Is the Democrats’ Problem the “Messaging”?

Yes, was the conclusion of Mo Elleithee and Mike Gehrke of Benenson Strategy Group at this morning’s Northern Virginia Democratic Business Council breakfast. Democrats did a poor job of communicating how their programs and policies would help voters, they said. Many on the left have made that argument, too.

While that is true, this communication problem should wait until other, more fundamental problems are addressed. We can do them simultaneously, but we can’t lose sight of those issues that would make our communications more effective.

First is the long-haul challenge, which is to address one valid criticism: Government is broken, or at least needs a major tune-up. It’s not just Congress or politics. Government doesn’t work as people think it should. Many on the left like to point to government programs that people like: Social Security, Medicare, etc. as proof that if they just understood us better, they’d love government. But beyond specific programs, people believe that government operations are inefficient, wasteful and intrusive. So as long as you’re not proposing cuts in their programs, they are willing to buy into that notion that “government is the problem.” And they are right.

The problem is that government is paralyzed by process. For why and how I recommend “The Death of Commonsense: How the Law is Suffocating America.” Laws are written to be overly complex, and they constrain government from doing a commonsense job of implementing them. We all know the stories: Social service workers routinely approve benefits that people don’t deserve, for example. Voters, especially independents, are receptive to anti-tax rhetoric because they don’t believe they get value for their tax dollars. Conservatives see the problem as fraud. That may be true, but the solution isn’t to downsize government. The solution is to empower government to take responsibility and stop abuses, without risking charges that they violated a complicated process outlined by a 1,000-page law. The benefit may be that if you empower officials to take action, make decisions about what is important and risk implementing imperfect but quick, effective solutions, selling the benefits of government is easier. The book’s thesis and argument aren’t perfect, but they’re valid.

Progressives may see this an attack on government, and bureaucrats may take it personally, but the issue isn’t them but process, one gone astray and easily attacked. Democrats must be at the forefront of government reform. We must streamline processes, even if it means re-writing some laws. Many special interests will howl.

Give bureaucrats the responsibility to carry laws out. Hold them accountable, which also means revising personnel practices so you can get rid of dead wood and incompetents. Expect pushback from government unions. The party should welcome it but sell them on the idea of greater empowerment.

A valid concern with this argument is that if you empower bureaucrats, they may implement laws in ways Congress didn’t intend. Another is that with each change in administrations, new political appointees leading bureaucracies could reverse a general direction of implementing laws. I think these issues can—and must—be overcome if we are to be a force for the proper use of government.

Second, we need to have some perspective on overall spending and address the sustainability of Medicare and Social Security programs and get behind minor reforms that will address these problems. I say “minor” because raising the retirement age to 69 for people who are now decades away from retirement, while problematic for manual laborers, is not an evisceration of the program. We should be willing to raise the salary limits on payroll taxes and means-test both programs. But if those levels are reasonably high, they can have a significant impact on the programs’ viability. But no sooner did the deficit commission leaders announce their recommendations this week, I got an email from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee with their panties in a knot over the “attacks on Social Security.” We’re talking about raising the retirement age from 67 to 69—for people who now are no older than 16. Letting them know now might be an incentive for them to aim for a desk job than one digging holes until you’re 69. The commission leaders plan also calls for increases in benefits for low-income widows and reinstates college benefits for child survivors. I think progressives will think these are good things. The elimination of the mortgage interest deductions might include only mortgages more than $500,000, though I would support complete elimination of them. Why should renters subsidize home owners? Renters can’t deduct any of their rent on their income tax return.

Bottom line is that progressives must stop knee jerk reactions to any talk of spending cuts. Some of them may be justified, and you’d wind up with more effective government, more money for truly helpful government programs, and, oh yes, more voters on your side. Reforming entitlement programs isn’t capitulation or even compromise. It’s smart politics and good for the country.

Where I think Elleithee and Gehrke were off base this morning was in their focus on better communication of Democratic programs and policies. Before we establish a communication plan or messages for our programs and policies, we must be willing to establish our overarching principles. If this election (and the 2004 election of George W. Bush) taught us anything, it is that people will vote for politicians who stand up for their principles, even if they offer no programs and policies.

Do you know what Democratic principles are? Do you think most Democrats would agree on them? Do you think they are simple enough that people can understand them? We live in an new era when it comes to communications. It may be that our brains are actually changing (See Shallows by Nicholas Carr.) We hope that people understand the policy choices, but we’re fools if we count on it. I’ll take a vote from someone who only understands my principles just as fast as I’ll take the policy wonk’s. Counts the same, and there’s more of them.

Democrats are sometimes arrogant about their message. They say, “We have principles but they are not easy to convey in pithy sound bites. That’s because the country’s problems are more complex than Republicans make them out to be?” That is a cop-out. (See “The Political Brain” by Drew Westen.) More important, having articulated clear principles makes it easy to articulate your policies.

Voting is an emotional exercise, not an intellectual one. You must connect emotionally, and that’s where principles come in. They frame your arguments. They tell the voter where your heart is.

Once articulating principles, we must be willing to campaign on them, not policies and programs. The latter are too difficult to explain in 30 seconds. You certainly can expand on your principles and explain policies in debates and longer form interviews. But even then, we need to make sure people understand our principles.

Instead of complaining about the way the GOP frames the message, learn from them and go them one better. How can we expect voters to think we will fight for them when we won’t even fight for our own principles? That also means fighting back against the media narrative. When mainstream reporters adopt the GOP frame, we need to call out reporters and be willing to incur their wrath. Republicans have been doing this for 30 years, and they’ve won the battle because we didn’t fight back. As an example, take a look at last night’s interview of a conservative on the Parker Spitzer CNN show. He was relentless in ac
cusing Kathleen Parker of a being an Obama supporter and falsely accuses her of actually endorsing him. Lesson: Push back—hard.

While I don’t believe that the only reason the Dems got shellacked in this election is because of poor messaging, it was a big reason.

The first step is to list in short phrases Democratic principles. We can do this for GOPers: limited government, lower taxes, traditional family values, traditional marriage, etc. I’ll suggest a Democratic straw man for you:

Middle class opportunity

Free & fair enterprise

Civic values

Fair taxes

Promote the general welfare

“For the people” government

College for all who’ve earned it

Strong, smart foreign policy

Energy independence

There could be more and there might be better ways of articulating them. Under each, we can outline not programs but goals and more detail on our principles. For example, under middle class opportunity, we talk about how we support opportunity for all Americans to achieve a secure middle class standard of living and the chance to become rich and financially secure. We do that by writing laws that offer everyone equal opportunity, instead of the rules, regulations and laws that give preferential treatment to the rich and politically connected. We must have a level playing field and repeat incessantly how the middle class has stagnated and that the overwhelming portion of income growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top 1% while the middle class has fallen behind.

Under American moral values, we should discuss what Christianity (or Judaism, Islam, etc.) teaches us: that we are our brother’s keepers. The Constitution paid homage to that ideal with the phrase “promote the general welfare.” We must reclaim the Constitution and our religions from those who would subvert their meaning.

Third, we must demand cohesion among Congressional Democrats on key issues. If they refuse, we should ostracize them from the party. You can vote against key legislation that your party thinks is critical, but expect to find yourself without a committee assignment and without any way of getting your bills considered. In this past Congress we were held hostage by Democrats who lost. What good did it do us?

For progressives, if all else fails, form a third party. If Ross Perot could do it before the web, we can certainly do it now. I guarantee you that it will focus the minds and stiffen the backs of Dems everywhere.