I just finished spending some time with the latest New York Times/CBS poll and I have to tell you, I’m discouraged. It is not that there is not information in the poll to gladden the heart of any liberal Democrat—that’s me; I’m the liberal Democrat from central casting. It is that, in my judgment, none of that encouraging information is going to matter come November.
Here’s why I think that. I am a fan of John Gray, the author of all the Mars and Venus books. I am not a fan because I think he is right about what men and women are like. I don’t think he is right any oftener than I am, although he would make money even being wrong and I would not ,even being right. So that’s not it. I am a fan because when I do what he says to do, things work out better. I would take advice from a Ouija board if it produced the results John Gray has produced for me.
Here is today’s example. If you are in a relationship with a woman and you do something wrong, apologize. Do it right away. Why? Because, according to Gray, she is not going to hear anything you say until you apologize. To make this dilemma a little more graphic, let’s imagine that your lady is hearing impaired. She has hearing aids and her hearing is pretty good when she is wearing them, but she turned them off when you did this “wrong thing,” whatever it was, and she’s not going to turn them on until you apologize. Stop and think about this for a minute. Nothing you say is going to be heard until she turns on the hearing aid and she is not going to turn on the hearing aid until you apologize.
Let me pause momentarily to assure you that I am still talking about President Obama and the troubles he has, as they showed up in the Times poll.
It will be useful here to introduce the word exculpatory. The culp- root is “blame” in Latin, so you can see that being “out of,” that’s the ex-, blame, would be what the offending man would want. There were circumstances that any fair-minded person would treat as fully exculpatory; that deserve a full and complete forgiveness. “I’m sorry I was late picking you up for the party, but I had to stop to give CPR to an accident victim on the way home. The medics said I saved the kid’s life.”
Like that one? Here’s one I am borrowing from Last Chance Harvey. “I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in the marketplace at noon as I promised I would. I had a heart malfunction and the doctors at the hospital wouldn’t release me until they had ruled out any need for immediate treatment. I was a prisoner in the hospital.”
Obviously, examples of this sort could be multiplied. Will these “excuses” work? No. Why? Because they will not be heard. They will not be heard, evaluated, and dismissed as inadequate. They will not be heard at all. Why? Because you have not yet apologized, so she has not yet put in her hearing aids and nothing…Nothing…you say will matter until you have done that.
Here’s what I learned from the New York Times poll. The American people, Democrat, Republican, and Independent, care about the economy first. They are willing to hear any kind of pitch from the ruling party after the economy is taken care of. They will put in their hearing aids after the economy is taken care of. Before that, nothing you say will matter all that much.
Fixing the economy is President Obama’s apology. It is what he has to do first. If he doesn’t do that—and he can’t—nothing else he says is going to be heard. Federal regulations for same sex couples? Sure, after you fix the economy. Immigration reform? Sure, after you fix the economy. Deficit reduction? Sure, after you fix the economy. More humane medical care for the most vulnerable Americans—that doesn’t mean just poor ones, by the way—is a great idea. Right after you fix the economy.
Do the American people like these ideas? Yes. According to the poll, they do. Do they agree with the Democratic ideas about policy directions at the federal level more than they agree with Republican ideas? Yes. They do. Does it matter? No. It doesn’t. Why? Because President Obama has not yet apologized and American has not yet put in her hearing aids. This picture? This is what you are looking for. It is not going to happen.
This is a fundamental critique. The standard liberal metaphor for argument in an open and democratic society is “the marketplace of ideas.” If everyone is free to choose, the best ideas will be chosen in the market. This presumes that the ideas will be heard. The situation I am describing is a situation in which the only ideas that can be heard are the ones that blame me for being late (these are inculpatory arguments) or that blame President Obama for not fixing the economy.
So here’s a thought. The economy cannot be fixed. Imagine that you once had a 40 inch waist and to keep your pants up, you put the prong in the third hole. Then you screw up and are put on a turnip and water diet. When you get out, you have a 38 inch waist, so you put the prong in the fifth hole. Then you screw up again and the prong has to be put in the seventh hole to keep your pants up. A Red Cross worker discovers your plight and asks what you want him to do for you and you say that you want the prong put back in the third hole, like it was in the good old days.
