Democratic Message

Investments = Spending, So?

Political Wire has this quote of the day:

"When the President talks in his speech about investment, the American people need to understand that translates into spending."
— Sen. John Thune (R-SD), quoted by KFSY-TV.

And I hope his answer is an emphatic:

Yes, it means spending. The deficit is a problem and I’m proposing ways to reduce it. But a much greater problem in America is jobs—good jobs now and in the future. We need to invest in infrastructure that puts people to work right away.  It’s not make work; it’s much needed work as we’re falling behind the rest of the world in the sophistication and reliability of our roads, bridges, electrical grids and water and sewer systems. We need to invest in education so that the next generation is trained for jobs of the 21st century.

Mr. Thune’s Republican solution is to cut spending and depend on the private sector. Is the private sector going to build roads and bridges? Of course not. For the last 30 years, we’ve seen nothing but trickle down schemes by Republicans that have left us less competitive in the world with declining incomes and disappearing futures for the middle class. The American people aren’t buying Republicans’ slight of hand that takes money from the middle class and gives it to the wealthiest 1% in this country.

But my guess is that at best we’ll only get the first part of this answer. After all, he wants a “civil” tone. To Obama and the rest of the country that translates to meek.

Poised, Passionate, Articulate and Left

At a time when Democratic leaders from Richmond to Washington and beyond are inarticulate, cowed and flustered, we have Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders. After seeing this performance, I may have to reassess my opinion of him. Until last night when I saw him on “The Last Word,” I thought he too often sounds a little too angry.  He still looks angry, which would hurt him as a spokesman, but his passionate and clear speaking was a breath of fresh air. My daughter commented on his cogency while we we watched him.

I’m not sure who can match him.

By the way, he plans to introduce a bill similar to Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” because he wants to have that debate.

Speaking of the “Roadmap,” listen to Rachel Maddow skewering Ryan and his coupon program to replace Medicare. It starts at about 4:00.

Strong Support for Healthcare Reform

My headline is not one you’re likely to see in mainstream media headlines.  Not because it’s false; actually, it’s true. But the mainstream media wants a couple of things:

  1. Continued access to Republican sources; ergo,
  2. MSM will continue to report GOP talking points, even when they know they are not true.

A recent poll by The Washington Post and its reporting makes the case. Here’s the headline: More Americans oppose health-care law, but few want a total repeal.

More than what, you ask?  More than ever? More than the last poll? More than support it?

Actually, the simple answer is the third option. Simple, but incorrect, as interpreted by most people. And no where in the article does it explain what the headline means.

Republicans are forever saying that “the American people don’t support this healthcare bill,” or words to that effect.  They then say that’s why they want to repeal it.

As The Post reports, few really want repeal, but you will forever see the GOP make that false claim, false but duly noted by the press.

But to the question of support for the healthcare bill, The Post’s Jon Cohen buries the lede in the penultimate paragraph.

Another factor in the debate is that a quarter of those who oppose the health-care law say the legislation is faulty because it did not go far enough, not because it pushed change too far.

So if you add the number together from The Post’s poll, 45% support the bill, and about 13% of those who opposed it wish it went further, meaning 58%, a sizable majority (a landslide in electoral politics), either like the current healthcare overhaul or wish it would go further, and in all likelihood that means arguably not in the direction the GOP would take it.

Yesterday’s poll by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press confirms this interpretation.

The public continues to be divided over what it wants to see done with the health care law – 37% favor its repeal, while nearly as many (35%) want the law expanded, and 20% would leave it as it is.

Which again gives us 55% of Americans wanting the law as is or expanded.

Complicating my view are the results from two other polls this week.  A CNN poll doesn’t ask the question about whether opposition is because the law doesn’t go far enough, and its topline support/oppose is the same as the other polls, a slight plurality opposed.  But when forced to choose to either keep it all or repeal it all, 50% say repeal it all with 42% say keep it all.  One would think that if a majority liked the law or wanted it to go further, the “don’t repeal” group would be closer to 55%, not 42%.

But I think another question, asked in this week’s  CBS/New York Times poll, puts the entire debate into perspective. When asked if any of the provisions that have already taken effect (keep children on policy until age 26 or that children can not be rejected for insurance if they have a preexisting condition), apply to the respondent, we learn only 13% have benefited from the law yet. Once people start seeing the benefits to themselves, support could grow.

