Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 15, 2004
POLITICS: The Democrats' Dilemma - Part I: Communications
Since everyone and his brother is giving advice to Democrats, I might as well put in my own two cents as to the features of the Democratic Party that (1) might, possibly, be subject to change and (2) could help the Democrats in the long run if they were changed. I realize a lot of this will read as a criticism of Democratic candidates, but these really are some of the things I've found frustrating about Democratic campaigns, and I suspect that they are also things that turn off voters who are open to persuasion by Democrats; take this for what it's worth. I'll break down my analysis into three parts: Communications, Personnel, and Policy. Let's start with the Communications issue:
1. Obfuscation is a defensive tactic, not a strategy:
Republicans from the mid-1960s down through today have tried to brand Democratic candidates as "liberals," as a way of summarizing attacks on a broad range of positions on crime, defense, taxes, spending, social issues, etc. GOP consultant Arthur Finkelstein became particularly well-known for this tactic, which can be very effective. There are basically four ways to respond to this tactic: (a) defend liberal positions on the merits; (b) pretend that the positions are not really liberal; (c) nominate candidates who do not take liberal positions; or (d) be evasive about the candidate's positions.
Following the spectacular failure of (a) in the 1984 presidential election (when Mondale openly advocated raising taxes, among other positions) and (b) in the 1988 presidential election (when Dukakis proclaimed "competence, not ideology" was at issue), the Democrats have had to choose between (c) and (d). While Bill Clinton had sporadic success with (c) (notably on crime and trade issues), the party's presidential and Senate candidates, at least - Clinton included - have increasingly leaned towards (d).
John Kerry is perhaps the pinnacle of this strategy, a man who got burned by the liberal label in his unsuccessful 1972 House race, and has spent the rest of his career dodging the label. He does so in two ways. One is to salt his record with votes that he can use to defend himself against charges of liberalism - which would be a convincing strategy if he actually took consistent positions on those issues, rather than a vote here or there, usually accompanied by his other tactic, weaselly disclaimers that leave you guessing as to where he actually stands. I dealt with this issue here and here. As I've noted, the Republicans have a time-tested counterattack when a Democrat does things like this to avoid taking clear and identifiable positions: call him a flip-flopper.
With each of the last three Democratic presidential candidates there has been endless speculation as to what they believe on a whole battery of issues, and while Clinton was able to eke out victories with this tactic, politicians without his unusual talents have had a much rougher go.
Now, let me make one thing clear: all politicians fudge, straddle, and flip-flop from time to time to create confusion in the public mind as to where they stand on issues. This is a useful tactic for a candidate who does not want to offend potential supporters on a particular issue, and I'm not suggesting that Democrats should avoid it altogether. But here we come to the Democrats' weakness: mistaking a useful tactic for a strategy. You can obfuscate some of your positions so as to emphasize others, and you can obfuscate on small issues so as to emphasize big ones. But once voters start to catch on to the idea that you are playing hide-the-ball on multiple major major issues, you are toast. The place of the Iraq War in the War on Terror was the most central issue at stake in this year's campaign, and nobody but maybe John Kerry himself believed that he had a single, clear and coherent position on the issue. That may have been, under the circumstances, a necessary compromise to keep his base from splitting in half, but it was death in Kerry's efforts to broaden his appeal beyond Bush-haters to people who wanted a leader they could depend on to know where he stands. And the problem hasn't been limited to presidential candidates either, as red-state Senate Democrats like Tom Daschle and Mary Landrieu have struggled to balance their moderate images at home with their fealty to liberal causes in Washington.
If the Dems are going to try to become a majority party, they need candidates who will get out there and lead on issues rather than fudging and trying to be all things to all people. It will require courage, discipline, avoidance of panic at temporary setbacks and the willingness to suffer bad press and risk losing some elections. Of course, this presupposes that their positions are actually capable of attracting popular support. But if the Democratic party has lost faith that its ideas can attract popular support, then this entire conversation is pointless. Isn't it worth a try?
2. Biography is not a substitute for policy:
This is a second and related example of the Democrats taking a tried-and-true campaign tactic and trying to pass it off as a strategy, and another one in which Kerry represents a nadir. Again, all candidates use their biography when possible to shore up both the strong and weak points in their images. But what we've seen increasingly from Democrats is efforts to use biography as a shield to cover the candidate's policy positions. Get asked about gun control? Don't talk about the issue - go hunting! Get asked about war? Talk about your service record!
Leave aside for now the debate over whether the tendency to do this is just a feature of recent Democratic candidates and consultants or whether it's driven by the party's devotion to identity politics. As a practical matter, there are two problems with this approach. First, voters aren't stupid; a dove with medals is still a dove, and a hunter who favors gun control is still in favor of gun control. Second, nobody has enough biography to cover every issue, and the need to have something personal to say on issue after issue is one of the roots of the exaggerations and resume-padding that got Gore and Kerry into so much trouble. Look at Bush and Cheney for a comparison: Bush's bio story is well-known, but he rarely tries to connect it to a particular policy debate, and Cheney only reluctantly talks about himself at all despite having a genuinely impressive up-by-the-bootstraps story.
