consortiumnews.com

Democrats Need Strong Message

By Sam Parry
March 5, 2006

Political analysts are describing the 2006 midterm election as the Democrats’ best chance in a decade to win back majorities in the House, the Senate or both, as well as to capture governors’ mansions across the country.

With Democrats sporting a 10-15 percentage point advantage over Republicans in some generic head-to-head congressional polls, Democrats do appear poised for a comeback. But for many Democratic supporters who’ve expected gains in other recent elections, this early optimism is beginning to sound all too familiar.

Yes, George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress are weaker than they have been since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. But many analysts wonder whether the Democrats are ready to take advantage of the openings that Bush’s imperial style and administrative ineptitude have created.

Have Democratic Party leaders learned to fight with sincere passion and to articulate a clear national message that connects with voters? Have they moved beyond a sum-of-the-parts, laundry-list message that clangs over the airwaves as nothing more than bullet points aimed at disparate Democratic constituencies?

For many observers, the answer is: Not even close.

But Bush may have given the Democrats a valuable gift: His actions over five-plus years in office suggest the outlines of a powerful counter-message.

In essence, the message would be that Bush has made himself a kind of modern-day monarch who has exaggerated dangers to scare the American people into a disastrous war and into surrendering their liberties; that he is a self-aggrandizing leader who has abrogated the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through claims of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief; that he has transformed Americans from citizens to subjects.

Fancying himself the “unitary executive,” Bush even has gone beyond what Sen. Russ Feingold has described as “pre-1776 view of the world” to what could be called “a pre-Magna Carta worldview,” in which torture is winked at and citizens are spied on without warrants and aren’t even assured trials by jury. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's “End of 'Unalienable Rights'

One-Party Government

Meanwhile, with only a few exceptions, the Republican-controlled Congress has failed to conduct serious oversight of Bush’s actions. Instead, Republican strategists, such as Karl Rove, have talked openly about their desire for indefinite GOP control of the federal government, from the White House to Congress to the courts.

In developing a response to this Republican arrogance, Democrats could rally the American people around some of the nation’s most beloved principles, from the concept of “unalienable rights,” to “the rule of law,” to “the checks and balances” devised by the Founders as a way of stopping the encroachment of oppressive government.

The Democratic message could even turn some favorite Republican buzz words against them. For instance, Bush’s Republican Party is now vulnerable to a charge it has become the party of “Big (Wasteful) Government, Big Deficits, Big Brother and the Big Lie.”

By targeting the GOP’s “Four Bigs,” the Democratic message would have the potential to reshape the electoral landscape – transcending business-as-usual politics and creating common ground among liberals, centrists and traditional conservatives.

The Democrats could be the ones standing for effective and competent government, fiscal responsibility, traditional constitutional principles, and truth-telling.

But if the Democrats don’t act aggressively in defining themselves and redefining the Republicans, the problem is sure to grow more critical with each passing electoral defeat. That’s because, since the 1994 GOP victories, Republicans have become America’s default party.

In a national election where there’s no overwhelming Democratic advantage, Republicans have built the broad messaging themes and the political-media infrastructure to deliver winning margins in key races.

Even after five electoral defeats, congressional Democrats still don’t seem to grasp this changed paradigm. Democratic leaders have approached national campaigns almost like they are the incumbents, as if they can play it safe, run out the clock and then eke out marginal victories. But it’s the Republicans who have learned to win the marginal races.

Democrats remain stuck in the mode of reacting to the message of the day, instead of planning ahead to create a larger, compelling national narrative – and developing the means to get that storyline consistently to the voters.

‘Perfect’ Candidates

Lacking the national media apparatus of the Republicans and fearful of the attack politics mastered by GOP operatives over three decades, Democrats have sought again and again to find “electable” candidates who are supposed to be immune from negative assaults.

Without a clear and unified national message, Democrats also have suffered from having candidates focus entire campaigns on disparate local messages. Local candidates frequently even have to run against the national party.

And, according to the New York Times, Democrats are slipping again into this pattern in 2006 with Democratic candidates across the country “reading from a stack of different scripts.” These candidates, according to the Times, observe that “the party is far from settling on an overarching theme that will work” nationwide. [NYT, March 6, 2006]

While many political strategists defend this approach with the old cliché that all politics is local, this strategy carries a heavy burden. Forced to fend for themselves often in hostile terrain, many Democratic candidates end up on the defensive.

