high dudgeon over its proposed cuts. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “literally a killer.” It’s message by bumper sticker.

The Democratic Party and its supporters will speak to their fears and Republican morality deficits. Visions of starvation, disease and death become their narrative. The Republican message substitutes math for morality. Logic and not emotion is considered the best path to travel. However, time has proven that message strategy wanting.

Boiled down to its basics, we are facing a math problem. But the solution must be found inside a political framework. Not enough politicians will support a “take your bitter-tasting medicine” unless the public fears the alternative. And that medicine is a combination of spending cuts to expensive entitlement programs or higher tax rates. Taxing the middle class is unpopular. (You can’t get enough relief out of the top 1 percent even if you took all their income. And channeling Ayn Rand, what would you take in Year Two?)

If taxes are not the answer, you have got to cut spending. If that is the option for Republican offense, then the promotion of an austerity budget must be preceded with horror stories of the short-term personal consequences from servicing a growing $20 trillion debt. There are stories of horrible eventual outcomes that will come with insensitive and massive adjustments to lifestyles. Seen many? Any?

The Republican Party is not very good at drama. How often have you seen lame references to every man, woman and child owning and owing some enormous portion of the national debt? Does anyone fear that ledger entry? Alternatively, we could send everyone an invoice and then threaten to turn the deadbeats over to the Internal Revenue Service. That would be transformative.

In the real world, Republicans need to have a better option that pre-empts the morality issue. Defensive messages about our grandchildren having to pay the bill are not going to work. Immediate detailed cuts in services are more threatening, especially to the millions who don’t have grandchildren.

The Sandernistas in the Democratic Party have developed a better game plan. Exhibit A is the 2012 political attack ad suggesting Paul Ryan was pushing an old woman off a cliff. That was offense. And offense requires telling a set-up story. Can the Republicans begin to show people what must happen to their tax rates or government benefits if we don’t change course?

There was a time in my life that Medicare didn’t exist. The modern food stamp (now called SNAP) program was started in the 1960s. Cutting back is not science fiction. It is Greece, Puerto Rico and now Illinois. In the short history of our country we have never been here before. Today we are funding the enormous and unprecedented medical and retirement needs of the baby boomer crowd who are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 people a day. And that generation will keep expanding at that retirement rate for another 11 years. Can we tell that story? How many people do you think have heard it?

Can we talk about Social Security and food stamps being frozen for 5-10 years at their current payout? Can we speak in terms of cutting a penny of every dollar in nondiscretionary spending? Yes, but only if we spend serious time and money creating a voter base of common knowledge that these cuts are the lesser of potential evils. And that messaging must overwhelm the free-lunch crowd that continues to violate the moral in Aesop’s ant and grasshopper fable.

Can Republicans connect the dots for people? Better yet, can we reveal the dots that many people don’t know exist before we connect them? It can be accomplished if we rely on stories more than statistics.

The left is successfully selling fears of a climate breakdown with visions of flooded coastal cities. Once they metastasize fear in the voting public, it’s a short step to trigger anger at those who created or abide the situation.

Can we show with stories what will happen if we don’t stop our credit card mentality? There are plenty of ways to describe a future-compromised life that arrives long before Antarctica melts. Our problem is that disappearing ice sheets and stranded polar bears are too easily imagined. Debt is just a number. And the mental gymnastics required to comprehend $20 trillion is beyond most mortal beings. Result: You pay attention to what you understand.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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