Can Paul Ryan educate voters about Medicare reform?
Paul Ryan and his Republican supporters see the presidential election as a chance to educate voters about Medicare reform. Some claim that campaigns are not for educating, but for winning. That's only partially true. Campaigns still have great teaching value.
Mitt Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate could be a lesson on the educational value of campaigns. Mr. Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, has taken detailed positions on issues such as Medicare and the national debt. He and his supporters see the race as a chance to educate the public about these subjects.Skip to next paragraph
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Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is not so sure. “I always have told people campaigns are not for educating,” he said recently on ABC’s “This Week” program. “People who use campaigns as a means of educating lose the campaign,” he explained. “Now, they may go on to win a bigger race later on, but campaigns are not made for educating. And Ryan has to educate the country, and I don’t think that’s possible.”
In two narrow ways, Mr. Dean is right.
First, the main goal of a campaign is not to educate but to win. And winning doesn’t always mean educating. Candidates can win by mobilizing certain voters or by stirring ugly passions. Some win by lying, which is the opposite of educating.
When candidates take a stand that most voters disagree with, they might try to prevail by changing the majority’s mind. This approach rarely works, at least with key issues. Opinions on such matters are resistant to change, especially in the short span of an election campaign. That’s the second way in which Dean is right.
His observation might not apply to Ryan, since some polls suggest that his proposal for shifting Medicare to a premium-support system is not as politically dangerous as Democrats hope.
The most important point to remember is not about Ryan in particular but about campaigns in general. While Dean is correct that campaigns are not mostly about education and that they seldom prompt instant conversions, they still have great teaching value.
Voter education is a side effect of campaigns, but it’s an important side effect. In the short run, it means that people on each side will know more. Even if they don’t change their minds, those minds will be better stocked.
Many will try to persuade their friends and neighbors, and in the longer run, public opinion may indeed shift. Howard Dean should know: His 2004 presidential race did not put him in the White House, but it did get people talking more critically about Iraq. Accordingly, it played a part in turning sentiment against the war over the next few years.
How does this education work?
Surprisingly, negative television ads can be an important resource. Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer has found that negative spots tend to convey more policy substance than positive ones. Although voters dislike the term “negative,” a recent survey shows that most Americans think that ads focusing on contrasts or inconsistencies on issues are helpful.