Message Delivery


The New York Times’ Matt Bai thinks President Obama needs to connect more directly with voters than he has, though he doesn’t expect him to tweet.

Perhaps, though, the president’s team is over-thinking the challenge, putting too much emphasis on how to use the trendiest applications or on how to interact with voters, when what really matters is creating an authentic narrative. One of the most pervasive activities on the Internet, after all, is the basic conveyance of personal experiences by way of the written word — a tendency to share stories widely in e-mails or on blogs, rather than talking one on one to a friend on the phone. In the online age, we are all diarists.

Mr. Obama is probably the most talented writer to occupy the office in the television age; his political career was made possible, in large part, by the candid memoir he wrote as a younger man. So it is hard to understand why the president hasn’t tried to use that talent the way Mr. Kennedy capitalized on his personal charm.

You can easily imagine Mr. Obama sitting in front of a keyboard at the end of a long day, briefly reflecting on the oddity of a personal encounter or on the meaning of some overlooked event, or perhaps describing what it is like to stand in the well of Congress and deliver the State of the Union address. It could be that in order to expand the reach and persuasiveness of the modern presidency, Mr. Obama simply needs to be his online self — not so much a blogger as a memoirist-in-chief, walking us through history in real time.

Blogging, as much as i love it, is not a presidential habit I’d like to see. Yes, Obama is a somewhat talented writer. But he really needs to transform himself into a talented extemporaneous—and humorous—speaker. In this age of biting hyperbole—”Nazi socialist,” anyone?—he would do well to put the GOP down with humor. Lord knows the GOP gives him plenty of opportunity to point out their hypocrisy. He should take some questions at a couple of photo opp each week and be prepared to deliver a couple of prepared (to seem off the cuff) bon mots to the press corps. Engaging the press (and at the same time delivering a few biting comments about them) would make him seem less aloof. He just doesn’t seem to have the confidence to do it, however, as his advisors have convinced him to be overly cautious. Or that is his nature.

Still, an “authentic narrative” would be nice.

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.

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.

As I, uh, was, uh, saying

Sunday’s Washington Post front page had an article about Charlie Crist’s troubles in his GOP primary for the Senate race there.  In it was a lesson for all candidates—or for that matter anyone in any arena who wants to be taken seriously.

But there were plenty of onlookers like Bob Gammon, who, as he sipped his beer, tried to put his frustration with Crist into words. "He’s like a lot of weak Republicans now," said Gammon. "He’s like the great compromiser: He doesn’t stand strong; he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority. Rubio is going to win easy. Crist’s kind of Republican is over. Crist can’t even take a stand."

Not taking a stand in politics, though important, is not what I’m talking about.  It’s the “he doesn’t talk with authority. . . . And then I hear good ol’ what’s-his-name, Rubio, and he has no uh-uh-uhs when he talks. He talks with authority.

People who talk with authority, who avoid “uh,” “you know” and the now ubiquitous “it’s like,” I think are more credible, especially in politics.  Obama has a lot of ‘uhs” in his extemporaneous speaking.  I think it’s one of the reasons some people don’t trust him.  He sounds as if he’s trying to parse his words so carefully one wonders if he’s trying to pull something over on the listener.

Republicans are much better at such speaking.  For the life of me I don’t know why, although I’m sure many GOP supporters would say it’s because they have confidence in what they’re saying.  Why don’t Democrats?  Maybe it’s because being liberals, they’re always afraid of offending someone.  I’ve noticed this phenomenon on the cable talk shows.  The next time I see such a segment I’ll post it. Take a listen yourself and tell me if you don’t hear what I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, I think Bob Gammon, a voter in Florida, hit on a universal truth.  If you sound hesitant, you sound unsure of yourself.  If you are using a lot of “uhs” people are less likely to believe you or be inspired by you.

