Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Now?


Yes, the Democrats surely got their butts handed to them in 2016. Not only did they lose the White House to a guy nobody took seriously1, they also failed to regain a majority in the Senate that conventional wisdom had been saying for months was pretty much a lock. There were countless articles, op-eds, and opinion pieces in publications, both online and non, attempting to explain why this happened. It was the fault of the Russians. No, it was the DNC sabotaging Bernie's campaign, because he was the only one who could win. No, wait a second, it was Hillary's fault because she was a "flawed candidate.2" Hang on a minute, it was because Steve Bannon is actually a Sith Lord and used the Dark Side3.

Back in 2012 it was a commonly held opinion that the Republican Party was in a tailspin, that they were eating their own young, and they were on an unsustainable path that would lead them to ruin. They pulled out of that nosedive and managed to take control of the Senate in 2014, then the White House in 2016. It wasn't because they had better candidates (they didn't) or more money (both parties were about equal, give or take a couple of percent, in that regard). They managed to pull themselves out of it through a dogged persistence in messaging and a ruthless candidate vetting process that ensured that all Republicans were on the same page, more or less.

Say what you will about Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Say they are ideological hard-liners. Say they are reactionary thugs. Say they are hopelessly out of touch with the electorate as a whole. Say they are putting power ahead of governance. Say they are using political dirty tricks to win elections because they know damned well that they will never win based on the Republican agenda (which I covered here, here, and here). Say Mitch McConnell is the result of an unholy union between a turtle and a tin-foil hat wearing right-wing conspiracy theorist. Say Paul Ryan is basically the nerdy kid in high school who read "Atlas Shrugged" over a weekend and all of a sudden wanted to tell everyone about it when everyone else was concerned with whether or not there was going to be a totally bitchin' party the next weekend. Say that ... uh, I forgot what my point was going to be ... oh, right.

Say what you will about the GOP, they are very effective at presenting a unified message. Granted, it's a horrible, cruel message, but at least it's unified. The Democrats, not so much. They will get completely lost in the weeds and spend hours, days, weeks bickering over who should go into the prom first and whether holding the door for a woman is sexist or just polite, and be completely oblivious to the Republican walking right past them and being named prom king by stuffing the ballot box.

The question then becomes: what do the Democrats do now? The answer is simple, but not easy.

Put together a unified message.This doesn't mean they need to become mindless drones, endlessly parroting accepted party talking points4. What it does mean, though, is that there needs to be a very limited number of core concepts that need to be a part of every campaign, from the local selectman on up to the President.

It's not enough to simply have these concepts as planks in the platform, however. They have to be publicized. They have to be part of every stump speech, every piece of mail, every TV or radio spot, every interview. It can be anything, so long as every candidate agrees on what they are.

For example, let's say that fighting against man-made climate change is one of these key issues. Currently we have a situation where some candidates will make it part of their campaign, others won't, and it is generally treated as a potentially toxic issue because it may alienate some conservatives. What Democrats need to do is, instead of mumbling their way through it, proudly stand up and announce that they are part of the fight, again, and again, and again, until people are sick of hearing it.

Sure, it may cost some voters, but it will win over others. Some will be attracted by the message, others will come simply because they are seeing a candidate with the stones to actually take a stand on something instead of waffling their way through everything.

Stop worrying so much about being correct, and focus on being right.
In the eyes of the public, Republicans usually win debates. It's not because they are smarter, or have better oratory, or better ideas. It's because they are able to reduce conservative ideas to bullet points -- easy bullet points. Granted, this is often at the expense of annoying things like "facts" and "the truth," but they are really good at it.

Take the climate change argument. A Republican will make a simple, flat statement: "Addressing climate change will cost jobs." This is, on its face, a true statement in that workers in the fossil fuel industry will very likely see job losses. Of course, it completely ignores the fact that new jobs will open up in the alternative energy sector, and that these jobs are far less likely to kill a person than coal mining, but that's not important. The Republican is making the point that addressing climate change will cost jobs, and he's not wrong.

The Democrat, on the other hand, will acknowledge that jobs will be lost, but that they will be made up for in other sectors, and the government will provide assistance with job retraining, and natural gas is an important part of our energy portfolio, and on and on and on in a monotonous drone that puts people to sleep ... after which the Republican wakes everyone up again by saying addressing climate change will cost jobs.