Another key issue is this from the CNN/NY Times poll:

Those who support repeal were asked whether they would continue to do so if it meant that insurance companies were no longer required to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions; 52% said they would, but 35% said in that case, the law should not be repealed.

Someone (the Press? the Dems? Both?) have not done a good job of explaining the bill.

A critical question is this” Should it be the media’s responsibility to explain the bill. That depends on what one think the media’s role should be. If it is to simply report what is happening or whether it is to find the truth. I believe it is the latter and cite the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization to which, admittedly, not all journalists belong.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

…Journalists should:

Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible. [emphasis added]

Yet, throughout this debate one issue that confounds people in my business (communications consulting). Again, from the CBS?NY Times poll:

And finally, there may be some lingering confusion about the provisions of the bill. 56% of Americans say the bill’s impact on themselves and their families has not been explained well to them.

Given what’s at stake, which is not only the relentless false impressions of the bill duly stenographed by the media, maybe the best option is an advertising campaign. What would it cost to widely distribute this 30-sec. ad in an attempt to bypass the media:

The new federal health law means:

  1. Insurance companies can’t drop coverage when you get sick, and they can’t cap your coverage.
  2. They cannot deny you or your children coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
  3. You won’t lose your insurance when you change jobs.
  4. Reduced costs for drugs for seniors.
  5. Tax credits for small businesses offering health insurance
  6. A reduced federal deficit.

The new federal health law—do you want all these provisions repealed?

On TV, these bullet points should be on the screen as the narrator reads them to ensure that people who can’t hear the ad but see the TV can read them.

Will this ad overcome the misleading information disseminated by the MSM and the false information by Fox News and conservative talk radio. I’m not sure, but clearly proponents of healthcare reform are losing the messaging war.  This can’t hurt.

Note: An edited version of this post appears on News Commonsense, my media blog.

“Alternative Vision of Governing”

I’ve posted on Blue Virginia about the Democrats inability to articulate a vision.  Thanks to Lowell for the opportunity.

Apropos of that post, this is from today’s email from Howard Dean.

I want to hear from you. What do our shared values mean to you? What should be our priorities for the coming year? How will we work together to move America forward in 2011?

Our movement is best when it’s a conversation. You just heard from me and I want to hear from you.

Please take a moment to a let us know your thoughts at or join me live at Daily Kos tonight at 9pm eastern for a live chat. I’ll answer questions and discuss with you what you care about most and your ideas on how to move forward on our shared values.

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.

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.

Are Nuts and Bolts the Only Things Needed to Build a Coalition?

E.J. Dionne makes the argument that Republicans are too abstract.

Their rhetoric is nearly devoid of talk about solving practical problems – how to improve our health care, education and transportation systems, or how to create more middle-class jobs.

Instead, we hear about things we can’t touch or see or feel, and about highly general principles divorced from their impact on everyday life.

Their passion is not for what government should or shouldn’t do but for "smaller government" as a moral imperative. During the campaign, they put out a nice round $100 billion in spending cuts from which they’re now backing away. It is far easier to float a big number than to describe reductions for student loans, bridges, national parks or medical research.

The problem is that Democrats too often ignore principles and instead get wonkish. Such an approach assumes voters make rational decisions based on specific policies. They don’t. Why else would lower middle class people, especially men, vote for the party that is set on destroying it? Instead those hurt most by Republican economic policies vote for GOPers because they like their principles.

Of course, they may like Democratic principles, too, but Democrats spend little time articulating them and instead let the Republicans define those principles for them. The same is true for overall messages. During the time I worked with Virginia politicians, I found far too many unconcerned with delivering overarching messages and much more concerned with budgets for direct mail.

Dionne also errs when he suggests that “men aren’t angels, but the professors in Congress seem to believe that another great abstraction, ‘the free market,’ can obviate the need for messy and complicated statutes.” The Democrats problem is that they have constantly offered “messy and complicated statues” that are seen by voters as examples of Congressional mischief and malfeasance. Laws, as Philip Howard has argued, are far too complicated. They should be more concise and set out principles and overarching goals and leave the details to those carrying them out. That, of course, are the hate “government bureaucrats.,” who are left to follow arcane and specific rules embodied in laws and necessarily eschew commonsense.