3. Forget Vietnam:
This goes with the issue above - voters just keep on rejecting combat veterans who aren't right on policy. And I won't rehash the whole Kerry Vietnam story here. But it goes deeper: the constant references to Afghanistan and then Iraq as "quagmires," Ted Kennedy calling Iraq "George Bush's Vietnam" - don't Democratic politicians and their allies in the media realize how sick Americans are of hearing about Vietnam, and how dated their worldview sounds? If there's one rhetorical crutch the Dems need to drop, it's Vietnam.
4. Voters want to be spoken to as adults:
This one is mostly a matter of speaking style, although it's also an issue of substance: too many Democratic politicians (prime offenders include Gore, Gephardt and Hillary Clinton) talk to audiences like they are five years old. With the exception of Lamar Alexander I can't think of a Republican who does this. Again, Cheney is a good model to imitate on this point (not that anyone has to go to his extreme) - you can tell when he gives a speech that he's talking to you exactly as he would speak to a room full of senior advisers. That's respect, and even if voters don't put it into words, we appreciate it.
5. Don't believe what you read in the papers:
The Kerry campaign spent much of the year reacting to newspaper headlines and stories on broadcast networks. On a few occasions, they got burned by believing that anything reported there would be backed up by evidence and widely digested and believed. In fact, a lot of the rage on the Left at the notion of ignorant voters is an inability to comprehend that some people out there don't watch 60 Minutes and don't believe everything they read in the NY Times. Much as Democrats may wish to deny the idea of liberal media bias, eventually they have to accept that they can't just sit back and expect that the media will do their jobs for them and still produce a credible product.
6. Explain programs in terms of incentives:
Government programs are complicated; that's just the way they are. When Democrats propose changes to programs or new programs, they often wind up choosing one of three ways to talk about them: either they oversimplify and just tell us what they intend the program to accomplish without explaining how it will work, or they talk up how much more money they will spend, or they start reeling off complex, wonkish details that put everyone to sleep.
In fact, one reason that I suspect that domestic policy was the dog that didn't bark in this campaign was that John Kerry was never able to explain any of his policy proposals in a way that allowed people to understand them and compare them to President Bush's.
Democrats should look at how Bush explains his proposals and take a lesson. With programs like private Social Security accounts and Health Savings Accounts, what Bush focuses on is how the incentives in the program work in favor of the citizen. People instinctively understand, for example, that a shift to private ownership of funds will give them more control. Of course, one might argue that plans to, for example, impose direct or indirect price controls on medical drugs can not be explained in terms of incentives without revealing their fundamental flaws.
7. People don't like being called bigots:
The same-sex marriage flap is only the most recent manifestation of the tendency of pundits, bloggers, entertainers and the like on the Left - and to some extent politicians as well, notably John Kerry in his speech against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 - to refer to their opponents as driven solely by "bigotry and ignorance." This position is especially sharp with regard to same-sex marriage, since the pro-same-sex-marriage argument depends on the idea that there is no rational basis grounded in anything but irrational bigotry for anyone to want to treat traditional opposite-sex marriage any differently from same-sex unions. The problem, of course, is that - even leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the debate for the moment - people tend to get defensive when their lifelong beliefs, especially their deeply-held religious beliefs, are branded as irrational superstition and bigotry. It's not a strategy for winning hearts, minds, or votes, as the overwhelming rejection of same-sex marriage at the polls even in liberal Oregon showed.
8. Bloggers and pundits matter too:
On some of these points, notably the last one, I'm thinking as much about liberal bloggers, newspaper columnists, TV and radio personalities, and the like as I am about Democratic politicians. But one thing conservatives and Republicans have learned, sometimes to our grief, is that people look at the Right as a single entity, and tend to have trouble remembering what arguments they heard from President Bush and which ones they heard from Rush Limbaugh or Pat Robertson.
Put another way: for a lot of people, their most regular exposure to liberal ideas comes from the New York Times editorial page, or from Atrios, or from The Daily Show, or from CBS News. If those organs constantly blare the same theme - Bush is a liar and a draft dodger! - people will identify it with the voice of the Left. That doesn't mean people should feel totally inhibited, especially on blogs, but if commentators on the Left think that the recent spate of "Jesusland" bashing, especially from the Times columnists, has no impact on the public's view of Democrats, they are sadly mistaken. And, bloggers: remember, you may not have a huge audience, but your readers include people in Democratic Party circles, both in Washington and at the grass roots, as well as people in the media. You do have an influence on the debate, and don't think that you can push anger and bile all day and pound the table for agendas that are not likely to fly with voters, and then wonder why the candidates you support can't convincingly portray themselves as level-headed moderates, or why your party has a bad reputation on religious issues when you sneer constantly at people of faith. You want to shape opinion? You got it. Use it wisely.