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.

12 thoughts on “The Democrats’ Dilemma – Part I: Communications”

  1. 1. Obfuscation
    “when Mondale openly advocated raising taxes”
    I know we’re both a little young to remember the specifics, but I seem to recall Reagan had to raise taxes in his second term. I like to think rather than “advocating tax hikes” Mondale was brave enough to tell the truth. Taxes would need to go up. And he was right. The lesson here? Only be as honest as you need to be. A sad statement.
    “Clinton was able to eke out victories” Um, Clinton won re-election by eight million votes, with a third party candidate in the race. That’s an “eke,” and Bush has a “mandate”?
    Those nitpicks aside, your overall point is essentially correct. To further the point, guys like Daschle who are forced into an uncomfortable straddle by representing a red state should not be in leadership positions where that dichotomy will be pronounced. Let them represent their constituents in whatever moderate way required. For the same reason, Harry Reid is a lousy choice to replace Daschle. How is he supposed to lead a fight against the repeal of abortion rights when he cannot take that position at home?
    2. Biography
    aka a resume. Used to count for something. When you win without substance or a record of accomplishment as Bush has, it is easy to toss this aside.
    Gotta head home, I’ll pick this up later…

  2. I agree that Reid’s a poor choice for leader for the same reasons as Specter is a poor choice for Judiciary chair, and for reasons similar to why Trent Lott got toppled: there’s a higher standard for leadership positions, both in terms of fealty to party principles and in terms of a guy’s ability to be an effective spokesman (which in Lott’s case was undermined by remarks that the party needed to publicly repudiate). Personally, were I a Democrat, I would have picked Schumer as leader.

  3. 1. Obfuscation is a defensive tactic, not a strategy:
    The Boston Globe had an article over the weekend which concluded with this bit of self-analysis by John Kerry after the election:
    As Kerry sat, he started to analyze the race. Many voters, he concluded, cast their ballots on single issues, such as abortion or gay rights. Kerry had tried to walk a fine line on both issues, saying life began at conception while supporting abortion rights, and opposing same-sex marriage but also rejecting a constitutional amendment to ban it. From the start, it had been difficult for a Bostonian to appeal to the conservative South and some Midwest states. Kerry felt he had done it.

  4. Specter’s a slightly different case. He is in line for the position due to established rules of seniority. Not only that, he has done a fine job (from most anybody but Robert Bork’s perspective) in his role on the Judiciary Committee.
    He has supported every one of Bush’s nominees and had repeatedly pledged to do just that. He supported Scalia and Thomas. This whole uproar over his fitness for the Chair is ridiculous. It is far right religious types looking for an opening, and exerting unnecessary pressure.
    Specter merely gave an honest answer about his assessment of the situation. He never said he anything about a litmus test or that he had one or that he would oppose anyone. He was giving his assessment of the Democratic opposition to such a nominee. Much ado about nothing.
    The selection of the minority leader however took place far to quickly and with too little debate. Schumer was on my short list behind Durbin. I AM a Democrat and certainly didn’t pick Reid.
    If they choose Vilsack as DNC chair…

  5. Specter was no more or less in line, really, than Reid. Less so in that he’s due to be elevated due to relatively recent term limits rather than someone losing an election.
    I’m torn on the Specter thing, although at least on judges he does seem to have given sufficient assurances that he won’t let people get bottled up in the committee. But it sure is clear now that Bush blundered badly by backing Specter in the primary, to absolutely zero benefit in Pennsylvania.

  6. I disagree on the comparison/comtrast of Specter and Reid. Specter’s ascension has obviously been anticipated. Hatch was out due to the Republican’s own rules. If they were really afraid of Arlen Specter, they should have done something about it long ago.
    Daschle losing should have been a wake up call to the Democrats to rethink the strategy of the party and certainly the selection of a leader. Reid was in no way the natural or pre-ordained replacement. There was brief discussion of some others stepping up to compete for the position (Dodd among them) but it was squelched in favor of Reid, who may be a nice guy and all, but a mistake nonetheless.
    You’ve encouraged me to wrap up a post I’d started last week before I flew back East. It’s on my blog here. If your so inclined, I’d also like to know what you think about Gonzales for AG. I wrote about that as well.

