Monthly Archives: January 2011

No Vision, No Strategy, No Message

A few years back I tried to convince the Virginia Democratic leadership about the desperate need for a coherent, strategic communications plan to convince voters that its vision and plans for the future would be what’s best for Virginia. The only way to succeed in changing the conversation in, and direction of, the Commonwealth is to change the frames we talk about issues.  I admitted to them that it would take courage, discipline and patience.   They all said that it sounded good, but ultimately, the leadership did nothing.

The chickens come home to roost every January when the Republicans in Richmond roll out exactly what Democrats should be doing. The conventional wisdom was defined in Monday’s Washington Post article by Roz Helderman.

[T]he governor’s agenda could earn [Democrat} the same criticism that Democrats have been lobbing at Republicans in Washington – that they are obstructionists who have not advanced an alternative vision for governing.

While individual Democratic lawmakers have submitted bills they say they will prioritize, the caucus has not announced plans to roll out a unified legislative package.

"The dilemma will be if McDonnell maneuvers them into a position where they are vulnerable to the same attack that’s been made against Republicans for a decade – that they’re the ‘party of no,’ " said Robert D. Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor who writes a blog on state politics. "I think it’s very clear they’re going to be feistier. Whether the Democratic Party puts forward a very clear alternative on issues beyond social issues is their challenge."

Nowhere is the dilemma likely to be more pronounced than on transportation, a perpetual dividing line between the parties that has bedeviled state politicians for a decade. Most experts agree that fixing Virginia’s overburdened road network and crumbling bridges would cost more than $1 billion a year over the next 20 years.

Democrats have long maintained that the problem requires finding a new stream of revenue, such as a tax increase. But Republicans have said they will not raise taxes.

…Although Democrats agree the top priority should be job creation, they do not have a cohesive response to McDonnell’s economic development proposals.

This lack of an agenda keeps Virginians wondering what Democrats stand for other than vaguely for a tax increase for roads.  The party refuses to be strategic and develop a narrative about what Democrats stand for.  It is killing them, as now the key reporter covering Richmond has called them out. Hers will be the narrative that describes this session. Alas, I have no faith that anyone in the Virginia Democratic party has a clue as to how to change it.

Blood Libel, Tone Deaf

Sarah Palin’s video today accusing her critics of “blood libel” only goes to prove one of two things. She is either tone deaf to the criticism that deadly provocative words are not only unsuitable for political debate but offensive to many, or, as I think is the case, she is profoundly ignorant.  Not to have vetted her words before recording them (so she can’t claim she “misspoke”) demonstrate that she is an intellectual lightweight, at best.

Why Congresswomen Giffords Was Shot

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," he said. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Overpromising Headline

When I read the headline on US News’ Washington Whispers column, “Obama Switches to Cozying with Reporters,” I was expecting a story about how he plans to change his relationship with the Washington press corps, which detractors describe as dismissive, to which I say “rightly so.” Instead it was about his decision to attend the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner. He’s just throwing you a bone, guys and gals.

Dems Again Beef Up Messaging Strategies

Democrats are forever telling us they will get better at messaging. But it’s like telling your kids to clean up their mess and when they don’t, you pick it up for them. There’s no consequence. Banish the free talkers to obscure committees and you might get more discipline. But maybe it’s that Democrats think they all are the smartest people in the room, and that they can sell ice to Eskimos. Or maybe they think that if only voters knew all the details of their policies and procedures, they’d all vote Democratic. So I’m not optimistic that Sen Chuck Schumer’s latest effort will be more successful.  But let’s hope he starts by scrapping the Democratic National Committee’s talking points on repeal of healthcare reform. Here’s how they start:

Instead of working to find bipartisan solutions to create jobs, grow the economy, and make America more competitive, Republicans in Congress are spending all of their time re-fighting the political wars of the last two years by trying to repeal health reform and give control over your health care back to insurance companies.

The Affordable Care Act provides Americans with more freedom and control in their health care choices.

o It gives families the freedom from worrying about losing their insurance, or having it capped unexpectedly if someone is in an accident or becomes sick.

o It frees Americans from the fear of insurance companies raising premiums by double digits with no recourse or accountability.

o It frees Americans from discrimination when insurance companies deny women health insurance because they are pregnant, or refuse to provide coverage to children who are born with disabilities.

The bullet points go on…and on. Unless they plan to buy a five-minute infomercial, no spokesperson will ever get to the end of the list. The problem with a long list is that it gives every Democrat a choice of what he or she wants to highlight. In other words, no message discipline.  Without discipline, it’s difficult for the media to pick up on key points to include in stories. And in fact, some of the points at the bottom of the list should be near the top. For example:

o Republicans will allow insurance companies to once again DENY coverage to children with existing conditions, CANCEL coverage when people get sick, and LIMIT the amount of care you can get − even if you need it.

o When the insurance companies are free to pursue their profits without any accountability, people have fewer choices, fewer options, and little recourse.

