To seize the discourse is to win the debate

Despite a 9% unemployment rate and polls showing job creation as voters’ top concern, it certainly seems as if the media establishment has bought into the conservative frame and put deficit reduction atop the nation’s to-do list.

As it turns out, this isn’t just a matter of perception. It’s a quantifiable phenomenon.

Greg Sargent flags this National Journal study, which, one hopes, editors, producers, and publishers will take seriously.

Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.

The analysis — based on a measure of how often the words “unemployment” and “deficit” appear in major publications — portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media’s consciousness.

I suppose conservative Republicans deserve some credit for playing the game so exceptionally well. A certain school of thought would argue that a political party would have to be crazy to see high unemployment and overwhelming public demand for job creation, only to start talking about something else — an agenda that’s likely to slow the economy and make unemployment worse.

But the right doesn’t see the public discourse as it is; the right sees the discourse as it could be. In this case, the GOP didn’t fight the prevailing winds, the party simply blew in a different direction, focusing exclusively on fiscal issues until everyone else came along. The media was easy — Very Serious People always prioritize fiscal issues above all else — and since voters tend to confuse concepts like the deficit and the recession anyway, there was no backlash.

What’s more, note that this was the Republican strategy all along. In 2009, a variety of GOP leaders, including Tim Pawlenty, believed the key to addressing the global economic crisis was a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. In 2010, Democrats were afraid to even propose jobs bills because the public had been conditioned to hate “spending.”

And in 2011, with Dems reluctant to go against the prevailing winds, especially after their drubbing in the midterms, nearly everyone in the political establishment is focused on the same thing: reducing the deficit and ignoring the jobs crisis.

Greg calls this the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” and it’s nice to see a study showing how real it is.