Liberals: Letting Facts Get in the Way

As certainly we all can agree by now, conservatives don’t let facts get in the way of a pithy political argument.  However, liberals are so literal.  To wit:

Matt Yglesias, one of the best bloggers out there, succeeds by being prolific and succinct.  But this post illustrates in a way I’m sure he didn’t intend why liberals can’t make a political argument.  First, of course, as was said on a recent episode of “The Good Wife” about a judge, “Liberals love to compromise.”  Or, as E.J. Dionne has worried, that liberals are so open-minded they can’t even take their own side of an argument.  In other words, they lack a good sense of certitude needed to make an case. 

Here’s a picture of a Census ad that I think is pretty clever.

census ad


The ad can fill in the second box differently to make a case that filling out the census form is a good thing to do.  Now what’s Yglesias have to say about it?

A number of people have been in touch with me about this in a way that makes me think it’s worth emphasizing that this is not in fact how decisions about how many buses to buy are made.

Who the hell cares!?  If it gets people to turn in their census forms—or vote for your candidate—who cares if it’s literally true!

A Big Idea

Congressional Republicans achieved a goal during yesterday’s healthcare summit. They shed their “party of no” label. They had ideas.

But Obama saw them and raised them one. He framed them as the party of small ideas while Democrats have a big idea. As in, we’re planning to fix healthcare instead of, as Sen. Tom Harkin said of the GOP plan, throw 10 feet of rope to a man drowning 50 feet from the boat—with a promise that at some later point, we’ll throw him a 20 foot rope.

The GOP did their homework well. As is usual the case, they were, in large part, more articulate than many of the Democrats, the president included. They had fire in their bellies and a list of facts and ideological bon mots. Even when they threw hanging curve balls, the Dems took called strikes. When I commented on that in a contemporaneous post yesterday, a friend also in my line of work called incredulous himself. The response to that oft charge of letting the government makes decisions instead of “the American people and their doctors” is, “Oh, if it were only so. Now it’s the insurance exec making millions of dollars a year who now gets to make that decision.”

But the Dems warmed up a little by the late innings, both rhetorically and passionately. The best I heard all day was by Sen. Dick Durbin. After the two Republican doctors lorded their experience over the crowd, Durbin gave them the view from the street. He’s been a good old fashioned—and as the GOP would characterize, “ambulance chasing”—trial lawyer. He’s defended victims of medical malpractice and the doctors that perform it. And showing his summation skills, he spoke in smooth paragraphs.

As any good lawyer would, he eviscerated the “common knowledge.” Both the number and award amounts of medical malpractice have dropped precipitously over the years, not increased, he said. The number of paid malpractice claims decreased 50 percent in the last 20 years, and the amount of awards have dropped the same 50 percent in the last five years. Then, he played the jury’s heart strings by telling the story of a woman who went in to have a mole surgically removed only to have the oxygen ignite, scarring her face for life and submitting her to repeated operations.

“Her life will never be the same. And you are saying that this innocent woman is only entitled to $250,000 in pain and suffering. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Certainly, GOP Chairman Michael Steele could understand that, he who thinks one million dollars, after taxes, “is not a lot of money.” Two hundred fifty thousand isn’t even walking around money for the chairman.

CNN, probably taking a cue from, I believe it was, GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell that Republicans weren’t getting enough hot air time, tracked the minutes party representatives talked.

Democrats spoke for a total of 135 minutes while President Obama spoke for 122 minutes, for a total of 257 minutes. Republicans, meanwhile, spoke for just 111 minutes, about 30 percent of the total speaking time.

The president spent too many of his minutes hemming and hawing as he is wont to do in extemporaneous situations. He often starts off searching for words in bursts of disconnected phrases. But when he warms, he can cut you with a butter knife.

His summation, which started in that same hesitant fashion, got legs. He cut through the GOP apocalyptic rhetoric.

“I know that there’s been a discussion about whether a government should intrude in the insurance market. But it turns out, on things like capping out-of-pocket expenses or making sure that people are able to purchase insurance even if they’ve got a preexisting condition, overwhelmingly, people say the insurance market should be regulated.

