Issue Ownership and “Trespassing”

Brendan Nyhan has a brief but fascinating piece up at The Upshot on one of my favorite topics: the phenomenon of partisan “issue ownership” and the perils and profitability of “trespassing” by the other party. He brought it up in the context of the sudden Republican effort to sound relevant on issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation, traditionally issues associated with Democrats.

As Nyhan notes, parties tend to “trespass” on issues when they are forced to by external circumstances, and where their lack of credibility on an issue has become a serious political handicap. Republicans may be operating from both motives: an improving economy that is difficult to criticize on the traditional grounds of growth or employment numbers, and the strong perception that Republicans don’t really believe struggling Americans deserve any help. But changing those perceptions is much easier said than done:

One political science study found that the strategy is rarely successful and that voters tend to rely on party stereotypes instead — a conclusion that is reinforced by miscues like the infamous Dukakis tank ride. Democrats are already likening Jeb Bush to Mr. Romney in an attempt to buttress the stereotype of the G.O.P. as the party of the rich.

The point is that “issue trespassing” can fail or even backfire if it’s only superficial. I’d add that it can also backfire if it simply involves appropriating the other party’s policies, particularly at a time when core constituencies in both parties (but far more so Republicans) are on alert for such “betrayals.” Indeed, it’s very important for “trespassers” to establish they are applying their side’s philosophy to issues the other side has previously dominated, and it’s a tough sell. Two classic examples are Bill Clinton’s approach to welfare reform, which he thought appeared distinct enough after he vetoed two Republican sponsored bills and forced what he considered significant GOP concessions. It likely helped him win in 1996, but to this day a lot of progressives believe the bill he signed was identical to the two he vetoed; in other words, that he simply “caved.” George W. Bush got a lot of the same treatment–more in the rear-view mirror than at the time–for an approach to K-12 education that was reasonably faithful to the conservative tradition of educational accountability–but not to the emerging conservative gospel of abolishing all federal involvement in education other than shoveling money into private schools.

In any event, so far would-be Republican “trespassers” aren’t taking anything like the risks Clinton or even W. took, and thus the odds of them reducing the power of old partisan stereotypes on inequality or wage stagnation are relatively low. Making the gesture may, of course, be enough for swing voters who are Republican-leaning to begin with; that seems to be the lesson of the periodic success of Republicans in assuaging concerns about cultural issues by simply not talking about them or coming up with symbolic measures like support for over-the-counter contraceptive sales. But you do wonder at what point core conservative audiences are going to get tired of hearing their candidates express sympathy for people who didn’t work as damn hard as I did.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.