In the end, after all the triangulating and finessing, Democrats come across as a party that doesn’t know what it stands for or doesn’t dare talk straight with the American people.

For instance, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that while 65 percent of Americans think Bush lacks a clear plan for handling the Iraq War, 70 percent made that judgment about Democrats. [Washington Post, March 7, 2006]

With Democrats showing confusion and indecision, Republicans have been free to craft an unflattering national narrative about the Democrats – that they are elitist Volvo-driving liberal snobs who look down on ordinary working families; they are weak on defense and disinterested in the security of the American people; they are obstructionists with no answers, only negativity.

Until Democrats figure out a national message that will counter this ugly caricature – and develop a viable media apparatus to deliver it – they can’t expect to win another national election, short of a complete Republican meltdown.

Left’s Blogosphere

Sensing the opportunity and feeling the frustration, online Democratic activists in the liberal blogosphere are challenging Party leaders from coast to coast.

Many online Democratic activists, for instance, slammed efforts of Democratic leaders to pressure Ohio’s Paul Hackett, an Iraq War veteran who strongly opposes the war, out of the Ohio Democratic Senate primary.  Hackett’s departure clears the field for Rep. Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman and the preferred candidate of inside-the-Beltway Democrats.

It’s not that Rep. Brown is unappealing to the Democratic base. In fact, Brown has a solid progressive record fighting for workers’ rights and social justice. He even wears a lapel pin with a yellow canary in a cage instead of the standard Congressional pin to remind him of the struggles workers have endured to win better safety standards.

But Hackett had won the hearts of many activists by running a no-nonsense, tough-talking campaign for the open seat in Ohio’s 2nd District – solid Republican territory where Hackett nearly won last year in a special election.

Hackett’s forced exit from the Senate race infuriated many online activists who blamed Party leadership for failing to support a candidate who, despite being a political novice, spoke with conviction and displayed the courage of his convictions.

Hackett was the model candidate for those on the Left who feel that Democrats need to campaign with clear, no-frills messages.

Targeting Lieberman

But Ohio isn’t the only place where activists are in revolt.

In Connecticut, Sen. Joe Lieberman – who last won reelection in 2000 with 63 percent of the vote when he was also on the ballot as Al Gore’s running mate – is facing a primary challenge from a Connecticut businessman, Ned Lamont.

Lamont’s candidacy is fed by grassroots objections to Lieberman’s support of the Iraq War as well as his backing for other Bush initiatives, including free trade and Bush’s faith-based initiative. Lamont is opposed to the Iraq War and is campaigning on the charge that Lieberman has shifted too far right.

Until now, Lieberman’s campaign has tried to ignore the primary challenge. But a recent New York Times profile of Lamont’s campaign may be the first signal that Lieberman faces more than token opposition in the primary battle.

And in Montana, where Democrats hope to unseat conservative Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the Democratic primary pits grassroots darling State Sen. Jon Tester against the establishment candidate State Auditor John Morrison. National Democratic leaders prefer Morrison mainly because he has won statewide and is therefore viewed as more electable.

But the Democratic base prefers Tester, who is an organic farmer and a man from more humble roots. He came out against Samuel Alito’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and has spoken out against the Bush administration’s tolerance of torture. He also supports focusing America’s Iraq policy on bringing U.S. troops home – though he has stopped short of supporting immediate withdrawal.

Morrison’s position on Iraq is – no doubt by design – less clear. But the base prefers Tester for his ordinary manner and his authentic voice. He uses clear and direct language to speak out on issues, a style in line with what the base yearns for and what the Democrats may need to connect with the American people.

These three races are just a few of the primary battles in which the activist base is pressing the Democratic leadership to go all in and fight to win rather than try to eke out victories on the margins with safe, establishment-friendly candidates – a strategy that has failed to help boost Democrats in recent elections.

Republican Vulnerability

This year, the stakes are higher because the prospects for Democratic gains are real.

On paper, 2006 should be a year when Republicans are on the defensive. They must campaign against a backdrop of embarrassing political missteps and scandals – including the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the Katrina debacle, the Abramoff scandal and the Dubai ports debate.

Republicans also face other historical disadvantages – including traditionally bad electoral results for the sixth year of a party’s presidential term. Plus, they’ve been in power for more than 10 years and may face a natural fatigue factor among their core supporters. At the same time, Democrats should be hungrier for victory.

And, as these factors pile up, there are early signals that the Dems are set up for some gains almost no matter what they do.