Dionne, however, has one thing right, as he continues his assault on the media.

If journalism in a democracy is about anything, it is about bringing the expansive rhetoric of politicians down to earth and holding them accountable for how their ideas translate into policies that affect actual human beings.

It may be easier to report windy speeches about "liberty" and "entrepreneurship" than to do the grubby work of examining budgets, regulations, programs and economic consequences. But journalists surely want to be more than stenographers.

One wonders if they really do.

Obama Tax Hikes?

Here’s a pretty good example, even if it doesn’t seem to be working as yet, of how the right tries to drive the framing of issues. The Dingbat of the the North tweets:

Pls refer to Jan.1 tax changes appropriately: they’re OBAMA TAX HIKES & they’ll slam every American’s savings, investments & job opportunity

Politifact debunks this, of course.

Palin and other Republicans often suggest that Obama and the Democrats want to see tax rates go up for all incomes. But that’s not what they’ve been advocating for more than two years. President Barack Obama campaigned on maintaining the tax cuts for couples earning less than $250,000 while allowing the expiration of the tax cuts for families above that line. In fact, in a Dec. 2, 2010, vote, the vast majority of House Democrats supported a bill to do precisely that, with almost all Republicans voting against the bill. (House Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, went so far as to call the bill "chicken crap.")

But Politifact misses the point. Blame should have been assessed relentlessly by Democrats over the last year on Republicans. The argument goes something like this:

Republicans had a chance to make the tax cuts permanent when they made them.  But they couldn’t get it passed because Democrats were filibustering the cuts. So they used budget reconciliation and made them just 10 years to avoid the “Byrd rule” forbidding using reconciliation if it impacts the budget beyond 10 years. In other words, the GOP used the same tactic they accused Democrats of using to pass the health care bill. So not only are they hypocrites, they were financially reckless and pushed the budget reckoning down the road. But then, following the elephant to clean up the mess is well-known and thankless job.

Terrorist Faces 20 to Life: Trial a Failure

The verdict in the trial of Ahmed Ghailani means his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa earns him 20 years to life imprisonment. But the GOP and some Democrats have won the message war: This is a failure of the Obama administration’s plans to try some terrorists in civilian court because it was the only charge of more than 200 for which he was found guilty.

What it is, really, is another example of the failure of the administration’s ability to get in front of an issue and frame it correctly. In fact, administration officials were silent.

Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. commented publicly on the verdict, which other officials said they interpreted as a sign of quiet defeat [emphasis added]. The political climate for civilian trials will grow only worse in January once Republicans – who are widely opposed to using federal courts to prosecute Guantanamo detainees – take over the House, officials said.

Apparently, though, the administration feels the fault lies with the GOP.

Senior administration officials expressed frustration with the Republican response to the Ghailani case, saying the verdict changed nothing about the legal viability of civilian courts to handle terrorist cases. "Ghailani is an unfortunate addition to a long-running saga of politicization and outright distortion of this issue," one official said.

So sorry they feel frustrated. Would someone mind telling them that when they offer no position or framing of their own, reporters are left with the impression that there is no defense, let alone an offsetting offense.

How many folks know that not only did George Bush try terrorists in civilian courts, including the infamous “shoe bomber,” but that civilian trails have been successful during the Obama years?

Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, said the White House remains committed to using all available venues for trying terrorism suspects. And in the past year, with little controversy, the administration has tried numerous terrorism suspects, including individuals who planned attacks on Times Square and the New York subway system.

If you don’t communicate your own successes, don’t cry because the GOP won’t.

Some folks tried, of course, but listen to the stilted, bloodless defense.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence, noted that Ghailani is facing a sentence stiffer than all but one meted out by military commissions.

"More than 200 years of American jurisprudence and a clear track record of success should not be thrown out the window or falsely characterized for political advantage," Harman said. "The Obama administration needs to push back."

Blah, blah, blah, jurisprudence, blah, blah, blah.  Push back?  We’re waiting.  How about this reframe?