That’s what Americans are asking for. It is what the party out of power tells them to ask for. It is the Republicans now, but it would be the Democrats if George Romney had won in 2012. They don’t want the punitive regime to be repealed. They don’t want to stop screwing up. They don’t want the turnips to be genetically modified so they have more protein. They want the prong put back where it was. President Obama cannot put the prong back where it was.
My view is that the economy we have now is the kind of economy we are going to have for the foreseeable future. We used to have to pay our middle class workers a living wage because if they didn’t spend all that money, we wouldn’t have a living economy. We don’t have to do that anymore. We now have a global middle class who can provide “us”—the export-centered industries at least—with a lively economy. We used to have to hire actual local humans to do things that can now be done cheaper by foreign workers and even cheaper by domestic robots and that includes a lot of jobs that used to be called “skilled jobs.” We now have “skilled robots.” Every time there is an economic downturn, no matter what the cause of it is, the American businesses adjust by retaining or re-hiring fewer workers—this is “the new normal,” they say—and recalculating the pension obligations and reducing the power of the unions.
The prong goes in the fifth hole; then into the seventh. You put that prong there yourself because that is how you manage to keep your pants on. And if your vision of the future is a world where you could put the prong back in the third hole—you aren’t regaining your old weight, you are just changing where you put the prong—then you are doomed. You need to want something else. What you really want, of course, if for “things to be the way they used to be,” and that’s perfectly understandable but you used to BE a size 40 and you are not a size 40 anymore and if my economic reasoning is any good, you will never be a size 40 again. Ever.
So think about this. You’re President Obama and you want to talk about some important things. You might want to talk about raising the minimum wage, so people can afford to buy things again. You might want to talk about penalties for companies that outsource their labor force—“shipping American jobs overseas,” is the way President Obama puts it. You might want to talk about the cost to ordinary workers of the obscene levels of executive compensation CEOs are granted. You might want to talk about the strength of labor unions as the only way to guarantee that contractual obligations will be met by employers.
Or you might want to talk about something else. You might want to talk about the deplorable state of our transportation infrastructure or the unenforced environmental regulations that result in polluted air sheds and watersheds. You might want to talk about sustainable levels of energy use and securing those levels from non-polluting sources.
And let’s say the American people agree with your positions on everything that is named in the last two paragraphs. It doesn’t matter! Why? Because the American voters have not yet put in their hearing aids. They will hear no reasons—other than your own culpability, which is assumed—why the economy is what it is and why it will continue to be that way. They will engage in no other conversations, no matter how urgent those conversations might be because they can’t hear what you are saying.
They want you to apologize first and that means fixing the economy. It means putting the prong back in hole three. We can argue about who to blame for your pants falling down later.  But as I am arguing the case, President Obama cannot “fix” the economy. I don’t think he could fix it if he had control of both houses of Congress although more actions would be taken. That means that the broad agreement between Americans and the Democratic positions does not matter. It means that the reasons the economy is as it is, and why it will continue to be that way, do not matter either. Nothing matters until President Obama apologizes and he is unable to do that.
That’s what I learned from the New York Times—not just the poll, but the news stories over the last several years. Is it time to reconsider cochlear implants? No? What then?
 Single pedants will wonder how you can apologize to a woman who can’t hear your apology. Married men, however pedantic they might be, will understand that there are lots of ways to convey that particular message
 A marvelous movie. The perfect vehicle for Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman.
 American politics, because it relies on competition within and between parties, is a little different from the relationship I have pictured here. In politics, you can sometimes get her to put in her hearing aids anyway if she thinks the results of refusing to put them in will be even worse. The other party, in this setting, is so disastrously bad that she might as well listen to you even if you haven’t apologized.
 We owe the idea to John Stuart Mill and the phrasing to Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and then to William O. Douglas.
 Maybe 2016 or 2018. It will all be the Republicans’ fault by 2020 anyway.