· And, by rolling back the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are adding a TRILLION dollars to the deficit.

o They would give back to insurance companies subsidies of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. And they would cut back on efforts in the law to stop waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending. We can NOT afford to add another trillion dollars in debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay – especially when it goes to wasteful spending and outrageous subsides for insurance companies.

They need editing, but you can’t lose by attacking insurance companies. Put them near the top of the list.

But the bigger problem with the list is that…it’s a list. Democrats continue to believe that voters consider policy minutiae when making decisions. Sure, when polled, people say they like individual parts of the reform bill, and there’s no reason Dems shouldn’t mention some of them. But they need to lead with the overall framing.

The DNC statement actually starts out good: let voters know that Republicans aren’t addressing the jobs issue, but then pivot to the Dems positive framing:

Instead of working on creating jobs, Republicans in Congress are working for insurance companies. Democrats believe that children and their parents should not be turned away when they are sick. They should be able to afford to see a doctor. That’s what the healthcare reform bill does. To Republicans, if you get sick, you’re on your own.

We believe, as did the founding fathers, that we should “promote the general welfare.” That’s the first sentence in the Constitution. Developing a healthcare system that is efficient, affordable and available to everyone is what we accomplished. We won’t let Republicans and insurance companies take it away.

That’s a little over 30 seconds. If that’s all you get to say in a cable show interview, that’s good enough. If a print reporter takes just one of the paragraphs, Dems have made their point. (Note: There’s much more ground to gain than many Democrats think by appealing to a responsible social norm. I’ll have more on that in a few days after finishing a book on behavioral economics that has some lessons for politicians.)

As far as the list goes, it needs to be condescend:

Our health reform bill means you can’t lose your insurance if you become sick, pregnant or your child has disabilities…or you change jobs. Your children can be on your policy until they are 26. It lowers drug costs for seniors and protects Medicare. And it prevents insurance companies from jacking up prices to pay their CEOs huge salaries. And bottom line: It lowers the deficit.

Those three short paragraphs have all the points Dems need to push back—and most important—to resell their healthcare reform. They can expand any point, hopefully with some anecdotes, which tend to personalize the problem and allow people to see themselves in similar circumstances. They can point out the hypocrisies in the GOP actions, who won’t give up their own extravagant healthcare insurance they get with their jobs and how repeal increases the deficit. Maybe with the elections now behind them, they will take some pride in what they accomplished.

Fact-Checking Healthcare Overhaul

NPR’s Julie Rovner fact checks some of the bill’s supporters’ and opponents’ claims. Basically, three GOP claims are mostly false; two Democratic claims mostly true.  Which is to say that Rover can’t bring herself to say yeah or nay forcefully.  But she makes pretty clear that truth mostly resides with the Dems.

Healthcare Bill Repeal: Good, Bad, DK?

There have been a number of polls about Obama’s healthcare bill that suggest when you ask people their opinion of the bill, a sizable slice of the “don’t like it” crowd actually don’t like it because it doesn’t go far enough, meaning that a solid majority of Americans want healthcare reform along the lines of the current law or more “liberal,” according to the most recent CNN poll.

Then we have the latest Gallup Poll: 46% favor repealing the bill; 40% oppose repeal. So where are the other 12%? They don’t know—by now, after nearly two years of wrangling over the issue? That doesn’t reflect well on the media, of course. It means journalists haven’t done a good job of explaining the bill. Do those 12% reflect the number who not only oppose repeal but want it replaced by a stronger law?

But, looking at the big picture, here’s the good news:

In the poll, a majority of men endorse repeal while women are inclined to want the law to stand.

You never want to bet against women getting their way, especially when it comes to the health of their children.

And speaking of those children:

One of the most dramatic divides is by age. By 50%-30%, young adults under 30 support the law. But their middle-aged parents, those 50-64 years old, favor repeal by an almost equally wide margin.

Can we put those 50-64 year olds in front of a death panel and, in a class action suit, ahem, eliminate them? Wait, that includes me.

In any case, like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay marriage and marijuana, it’s just a matter of time.

News Media Acting Like Politicians, But Get Paid Better

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports NPR staff are upset with the resignation of Senior Vice President of News Ellen Weiss, who spent her entire career at NPR, rising from the ranks to lead a resurgence of the storied news organization.  Some inside public radio see it as a capitulation to conservatives.

Some blamed congressional conservatives and Fox News – which had repeatedly denounced NPR since the October firing – for inflaming the situation, which led to the resignation on Thursday of Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news. Weiss was the NPR executive who terminated Williams for saying he was "nervous" flying on a plane with people in "Muslim garb" on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program. Since his firing, Williams signed a three-year contract with Fox for almost $2 million.

