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The Parties Have Already Devised Their Midterm Messages

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The gavel has been struck on what has been widely judged to be the least productive session of Congress in history, and now a new one with few, if any, expectations of improvement has commenced. It used to be that this first week of a session was filled with expectations—some unrealistically high, others more plausible—but the general theme was of hope, not the dread or despair prevalent today. The only widespread agreement is about how bad things have gotten.

Legislative battles that once came to some conclusion—with one side prevailing over the other or, more often, some sort of compromise—have given way to fights over messaging. Each side is constantly trying to best position itself and to frame the next election in the minds of voters in the most advantageous way. The idea of actually accomplishing something is not entirely dead, but it generally belongs to the eternal optimists and the wishful thinkers.

Republicans are obviously trying to cast the midterm election as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, hardly a surprise given the broadly negative views that a plurality of Americans hold toward it and its disastrous launch. But besides the obvious strategic risk of putting all their eggs in one basket, there is another problem with the GOP's approach to 2014. While the public is hardly enthusiastic about Obamacare, the same polls that show unfavorable attitudes toward the law also show an electorate that isn't looking to repeal it but rather fix it. This theme is absent from Republicans' talking points. They risk being seen as capable of only throwing rocks rather than improving things, thus contributing to a negative image that led to many of their problems in the 2012 elections.

Democrats want to change the subject to income inequality, hoping to buy time for the Affordable Care Act to work out its problems and for a constituency to grow among those who like and use it. All in all, this isn't a bad strategy; they definitely should want to shift the focus from the president's signature legislative accomplishment, now a sore subject. The public, however, is increasingly aware of not just the growing gap between the rich and the poor, but also the one between the well-to-do and those who were once in the middle class but have slipped below it even as they try to cling to what they have. In James Carville's and Stan Greenberg's 2012 book, It's the Middle Class, Stupid, the renowned Democratic strategists made a compelling economic case for how wide the gap has grown and how fearful many working and middle-class Americans are of losing any shot at the American Dream. And they also argue that directing attention to the issue is a winning political strategy.

One doesn't have to be a liberal or a populist or, for that matter, a social-justice advocate to fear the social, political, and economic consequences of such a wide swath of voters who fear what the future holds for them. It's often noted that this is the first time in our nation's history that most Americans do not expect their children and grandchildren to have the same opportunities they did. As a country built on optimism, the United States has often attracted immigrants seeking the promise of a better life. Over the last 30 years, but particularly the past 15 years, that optimism has been fundamentally undermined.

To be sure, Republicans have their own case to make for job creation and economic growth. Generally, their prescriptions include variations on trickle-down economics. Arguments about cutting tax rates and getting government out of the way for employers to create more jobs continues to be a compelling one for conservatives. But these policies don't tend to resonate much among the—according to exit polls from 2012—41 percent who call themselves moderate, let alone the 25 percent who label themselves liberal.

As we were reminded recently by the NBC News First Read newsletter, Republicans need to remain cognizant of the "empathy gap." In the last election, when people were asked to choose which quality mattered the most in deciding how they voted for president, the top choice was "has a vision for the future" at 29 percent, followed by "shares my values" at 27 percent. Coming in third was "cares about people like me" at 21 percent, and, in fourth place, "is a strong leader" at 18 percent. Romney scored higher on three out of four of these qualities. Those choosing "shares my values" voted 55 percent for Romney and 42 percent for Obama. Those who picked "is a strong leader" as a key quality in their president sided for Romney, 61 percent to 38 percent. Those who said "has a vision for the future" went 54 percent for Romney, 45 percent for Obama. Looking at these numbers, one might assume Romney won the election. However, among the one in five voters for whom "cares about people like me" was most important, Obama won 81 percent to 18 percent. That is a jaw-dropping finding as Republicans search for the answer to the question, "Why did we lose?"

Republicans need to think about these results as they decide how to position their party for 2014 and 2016, lest they watch this empathy gap cost them another winnable election.

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