The Candidate Is Fake; The Consultants Are Real

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 11:31 am

When our series began yesterday, we brought together five economists from across the political spectrum and had them create a platform for their dream presidential candidate. It's a platform — Get rid of a tax deduction for homeowners! Raise the price of gas! — that would sink any real candidate.

But we aren't creating a real candidate. We're creating a fake candidate. And to help us, we talked to two veteran political consultants — Hank Sheinkopf and Kim Alfano.

"You have a radical plan which will bankrupt families," Alfano told us. "You're insane."

"I think you should move to another country," Sheinkopf said.

Canada, maybe?

"Not even Canada," he said. "Some of this won't fly in Canada."

And after they both finished laughing at the economists' ideas, the consultants agreed to help us create a campaign for our fake candidate.

Sheinkopf's first piece of advice: Don't be so brainy.

Take, for example, our economists' plan to eliminate the mortgage-interest tax deduction. We shouldn't mention that getting rid of the deduction would cost middle-class homeowners money, Sheinkopf said. Off the top of his head, he sketched out a possible TV ad:

"A bold economic plan to protect America's future," he said. "Get rid of deductions for the rich. ... Tax deduction for homeownership takes millions of dollars away from people in need, reduces services, takes money away from the places we need to spend it. From education. From health care. For our children, for our future ... reform the tax system."

You'll note the ad doesn't appeal to logic. It doesn't ask people to give up anything valuable. It says: Soak the other guy.

Alfano said the ad shouldn't get bogged down in the details. Because once you give specifics, your opponent can use them against you. Sell images, not specifics.

"I see a horse," she said. "I see a song."

One thing you should never see in any political ad, according to Alfano: an economist.

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OK. So if you don't like President Obama and you don't like Mitt Romney, is there an alternative out there? To help us answer that question, we've brought in Robert Smith from our Planet Money team. And Robert, yesterday you started to help us answer this question. You've created a fake candidate.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Well, it wasn't just me. We brought in a bunch of different economists with all sorts of different economic ideas from across the political divide.

DEAN BAKER: Dean Baker...

RUSS ROBERTS: Russ Roberts.

LUIGI ZINGALES: I'm Luigi Zingales.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hardcore free market...

ZINGALES: Pro-market but not necessarily pro-business.

SMITH: And we sat these economists down and we said set aside all your differences for a moment and just focus on what could you agree on. If you could have a dream presidential candidate, what would that person look like?

GREENE: And so what you're saying is that if economists got together and looked at all the things that are important to them and they say would be better for the country, they would come up with some candidate who might not be one of the two we're hearing from in the campaign today.

SMITH: The candidate would be very different because the candidate would, first of all, restructure the whole tax code.

BAKER: The corporate income tax makes no sense whatsoever.

SMITH: We asked the economists, what sort of loopholes would you close in the tax code.

BAKER: The mortgage interest deduction.

SMITH: And all these economists got together, they had a plan to help the environment.

KIM ALFANO: Tax energy use or carbon emissions.

SMITH: And I should say, David, they all supported legalizing marijuana.

GREENE: Good to know. So I know the point of what we heard from yesterday, Robert, was that there's some things that politicians just don't want to go out in front of a crowd and talk about, like I want to raise your taxes. I want all of you Americans to sacrifice. And tell us where you're going today. You have some advice for our fake candidate.

SMITH: Yeah, we brought in political consultants and said, listen, this is your job, right, to gussy up the pigs out there. Well, here is our plan. Nobody wants these ideas because they require pain and sacrifice, so help us make it look better. And first, I gotta say, David, they were not encouraging.

ALFANO: You have a radical plan which will bankrupt families.

HANK SHEINKOPF: A lot of these things can't be sold.

ALFANO: You're just too dangerous. You're insane.

SHEINKOPF: I think you should move to another country. That'd be good.

SMITH: Canada perhaps?

SHEINKOPF: Not even Canada. I mean, some of this won't fly in Canada.

SMITH: That's Hank Sheinkopf. He's a Democratic political consultant. And Kim Alfano, she's a Republican strategist. And after they both finished laughing at all those economists' ideas, they said, sure, we do this kind of stuff all the time. We can totally help you. So Sheinkopf said the biggest problem with that whole list I just gave you is that it's too brainy, like it takes to much explaining.

SHEINKOPF: People do not vote from their heads. They vote from their stomachs and their hearts. Give them some emotional context, some emotional sense, so they can create a contextual argument for themselves.

SMITH: So, for example, I mentioned eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction. Now that's one of the first things that every economist suggested. It costs the government about $100 billion a year to subsidize home ownership and a lot of the benefits go to the wealthy. Of course, some of the benefits also go to the middle class who would hate this idea, but Sheinkopf said there is an emotional opening here.

You can create a TV ad that plays on the anxieties of class warfare. And I have to say, Sheinkopf is amazing. He did this whole thing off the top of his head.

SHEINKOPF: Let's see. A bold - if I ran a 30-second spot, a bold economic plan to protect America's future, get rid of deductions for the rich. Tax deduction for home ownership, not - tax deduction for home ownership takes of millions of dollars away from people who need, reduces services, takes money away from the places we need to spend it; from education, from healthcare, for our children, for our future, one thing to do, reform the tax system.

SMITH: Not bad, huh? The ad doesn't appeal to logic. It doesn't ask people to give up anything in their lives. It just says soak the other guy. Now, Kim Alfano, our Republican consultant said, whatever we do, the ad should not get bogged down in the details because once you give specifics, your opponent can use it against you. So she said sell the big picture and just say this, I may be a fake candidate, but...

ALFANO: I'm at least being honest. I'm at least not playing politics.

SMITH: In other words, put the craziness front and center. And if all else fails, the economists can always sell their ideas with some stirring images.

ALFANO: I see a horse.

SMITH: There's going to be a horse in the ad.

ALFANO: I see a horse. I see a song or a jingle, I don't know.

SMITH: But she says the one thing you should never see in a political ad is an economist.

GREENE: Robert Smith from our Planet Money team. And Robert, you're still with us. Your reporting is going to go on. Where do you take us from here? What happens to our fake candidate next?

SMITH: On ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tonight, we will debut an ad that we actually put together here at Planet Money. It is beautiful. It doesn't have an economist in it, but we think that it sells these plans in the best possible way. We will also take this ad to a focus group. I'll give you a little hint.

GREENE: They were not thrilled. All right. We'll listen for more. Take care, Robert.

SMITH: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.