“Why does the GOP so mistrust Americans?  Our country is founded on the idea of jury trials, but the GOP doesn’t trust Americans to uphold that tradition.  Do they think average Americans are too stupid to be on a jury?  Do they think that average Americans want to coddle terrorists? Or do they want to do away with jury trials altogether?

“This is another brazen, deceitful attempt by Republicans to instill fear and divide Americans.  They want to play politics with our security.”

Ahmed Ghailani will get 20 years to life.  I think American jurors did their job, and I’m proud of them.  Why aren’t Republicans?

In a related note, The Post’s writers adopted an awkward GOP frame for the issue of torture.  Note this paragraph:

"This was a difficult case in that there were questions about Ghailani’s treatment during the previous administration" – such as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques – "that led to a key witness being excluded," {Justice Department, spokesman Matthew Miller] said.

Note the phrase between the em dashes.  That’s the Bush term for torture.  Did the reporters substitute that frame for torture, the word Miller said, or did they add the phrase to describe the “treatment” Miller alludes to?  In either case, the word is “torture,” not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is, among other things, vague and a phrase that was not in the language before the Bushies created it.

Kathleen Reardon is right. Obama is no great communicator. 

[L]ong diatribes with no passion, assertiveness and spontaneity in the face of GOP hostility are going to make this presidency a short, disappointing one.

Why Pelosi Should Relinquish Leadership

I admire Nancy Pelosi.  When we needed someone to find the votes and stiffen the resolve, she managed to “get ‘ur done.”  That’s no mean feat.

Yes, she helped the Dems accomplish a lot. But at what price?  I just wished the pressure on her would come from the left. 

While she won a lot of battles, she lost ground in the larger war.  (The irony here is, of course, that the GOP won the election because of its accusation that the Dems weren’t focused enough on creating jobs; and now we’re focused on the deficit?!)

Yesterday’s come-to-Jesus (in Dem parlance, that’s “approach the altar of vague spirituality, careful not to offend”) caucus meeting was, as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., dutifully called it—I think they nominate someone each time they have a meeting like this to say this: “cathartic.”

"It’s what the Democratic Party’s about," he said. "There are ideological differences, there are regional differences, and it was a good thing for people to be able to talk through that."

But the Dems, as usual, can’t even articulate what it is they don’t like about her.

[A] number of rank-and-file Democrats, including some left of center, are dismayed. They note that dozens of Republican House candidates ran campaigns linking their Democratic opponents to Pelosi, who was portrayed as a hardcore liberal hopelessly out of touch with middle American values.

"She definitely hurts," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his re-election bid this month. Citing former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, Taylor said in an interview: "When he realized he was a drag on leadership, he went away. Somehow the Democratic leadership didn’t learn that lesson."

She “hurts” because the GOP said so.  Of course, who among them defended her during their campaigns?  At least, some Dems recognize the problem.

"One thing the Republicans are very good at: They set goals, they set objectives and they set a way to get there," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters.

And that’s why Pelosi must go.  What she did was get through a series of bills, but with apparently little thought to an overall strategy to leverage that success at the polls. Now you might argue that that’s not her chief responsibility.  Yes, much of this should come from Obama himself.  But she, being much more experienced at the job of legislating and politicking than the president, should have recognized the vacuum at the top and filled it.  And she may not be capable of that.

Let’s face it (and I’ll be accused of sexism here) even if she could develop a strategy, she would not be the one to give voice to it.  Being the leader of her party in the House, she is the one called upon by reporters.  She is not a good speaker,  She halting. She’s harsh.

(Yes, she looks harsh, too. But Boehner suffers from his orange look, and I think Eric Cantor does, too.  He looks like a cross between Buddy Holly and that dorky geography whiz in middle school whose voice always sounds like he’s saying, “I’m smarter than everyone else.”)

But most importantly she can’t be the spokesperson for progressive causes.  She lacks humor. She doesn’t handle herself well in interviews. In a word, she’s just like the president.  They both sound hesitant, as if they’re trying very hard to make you believe what they’re saying…because they’re not sure they do.

The problem is, who on the Democratic side is?  I open the floor for nominations because I can’t think of an articulate progressive voice in Congress who could lead the party.

Well, at least all was not lost for the Dems in their hour of angst.

Pelosi pronounced Tuesday’s long session "wonderful," then hurried past reporters.