And so one thing that I’d ask from my Republican friends is to look at the list of insurance reforms and make sure that those that you have not included in your plans, right now, are ones, in fact, that you don’t think the American people should get.”

He reminded our representatives that they should be willing to let the American people have the same insurance coverage they have. He deftly framed his solutions as market driven as Sam Walton. His comparison of a wide open insurance market left to the states with what happened in the credit card market was one people could easily understand. He cited new statistics demonstrating how Americans already have chosen the government as their main source of insurance because companies can’t offer it anymore. And he used a little humor to undercut GOP criticism of the bill’s length and make the point that small ideas won’t work.

“I did not propose and I don’t think any of the Democrats proposed something complicated just for the sake of being complicated. We’d love to have a five-page bill. It would save an awful lot of work.

The reason we didn’t do it is because it turns out that baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go. They need help right now. And so a step-by-step approach sounds good in theory, but the problem is, for example, we can’t solve the preexisting problem if we don’t do something about coverage.”

By this time, Obama has found his voice. He’s talking smoothly and minimizing the “hums” and “uhs.”

He then made the observation that I would have put a little differently, though his way sufficed. The Republicans think compromise is first, Dems put their ideas out there. Then Republicans put theirs. And then we all accept the GOP plan—lock, stock and barrel. Voila, bi-partisanship!

Finally, in music to the ears of those who thought he has no soul or fight in him,

“We cannot have another year-long debate about this. So the question that I’m going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is, is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks’ time or six weeks’ time we could actually resolve something?

And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and some make decisions, and then that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about — about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November. All right?”

Yes, Mr. President, that’s all right.

Healthcare Summit

Ever notice that often–way too often, I think—Democrats are acknowledging good points Republicans make, but it’s never the other way around.  Play the game the way they play, Dems.

Obama’s New Communication Strategy

The Post says the administration has a new communications strategy.

First, they said, is a return to the disciplined messaging that was a hallmark of the 2008 campaign…

Second, White House advisers promise a quicker, more aggressive response to GOP attacks on the president and his policies….

A third change is a return to the backdrops for Obama that aides considered so effective during the presidential bid….

Finally, aides said it was recognized inside the West Wing that Obama has strayed from his most successful message of the campaign: that he would be a change agent in Washington.

Which means the administration has abandoned its original strategy, which was to be slow, passive, boring and an agent of the status quo.  Gee, I’m sure glad the administration has re-thought that plan.

A Tepid, Insincere Speech

Can we give up the lie that Barack Obama is a great speaker? As I watched the SOTU speech last might, I think I see two reasons that Obama’s rhetoric, while enhanced by his beautiful baritone voice, doesn’t resonate as much as it could. One is visual and one is verbal.

Note that in most sentences, the last couple of syllables drop in pitch, almost to the point that he seems to swallow the last words. That’s not a critical flaw per se, but when it becomes the dominant trajectory of his sentences, it borders on boredom. Speakers should mix up their inflections to keep the speech lively and varied. It reminds me of a child who, when asked if he did something bad, drops the ends of his sentence as he loses confidence in his argument. Obama sounds as if he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying or loses his assuredness. Hopeful speech should sound hopeful in its inflections, meaning the ends of sentences should soar, not sink.

Second, only once in the entire speech did he look at the audience at home. In fact, his body is mechanical in its back and forth between the two teleprompters. This reliance on the words in front of him instead of those in his heart is becoming the stuff of ridicule. But most important, he fails to connect with the home audience. In fact, his side to side head moves makes it obvious to everyone that he’s reading. He might as well read from the script on the lectern.

I give him credit for saying he’s opposed to extending the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 and for taking on the Supreme Court. (Although wouldn’t it have been more effective if he looked directly at them and said, “The decision is wrong and we will overturn it.”) The fighting tone some credit him with sounds to me like the empty words of the class intellectual, who will, at the first sign of a real fight, fold as Obama has so often in the first year.