It's time to end waste, fraud and abuse. I don't mean in government. I mean in our campaign messaging. We have become so adept at finding a phrase that works that our collective creativity has withered. Political technology neutered what could be gutsy messaging.
"Waste, fraud and abuse" has about 193,000 references in Google. Among them, press releases such as "Governor Paterson created the Task Force to Eliminate Waste, Fraud and Abuse," "An Oversight Hearing on Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in U.S. Government Contracting in Iraq," and "Call Toll-Free to Report Waste, Fraud, and Abuse." I suspect many of the press releases were written by former campaign workers who went to work for candidates they got elected.
The phrase actually meant something in 1940 when the Truman Committee actually did stop waste, investigate fraud, and end abuse. There are many in Congress now who work hard to save taxpayer dollars. But in the seventy years since the Truman Commission, campaign messaging experts have fed us the same line, the rhetorical equivalent of rice cakes.
To use a phrase that my five year old would understand, this cynical approach to winning voters makes voters' brains rot.
In a recent Zogby poll, 88% said "eliminate fraud" was their preferred way to pay for modernizing our health care system. The problem, of course, is that even the biggest conspiracy theorists suggest that a small fraction of health care spending is lost to fraud.
It's the same approach that leads to 39% of voters saying the government should stay out of Medicare (Public Policy Polling, August 2009) and demands to balance our $1.2 trillion deficit by slashing our $50 billion foreign aid budget.
In the campaign cycle prior to joining Campaigns & Elections, I produced 235 different mailers. Too many of them included candidates' pledges to end waste, fraud and abuse, but I didn't know any better. In the years since, I've had the rare opportunity to meet the most creative political minds in the world. In general, they aren't successful because they get the best rates for airtime and printing. Nor is it solely because they are early adopters of the new campaign technologies. It's something more primal.
The Daisy ad was no production masterpiece. It just scared the crap out of us. The message still shoots right past our neocortex and lodges itself in the part of our brain that we share with an alligator.
If you want to be good--I mean really good--at winning, get rid of your magic formula. The secret sauce doesn't exist. Think hard about what affects your primal urges and you'll hit the right chord. …