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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Plotting a Campaign

Here’s how I think the Democrats should approach the 2006 and 2008 campaigns.  I don’t think I’ve got everything completely worked out here, but that’s the beauty of the comments section.  I’m confident that, together, we can work our way toward some useful—and usable—ideas.  Then we’ll mail then off to Howard Dean.

The Democrats need a unifying theme, a plot, some strong images, and a good mixture of negative and positive talking points.  They cannot, as every one keeps stressing, merely run a negative campaign.  True, their base will come out to vote against the Republicans.  But they need more than their base to win.

The unifying theme of the campaign should be “work” and “fairness.” I know that’s two themes, but the point is to articulate them together.  I’m not a PR guy, but the slogan should be some variant of “You Get What You Work For” or “Working for America, Working with Americans.” The basic message is that the Democrats will work to give every American access to a decent job and that they will work to protect the ability of working Americans to afford health care, retirement, college for their kids, and a decent life during their working years. 

The negative side of the campaign obviously comes from emphasizing how Republican policies threaten all of those basic amenities.  The “fairness” theme has to show how we are becoming two nations, the privileged and the scorned.  Start with the basic fact that Congress would never subject itself to the kind of inadequate health insurance that most Americans must accept—if they are lucky enough to have health insurance.  Move from there to comparison of pension plans for the wealthy compared to what the average worker has to look forward to.  Then show how the groups who can afford hiring full-time lobbyists and to make large-scale campaign contributions get special favors.  And, finally, explain how the Republicans want to dismantle the safety nets of Medicaid and Social Security.

As a party on the outs, the Democrats have a limited ability to set the agenda of a campaign.  That’s why I think they need a plot.  They should develop a timeline of one theme or issue per week.  Each week they should unfold a different critique of the Republican agenda or piece of their own alternative one.  Yes, they must respond to events as they occur, and to the Republicans’ campaign maneuvers.  But I think way too much emphasis has been put on rapid response teams.  Give the Republicans something to respond to.  Take the campaign as a pedagogical opportunity.  Under the rubric of fairiness, lay out the multiple ways the Republicans have skewed the playing field to favor the most fortunate, the most privileged.  Appeal to Americans’ sense of fair play.

The images of the campaign should be ordinary Americans.  There should be a person connected to each week’s story: the United pilot who is about to lose over 50% of his pension; the elderly American who is squeezed by increases in Medicaid co-payments and who has found the so-called prescription drug benefit unusable; the textile worker whose job was sent overseas and who doesn’t get the “severance package” provided for the executive who also lost a job in the move; the lobbyist who insures that the company that locates its corporate headquarters in the Bahamas continues to avoid paying American corporate income taxes; the plaintiff who was screwed by a right-wing judge’s decision in favor of a corporation in an environmental or working conditions suit.  This should be a campaign of stories—tales of people who are worse off because of this government, or unfairly better off because of its favors.

The positive parts of the agenda are, in many cases, straight-forward enough.  A minimum wage bill; various small steps (for starters) to address the problems of health care and outsourcing of jobs; funding for education instead of grand-standing rhetoric about it; repeal of the various loopholes that reward companies and individuals for economic actions that harm the community as a whole.  The Democrats have to dramatize Republican priorities—and blindnesses.  Over forty million Americans without health insurance and the Republicans don’t plan to address the issue at all in Congress this year or in the foreseeable future.  Instead, they want to spend their vaunted “political capital” downsizing Social Security, even though its deficit won’t appear until 2042. 

Along with promising legislative attention to the needs of average Americans, the Democrats should also stress successful government and citizen joint initiatives.  Gar Alperovitz had a great column on this topic recently over at Tom Paine.  The Democrats need to tell these stories as a way to begin rehabilitating Americans’ image of their government.  One of the biggest problems the Democrats face is the loss of faith in government.  Americans know that our health care “system” (I guess it qualifies as a system within the confines of chaos theory) is broken.  But they are also convinced that anything the government does to fix it would only make things worse.  They would rather muddle through with the devil they know.  The Democrats need to tell stories about successful government action—places where the government enabled people to do things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, or government worked hand-in-hand with local citizens to accomplish something. 

In sum, then, a vision of America as a place where people can work together to provide prosperity and security to everyone who joins the effort.  A unifying vision as contrasted to Republican divisiveness which separates the rich from the poor, ostracizes gays, and casts aspersions on the patriotism and morality of everyone who doesn’t see the world in exactly their way. 

Can a politics of unity and hope win an election when pitted against a politics of divisiveness and fear?  I don’t know.  But as everyone keeps saying, the Democrats have to stand for something—and the latest polls do suggest that many in this country are finding the Republicans increasingly distasteful, even scary. (So, yes, the Democrats do have a fear element in their campaign—fear of personal economic hardship.  The pension issue is huge—as this Slate essay by Daniel Gross makes clear—but has gotten surprisingly little play so far.  The Democrats need to connect corporate irresponsibility to Republican policies that hurt the economic competitiveness of any company that actually tries to do the right thing by its employees.) Maybe the moderate center that blocked the nuclear option in the Senate (at least temporarily) can hold over the next eighteen months—and point a path away from rightist extremism.  The opportunity is there for the Democrats to articulate clearly that there is a different way to do politics and a different set of priorities we can choose as a nation. 

You will have noticed, of course, that I have said nothing about foreign affairs and homeland security.  The “fairness” theme does work, to a very limited extent, in these realms.  I think the Democrats need to show how much of homeland security has been a pork barrel feeding frenzy in which the public treasury has been ripped off by businesses that fund Republican campaigns and golf junkets.  There are plenty of dramatic stories that can be told there.  The Democrats should also tell the story of how our soldiers overseas are under-equipped, underpaid, and treated unequally (the National Guard troops get shafted in relation to regular service personnel), while private contractors in Iraq and elsewhere are raking in Pentagon dollars.  The Republicans have shown no desire to address such abuses; they turn a blind eye to them because they are fully implicated in them.

But the theme of fairness only gets the Democrats so far in this arena.  On Iraq, I think the Democrats have no option except to take the Colin Powell approach.  The war should never have been started and it has been mismanaged from start to present, but we can’t just abandon ship now.  We broke it, so we have a responsibility to get it back into working order.  Can the Democrats claim to have a Nixonian “secret plan” to achieve that desired end?  Not plausibly.  The argument just has to be that the Democrats could hardly do worse.  A Democratic candidate should say, quietly but firmly: “The war was a mistake.  But there’s no point in trying to rewrite the past.  We are there now and have to do our best by the Iraqi people and by our soldiers in the field.  The current group has never shown the least ability to get the job done, so they should not be elected in the name of continuity because that only means continued failure.”

On homeland security, the Democrats should walk very softly.  That there have not been any domestic deaths since 9/11 should be praised as a great achievement and the Democrats should make it clear that they will support and enhance all the government work that has contributed to that achievement.  I am deeply troubled by the fact that the public appears, at best, indifferent to the civil liberties issues of the Patriot Act as well as slightly hostile to any serious prosecution of those responsible for abusing the prisoners we hold in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba.  The Democrats have nothing to gain (unfortunately) from saying much about these matters. 

Posted by John McGowan on 05/25 at 10:03 AM
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