Fix the Debt crusade close to failure

I like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. They seem like sincere and dedicated reformers. And, by my reckoning, they are likeable folks, the sort of solid and neighborly people we want to be around and have leading us. But they and their new organizational suit of clothes, Fix the Debt, are doomed to failure unless some things are changed. My harsh judgment is based on the same metrics and qualitative insights I bring to every engagement I take on as a pollster and strategist. Some campaigns are ready for success. Fix the Debt’s crusade is living on the edge — and about to slip off.

As an avid and frequent watcher of CNBC, where they drink the Simpson-Bowles Kool-Aid like the Manning brothers guzzle Gatorade, I noticed that the brothers Simpson-Bowles started appearing with some regularity, before and after the election. Even when they are not on-air, someone at the trading analysis desk is reverently talking about the transformative twins and their proposals for fixing the fiscal mess that most think is fencing in the bulls we all want to unleash for a huge rally in the stock market. I watch and I listen to all this. The dynamic duo is perfect for the day-trader and fed-watcher crowd, but are they the best messengers for a campaign to the mass public? Their suits are too dark, their starched shirts too white and their ties are definitely cinched too tight. America probably is skeptical that anyone wearing a Capitol Hill red power tie is going to be able to undo the mess that the similarly suited power brokers of zip code 20003 hath wrought.

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What do the numbers say? While all this Simpson-Bowles energy was being unleashed around the time of the election, a nationwide robo-poll was conducted shortly thereafter by Public Policy Polling, asking the only extant query about the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it showed that only 23 percent approve of it. Most Americans — 60 percent — have never heard of it. Merely 16 percent oppose it.

The crosstabs from that poll reveal some encouraging results. Voters for President Obama and Mitt Romney equally support Simpson-Bowles, 24 percent apiece. Similarly, support from every strip of ideology, from the very liberal to the very conservative, tops 20 percent. The same pattern emerges for Republicans, Democrats and independents. I hasten proudly to point out that Republicans, at 26 percent support, are the plan’s biggest partisan backers. Every age cohort gives the measure comparable 20-plus percent support, with backing from seniors over the age of 65 of age soaring to 31 percent.

So, at the very least, the Bowles brothers aren’t upside-down as they launch their Fix the Debt movement. Their biggest problem is that too few people know them or their ideas. But being unknown will be the least of the crusade’s problems.

The central problem projected by the Fix the Debt website is that no one other than aging ex-politicians and ultra-powerful Wall Street types are on board the train. It’s all first class and business class, with no coach class anywhere to be seen. Where are the Rotarians, the school teachers, the regional sales managers, the small-town doctors, and the plumbers and electricians? Heck, if I did a focus group and showed this website to the 60 percent that are unsure about Simpson-Bowles, I doubt we’d be right-side when our two hours are up. If the Politburo were still in business, and had a website, this is probably what it would look like. One aging big-wig after another. Guessing ages is a delicate business, but I’d bet that no one pictured in the “Who we are” page is ineligible for Social Security. I suppose everyone under 60 was unavailable. Imagery matters, and Fix the Debt has it wrong on too many fronts.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.