  7. Back to my dissection…
    2. Biography
    “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!”
    I’m not sure exactly who to blame in this case. Like many others, Kerry (or any Democrat–ask Howard Dean) is going to be unfairly pilloried for a stance they don’t actually possess. In this case neither Kerry or Dean were sunstantially different in their positions han Bush. (If only because Bush paid mere lip service to the assault weapons ban). Kerry could state his actual position ’til he was blue in the face. Facing an unending barrage of simply untrue characterizations and a compliant media allowing it, Kerry was left to awkward photo ops. My only problem was the misuse of resources at the critical moment. the NRA vote is not the swing he needed.
    3. Forget Vietnam
    Agreed. Even if they are right, no one wants to hear about it anymore. Kerry and the Democrats wasted so much time on that and trying to burnish Kerry’s image that they left Bush fairly unscathed on his horrible execution of the War on Terror and in Iraq. ho cares what War it’s reminiscent of or why and how we got involved. We are there, and Bush is screwing it up. Show us how and tell us what you are going to do about it.
    4. Speaking style.
    Agree. To a point. This whole “elite, condescension” thing is not as bad as portrayed, but compared to guys like Bush and Cheney it’s bad enough. Kerry’s only moments of successful connections were in the debates. He came across Presidential and authoritative (in a good, knowledgeable way) and made Bush look inexperienced. A crucial moment, yes, but not enough. The article on Cheney in the last Esquire does an great job of portraying Cheney’s (albeit limited) appeal:
    …Cheney spoke without the condescension that creeps into the voices of so many politicians when they speak to a wide audience. The Cheney I saw on the platform in Joplin looked and sounded exactly the same as the one I saw in his private office in the West Wing.
    In an age of image consultants and hair fluffers, there’s a certain discreet charm to a politician who comes across as if he were just sitting in your living room….
    That’s the biggest thing John Kerry could not accomplish. He could (rarely) come across personable and engaging in interviews, and knowledgabel without the Gore wonkishness in the debates, but his stump persona was lacking. How much did it hurt him? I don’t know. But I do believe the opposite effect was a benefit to the President.
    5. Media / papers
    You don’t really give much in the way of examples here. I think the Kerry campaign was content to let the Administration dictate the news cycle, and were therefore relegated to reaction rather than action. They should never have expected any favors from the media, and despite what you pretend, they weren’t granted any.
    6. Explain Programs
    Kerry and the Dems didn’t have a simple message. At least not as simple as Bush’s, which was so simple it was contentless. Kevin Drum had a good post on this today about how the Democrats are having a tougher time articulating goals. Especially in this race where they are playing defense on a Republican attack on established institutions.
    All Bush did was talk about “lower taxes, family values and strong defense.” A good foundation for a platform, but he never erected anything on it.
    7. Bigots
    Since yours is the first and only reference I’ve seen to Kerry’s 1996 speech, I’m going to discount that specific example. I do agree they had no strategy for winning over those voters, but it didn’t matter. they weren’t going to win them over on that issue. The only hope was to remind them about their paychecks or lack thereof.
    8. Blogosphere
    Certainly not applicable to me! Seriously? Any echo chamber is a problem for either side. The biggest problem with the Democratic Party is not an overreliance on lefty bloggers but the stagnation of the Party establishment. The debate about moving to the middle versus moving towards the base will now need to be hashed out. Laugh if you want, but the Dean model was right. Fighting over the 2 percent in the middle is not the answer when there are forty percent who don’t vote. Shaking up the Party establishment and flushing out the Clintonites and Shrums is what’s needed. Dean for DNC Chair. They’ve got nothing left to lose.

  8. Partial response: Who are “those voters”? The anti-same-sex marriage amendments passed by large margins in some states Kerry won, like Oregon and Michigan.
    As for the media, they let Kerry, among other things, get away with concealments that they absolutely kill Republican candidates for, like refusing to release tax returns until the very end, refusing to release military and medical records (even Bush’s academic record is public, but not Kerry’s) . . . nobody went after Kerry’s shabby treatment of his first wife the way they did to Newt. And that’s just the personal stuff . . .
    I disagree that the base-only strategy can work for the Democrats. They dug plenty far into a hugely energized base this time, and brought in a bunch of new voters and Nader voters, but in the end, Kerry got beat because he lost something like 10% of the people who voted for Gore. Chasing the last handful of voters who were too apathetic to vote even in 2004 is not a winning strategy.

  9. That’s true enough, but it cuts both ways: hating Bush won’t bring anyone to the polls in 2004. The salient point is that you need the votes of some of the people who voted for Bush this time, and while some of those may be persuadable by a candidate who is a principled lefty, there are more votes to be had by showing moderation on some key issues.

  10. I don’t think it’s too much to assume there will be an overreach by Republicans and a resultant backlash. In either case, the present Democratic model is a failure. Three consecutive elections have proven that. Barring a candidate with the skills of Bill Clinton, triangulation is a loser.

  11. Mr. Furious,
    You said: “5. Media / papers
    You don’t really give much in the way of examples here. I think the Kerry campaign was content to let the Administration dictate the news cycle, and were therefore relegated to reaction rather than action. They should never have expected any favors from the media, and despite what you pretend, they weren’t granted any.”
    I hope you weren’t being serious. The extreme left wing media was in the bag for Kerry all the way. Crank could have listed dozens of examples without even getting to CBS. I think some libs don’t notice it because they are hearing words they already believe so it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. It is like the person who says “I don’t know how Nixon won I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” Some people are too isolated from opposing points of view and end up with a narrow view of things.

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