What Democrats need to do is beat them at their own game. Stop worrying about being 100% correct about all the various permutations and nuances. Instead, focus on the important point: addressing climate change will create jobs. They can get into the details later, but the point -- whatever it happens to be -- needs to be hammered home, frequently and vigorously.

Get aggressive.
This doesn't mean that Democratic candidates need to start beating the crap out of their Republican opponents5, or using the same unsavory tactics as the GOP. What it does mean is that Democrats need to stop reacting to everything, and give the Republicans something to which they have to react.

We saw this throughout the 2016 campaign. The Republicans were leveling accusations against the Democrats pretty much every twelve minutes -- some with a tiny grain of truth, but most of them were pure bunk and fabrication -- and the Democrats were forced to respond. Not only did this legitimize the accusations, but it stole valuable time from the Democrats when they could have been making their case instead of responding to GOP nonsense.

Obviously, when an accusation is leveled, it cannot simply be ignored -- this will give it a life of its own, making it a much harder beast to tame later. The thing is, Democrats can turn this around against the GOP. That's not to say something needs to be created out of whole cloth -- there is this whole "being honest about stuff" thing -- but there will be absolutely no problem finding legitimate things to hurl at them.

It then becomes a question of who can yell the loudest. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the Republicans have been training for this a lot longer, so there is serious catching up to do.

Find a standard bearer.
In most Presidential elections there is one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the other in terms of inspiring the electorate. This person may or may not be the smartest person on the dais during a debate, but is the one who is able to reach the voters on a visceral level.

In 1960 it was JFK. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon. In 1976, Jimmy Carter. In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton. In 2000, George W. Bush. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama.

Sadly, in 2016, it was donald trump, the stale Cheeto given a microphone.

In some cases neither one was very inspiring. 1988, for example, we were faced with two milquetoast nobodies that were unable to get anyone -- even in their immediate families -- fired up. In 2004 George W. Bush had huge negatives because of the Iraq War, but thanks to the character assassination of John Kerry (see "Get aggressive" earlier) the Democrats spent much of the campaign in damage control mode and had fewer resources to dedicate to presenting a coherent message.

What Democrats need is someone around whom the entire country can rally, someone who is able to bring out the best natures of people. Hillary wasn't it ... while she is arguably the most qualified candidate ever to run for the office, she was not able to stir the passions of the voters, to get them on her side in a way that would allow them to overlook her flaws. Barack Obama was able to get people to overlook his relative inexperience on the strength of his oratory and his intellect. Ronald Reagan was able to make people feel like they were chatting with their dear old Uncle Ronny who, while he might not be the brightest bulb in the light fixture, is decent folk and really cares about them.

Who is this person? It's not for me to say. I can say, however, that it is not a policy wonk who treats a political campaign like a traveling lecture. It is not someone who tries to portray himself as a nice, decent guy while simultaneously trying to be an attack dog (looking at you, Tim Kaine). It's not the grumpy guy down the street who just wants all those damned kids to get the hell out of his yard (Bernie Sanders), and it's not another first-term African-American Senator from a blighted city (Cory Booker) -- been there, done that.

What is needed is someone who can inspire people. Someone who can speak both Democratese and Republicanic. Someone who is able to not only convince Democrats, but can also get even hardcore Republicans to take him or her seriously. Someone youngish (in case you hadn't noticed, the country is currently being run by cranky old fossils, and that's working out really well), but not so young they can be portrayed as still being wet behind the ears.

Above all, they need someone who simultaneously can beat the GOP at their own game and remain above the fray. A tall order indeed, but with nearly 350 million people in the country I'm pretty sure one can be found.

I gotta lie down.

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1Yes, I know that Russia got involved and monkeyed around with stuff, but I'm not covering that this time around. I already did that here.
2And if I have to hear how she was a "deeply flawed candidate" as justification for the loss one more time I am going to gnaw my leg off at the knee and start clubbing people with it. Of course she was a flawed candidate. Every candidate is a flawed candidate. Duh.
3But you probably already knew this.
4That's what Republicans do (rimshot).
5Bet you'd pay good money to see that though. Just sayin'.

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