“What the Hell is a Simpson Bowl?”

Andrew Sullivan, whose writing I generally adore, is, I think, really wrong on an important aspect of horse-race analysis for the presidential election. His prescription for Obama at the Democratic Convention:

… if I were to offer a single piece of advice to the campaign, it would be to use the convention to declare that he would sign Bowles-Simpson as written if it came to his desk. He’d instantly own the fiscal center, isolate the GOP’s extremism, and reaffirm his credibility on the deficit.

The paradigm can still be shifted.

… What matters is that Obama should declare his first priority on being re-elected would be a grand bargain on the lines of Bowles-Simpson. Force Romney to say no.

This is how Obama can win the Beltway pundit class, which is absurdly and needlessly obsessed with fantasies of utopian bipartisanship and centrism. David Brooks and Tom Friedman would enter a trance state of moderate-nirvana.

But the Gang of 500 doesn’t have the votes to put Obama over the top in Ohio. (Though perhaps if they all lived in Florida in 2000, but never mind that…)

The people Obama needs to reach are not “centrists” or budget wonks. What he needs to reach is a tiny sliver of the electorate, weirdly termed “independents,” which is distinguished mainly for being generally too ignorant about politics and policy (not necessarily through any fault of their own) to have made up their mind until the last minute.

Imagine you’re an underemployed blue collar worker in the Rust Belt, or a confused octogenarian retiree in Florida. If you see on your Yahoo News page, or hear on your 6 o’clock news that Obama has embraced something called “Simpson-Bowles,” the first thing you’ll wonder is whether those bowls feature Homer or Bart.

Okay, that’s not fair. But you get the point. The pundit class has this idea soaked into its collective conscience that those who decide elections are fixated on who has a better plan for the budget. Yes, these undecided voters do care about the state of their entitlement programs, about the security of our financial system, about their rate of taxation. But things like “the deficit” and “the budget” are abstract concepts that, if they stir emotions, do so because they’ve been stirred by ideological screamers whose audiences have already decided who they’re voting for, regardless of any understanding of why they’re angry.

Of course, the message can sink in that Obama is the guy who now says he’s going to take a serious approach to balancing the country’s checkbook. But Romney will say the same thing. No one on the sidelines is saying, “Well, clearly Simpson-Bowles is the superior plan, being centrist and all.” It’ll be a wash on the specifics, and, as usual, it will really come down to which guy the undecideds like more.

And that’s another reason why, ladies and gentlemen, Obama continues to, more or less, have it in the bag.

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