The Cook Political Report – a journal that analyzes political races around the country – projects 10 Republican House seats as “toss ups” against only two “toss up” Democratic House seats. Altogether, they rate 46 Republican House seats as competitive against only 20 competitive Democratic House seats.

This means that for the Democrats to pick up the 15 seats they need for a 218 House majority, they’ll have to hold most of their own competitive races and hope to win 15 to 20 out of the 46 competitive Republican House seats. Many see this as remote – doable only if Democrats do a better job speaking to voters and earning their trust.

Nevertheless, a 5-to-1 advantage in “toss up” races and a better than 2-to-1 advantage in the number of competitive races should signal Democratic House gains in November.

In the campaign for the Senate, Cook rates six Republican seats as “toss ups” against only one Democratic “toss up” seat. However, in the Senate, Democrats are defending three open seats compared with only one open Republican seat. And, according to Cook, Democrats have more races that could become more competitive if national trends start breaking against the Democrats.

So, for Democrats to retake the Senate where they face a 45-55 disadvantage, they’ll have to just about run the table in the competitive races, while holding all their open seats. Here again, this could happen only if Democrats succeed in connecting with voters with a clearer national narrative of why voters should trust Democrats with governing.

Cook also rates 10 Republican governor seats as a “toss up” or “lean Democratic” against only one Democratic governor seat rated as a “toss up.” Based on where most of these competitive governor races are, including solid blue states like California, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts, the prospect of Dems retaking a majority of the governors’ mansions seems to be the easiest path for Democratic gains in the 2006 midterms.

But the fact that Democrats appear better positioned to have more success in governor races than in the national campaigns underscores the trouble the party faces when it comes to its national messaging. Governor races are less about the party brand than they are about the individual candidates and the local issues – from traffic jams to schools.

That’s partly why Democrats have won governor races in solid red states like Wyoming, Kansas and Virginia. On the other side, it’s also why Republicans have won blue-state governor seats in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California.

Since governor races are mostly about domestic issues, Democrats should be at their best since they can focus on basic services like providing health care to kids and investing in state universities. On the other hand, running for House and Senate seats expands the issue playing field into foreign policy, national security and other areas that haven’t been strengths for Democrats.

Democrats’ Soft Underbelly

On a national level, Democrats will first need to explain effectively what it means to be a Democrat, what broad themes and goals they would bring to governing while still giving individual Democrats room to disagree on the finer points of policy.

Instead, what has happened too often is that without a unifying national theme, Democrats argue among themselves over narrow policies. The quarreling over details, in turn, creates the image that Democrats are mostly focused on single-issue politics, not higher principles.

By contrast, Republicans – with stark messages about “values” and “patriotism” and with a powerful media apparatus from print to radio to TV to the Internet – have presented themselves as the party that speaks from the heart to the American people while painting the Democrats as phonies who have no clear direction and are weak on national security.

Under this assault for a generation, Democrats have struggled to hold together their traditional coalition of supporters. The party has lost ground among Southerners, rural voters, Catholics, some blue-collar workers and married couples with families.

West Virginia is a perfect example of what’s gone wrong for Democrats in recent national elections. Under normal circumstances, West Virginia should be part of the Democratic base.

Since the Great Depression, West Virginia had only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three landslide Republican victories – Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984. Jimmy Carter won the state in 1980 and Michael Dukakis won it in 1988 while both candidates were beaten badly elsewhere in the country.

Then came 2000 when Bush turned a 15-point Republican deficit in 1996 into a five-point advantage over Al Gore. John Kerry lost the state in 2004 by 13 points. In presidential contests, West Virginia has gone from solid blue to solid red in just two election cycles.

Beyond the narrow explanations of coal policy and fear of environmental regulations, the West Virginians – like Americans in other red states – bought into the pervasive Republican messaging that George W. Bush represented fundamental American values while Al Gore and John Kerry didn’t.

So, to be competitive again, the Democrats must both articulate how they – not Bush and his neoconservative allies – stand for the basic principles of an American democratic Republic, with its “unalienable rights,” rule of law, and reliance on reason over ideology.

If Democrats can explain to the American people how Bush has abused these principles, other details of the Democratic agenda – from wise use of the environment and balanced budgets, to protecting the common welfare and civil liberties – would no longer be viewed as narrow appeals, but part of a comprehensive plan for a stronger and healthier nation.

Until the Democrats figure this out and can get their message out, they will face uphill battles against better-organized and better-funded Republicans. So, while Republicans may appear down today, the Democrats still have their work cut out for them.


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