I’m finally cured of the “Oh No! We’re All Going to Die” despair that loomed so large Wednesday and Thursday after Kerry’s crushing loss. No longer do I want to take our Good Democratic Dominoes and Go Home. I’m (almost enthusiastically) resigned to the slow, hard grind of incrementally evolving our messaging for 2006.
BUT I cannot escape the notion that our message must evolve significantly to get us back on track. To that end , I have an observation and a suggestion:
Observation. I heard Al Franken and Joe Conason going at it today, Franken saying that our next candidate had better be a Southern Baptist because boy, did the Republicans make a lot of hey from Kerry’s New England patrician status, which also singularly failed to connect with voters outside of core blue states. (True enough, Al.) But Conason quite correctly reminded Al that when we in fact ran a Southern Baptist (our last two winners, actually), the Republicans did not hesitate to paint him as a hick, a low-class schemer from a alcoholic mother and a who-knows-who father. (Touche, Joe.) They agreed that no matter who we run, the Republicans will smear that person as out of the mainstream. (Good job, boys.)
All of this is pretty common pratter these days. But there’s a deeper truth that I haven’t heard much about, but is basic and fundamental. The Democrat and Republican parties are not similarly situated in our society. We hold certain beliefs about the two sides that we do not articulate. This is a key example: the Democrats are the Dudley Do-Right, while the Republicans are Snively Whiplash. So, a smear from a Democrat of a Republican is going to be viewed (by the press and by at least some voters) as heinous, vicious and beyond the pale. Shoe on the other foot (Republican smears Democrat): well, what did you expect?
Can you imagine a Democratic primary with the kind of tactics that are completely normal on the right? Insinuations from “3d parties” about black babies? Leaks about a candidate’s wife’s prescription drug problems? I’m sure it happens, but on the other side it’s a way of life.
Another example is the “flip-flopper” affair. Bush changes positions like I change underwear (once weekly whether I need it or not). Kerry slightly rephrases his detailed and nuanced positions and wham! Flip Flopper! The reason why the right’s smears stick and the left’s don’t is the unspoken premise that the Democrats are the good guys, and should be above such things, while the Republicans are, shall we say, unencumbered with such expectations.
Suggestion. In the quest to reframe the debate to terms more favorable to our side, I have written before about the transformative power of the concept of value, so that we can move the discussion away from the cost side of government services (taxes) and balance it with the benefit side (clean air, the Air Force, roads, etc.) Here’s another buzzword that I think we should start to focus on: accountability. I’ve mentioned this before, but the more I think about it, the more I think that we must become the party of accountability. I think it’s a more constructive way to highlight the outright deceptive campaign of the Bushes and their lyin’ ilk, and I think it gives us the basis to move the conversation back onto our territory: away from whether the government should help people, and onto the question of how the government should help people.
So that’s two: Values, and Accountability. And when it comes to message discipline, it should go something like this:
Press: “What do you think of the fact that so many voters cited Mr. Bush’s moral values?
Democrat: “I think we need to focus on accountability and providing the American people with the kind of service they deserve.
Press: “But what about this tuna sandwich?”
Democrat: “That’s why I think we need to focus on accountability and delivering value to the American people.
And so on.