This weekend, I attended an event on Fire Island that featured Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (who was quite lovely and engaging). Interestingly, a few donors publicly expressed displeasure about the Democratic Party’s progress on LGBT issues during a Q&A session. This got me thinking about why some Democrats are disappointed with the Party – and it goes much deeper than votes on a few key issues. The unease, in my view, comes directly from the Party’s inability to define itself, defend itself and the style in which it communicates.
If one is asked to name five defining issues the Republican Party stands for, it would be easy: Lower taxes (for the rich), Pro-business (corporate welfare), Discrimination (gays, blacks, Muslims immigrants, etc.), Family Values (undermining separation of church & State) and a strong defense (dumb wars we can’t afford).
But, if one asks the same question about Democrats, people would be left scratching their heads. Over the past couple of decades, the Party has left us with a series of mind-numbing, ever-changing slogans and strategies.
Sure, many of the Democratic Party’s issues are laudable and they have had some success passing legislation. But the merry-go-round of messages has left the Party with an identity crisis. Any experienced salesperson understands that without a solid brand, the product can’t easily be marketed or sold.
In the absence of a brand, Democrats have had to disproportionately rely on prodigy politicians, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as scaring voters into believing (rightfully) that Republicans are too radical to govern. Fear will send many Democratic voters to the polls in November. However, spooking people into voting against the bad guys and Mama Grizzlies, while important, will not be enough to win long-term.
Aside from defining, the Democrats are going to have to start defending and stop allowing themselves to be tarred by Republicans. First, Al Gore was painted as a wimpy, serial exaggerator who lacked leadership. Then, we had war hero, John Kerry, who was swift boated as a traitor. Now, Barack Obama has been mercilessly slimed as a communist, Muslim terrorist who wants to march into Middle America and take their guns.
It is frustrating that the Democratic Party can’t make Americans remember the disaster of George W. Bush’s presidency, a mere two years ago. Yet the GOP still has people remembering the alleged nightmare of life under Jimmy Carter.
Wouldn’t the party be much better off if it cast aside its reticence and threw political punches against the GOP in the same way that Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman and Jon Stewart do each night?
If Barack Obama still thinks he can play nice and make friends with intransigent Republicans, then he is kidding himself. The GOP is already planning, if they win back the House, to undermine the President’s legitimacy and effectiveness by launching a series of frivolous investigations.
Of course, the biggest problem the Democrats have is that they often do not know how to talk to voters. In the early stages of my career, when I was in broadcasting, news directors taught that to reach a mass audience, reporters had to write at a fifth-to seventh grade level. The Republicans get this, while Democrats talk to the American people as if they are conducting a college seminar. We hear them yammering about complicated or meaningless terms such as: public option, cap and trade, deregulation, ENDA, and working people.
(Today’s real working people would rather be defined by their aspirations, not their current station in life. So, appeal to their dreams, not their present job.)
Here are four quick examples of the way Democratic Party officials and politicians should start talking to voters about key issues:
Deregulation: “Thanks to Republicans, we can’t even feel secure having eggs for breakfast because they have dismantled safeguards that protected us from food poisoning.”
Alternative Energy: “Every time we go to the gas pump and use foreign oil, we are pumping up the terrorists. This is why we support homegrown energy innovation.”
Environment: “We will not allow Republican policies to ruin our heritage by polluting our blue water and skies with oil and smog.”
ENDA: “In a free market, the best worker should get the job, regardless of sexual orientation. We have zero tolerance for discrimination because it is morally wrong and it is bad for business.”
I know it can be difficult to dumb down the rhetoric. But, it is better than feeling stupid on Election Day, watching Republicans trick the American people into voting against their own interests.