"We have allowed Fox News to define the debate," wrote Peter Block, a member of the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, in a posting to an e-mail group consisting of public radio managers. He added, "I do not think this kind of capitulation [by NPR] assures the future of an independent press. . . . Democracy is on the line and NPR is one of the last bastions of its possibility." Block said in an interview that NPR’s reaction "lacked integrity." NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, also pointed to Fox, noting in her column, that the Williams "incident has become a partisan issue in Washington’s hothouse atmosphere, with Republicans (egged on by Fox News) using it as a rallying cry to demand that NPR be ‘defunded’ by the federal government."

Staffers wouldn’t be quoted criticizing NPR’s action, though it is typical of its lack of courage. They were probably afraid of retaliation from Schiiller and the board. Instead the staff remind us of what was lost

Guy Raz, who hosts the weekend edition of "All Things Considered," called Weiss "the finest journalist I ever worked for. . . . She’s a pretty legendary figure in the newsroom. For many people, she’s an inspiration that you could start at the bottom and make it to the top if you worked hard it. It’s a cliche, but she really set the standard for integrity."

Some employees interviewed Friday steered clear of criticizing NPR’s upper management, but Raz said there was some anger in the newsroom. "It’s a pretty natural reaction," he said. "Yeah, I think we’re angry because she was such a good leader. She really knew how to lead this organization," he said.

Economics reporter Adam Davidson said Weiss had "the single most important role in the development of NPR over the past 20 years. . . . I don’t think there’s anyone in the history of public radio who has had as positive an impact. I’m shaken and shocked" by her exit.

In the last day, however, we learn that the dog didn’t eat NPR’s records. At least we know what Vivian Schiller, the chief executive who, of course, kept her job, even though she agreed with the firing and made sarcastic remarks about Williams at the time.

According to tax records released by NPR on Friday, Schiller received a bonus of $112,500 in May 2010, about 17 months after she was hired by the Washington-based organization. This was in addition to a base salary of $450,000. The bonus was included in her hiring package, NPR said.


Don’t you love it when news organizations exhibit the same blatant obfuscation that they deplore when practiced by corporations, politicians or other organizations?

Take NPR, for the latest example. Yesterday, NPR released a report finding that the news editor who fired Juan Williams over his controversial remarks and NPR’s president who supported the action, while acting within the law, had a quick trigger finger. The board, of course, wouldn’t exactly say that the firing was justified or that it was unfair.  It was just too, oh, decisive. I guess the bleeding heart softies at NPR would have preferred bringing in Williams for a chat and letting him down easy. Maybe giving him an NPR coffee mug with his pink slip.

Meanwhile, they let the news editor Ellen Weiss take the fall, forcing her to resign, while NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller was punished by withholding her bonus for this year.

When asked by The Washington Post about that bonus:

Schiller said she "fully accepted" the board’s decision to cancel her bonus, which she said had not been determined for the current fiscal year. (Schiller could not recall the amount of her bonus in fiscal 2009, and NPR said it did not have that information.)

Really? Schiller couldn’t remember the size of her bonus? OK, maybe it was figured by some kind of arcane formula down to the precise cent. Which wouldn’t be unexpected at NPR where they probably have tortured their accountants to come up with a calculation that is “fair.” But she couldn’t give us a ball park figure?  Say, $2,000, or $200,000 or $2 and an NPR tote bag? But then NPR says it “did not have that information”? Do they burn their books after each fiscal year? Did the dog eat the records?

Are Giuliani, Ridge, Mukasey & Townsend Terrorists?

Glenn Greenwald makes the case that they are.

Imagine if a group of leading American liberals met on foreign soil with — and expressed vocal support for — supporters of a terrorist group that had (a) a long history of hateful anti-American rhetoric, (b) an active role in both the takeover of a U.S. embassy and Saddam Hussein’s brutal 1991 repression of Iraqi Shiites, (c) extensive financial and military support from Saddam, (d) multiple acts of violence aimed at civilians, and (e) years of being designated a "Terrorist organization" by the U.S. under Presidents of both parties, a designation which is ongoing? The ensuing uproar and orgies of denunciation would be deafening.

But on December 23, a group of leading conservatives — including Rudy Giuliani and former Bush officials Michael Mukasey, Tom Ridge, and Fran Townsend — did exactly that. In Paris, of all places, they appeared at a forum organized by supporters of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) — a group declared by the U.S. since 1997 to be "terrorist organization" — and expressed wholesale support for that group. Worse — on foreign soil — they vehemently criticized their own country’s opposition to these Terrorists and specifically "demanded that Obama instead take the [] group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations and incorporate it into efforts to overturn the mullah-led government in Tehran." In other words, they are calling on the U.S. to embrace this Saddam-supported, U.S.-hating Terrorist group and recruit them to help overthrow the government of Iran. To a foreign audience, Mukasey denounced his own country’s opposition to these Terrorists as "nothing less than an embarrassment."