07/05/2006 07:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democratic Messaging: Politically (Ring) Tone Deaf

Have you heard about the new cell-phone ring tone that can't be heard by most people over the age of twenty? Originally designed as an ear-splitting way for businesses to drive away unwanted teens without disturbing their older customers, the sonic invention, called the Mosquito, has been flipped on its youthful ear by enterprising youngsters who figured it would be a cool way to contact their friends without their elders -- especially teachers -- being aware of it.

When I heard about this new ring tone that I wouldn't actually be able to hear, it put a bug in my ear, a buzzing that quickly grew more annoying than any mosquito. Or Mosquito. And it had nothing to do with my teenage daughters, and everything to do with what a perfect metaphor this is for the wishy-washy messaging of the Democratic Party. Its leaders have adopted a political tone that can't be heard by a huge segment of the population.

Take Diane Feinstein's politically tone deaf appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, during which she was asked about the New York Times breaking the banking surveillance program story. First she said she kinda, sorta wished the paper hadn't published the story, then she said she was ticked off that even though she's on the Senate Intelligence Committee she was only briefed about the program when it became clear the Times was going to break the story. And then she said she wasn't sure if the program itself was legal or illegal but that "everybody would feel better about it had it had a FISA programmatic approval."

Let's go to the transcript:

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The national security debate also took a turn this week... on this issue of whether The New York Times should have published that article on the banking surveillance program run out of Belgium. Do you think they should have?

SEN. FEINSTEIN: Well, I, in a way, wish they hadn't. But that's not my job to say. I mean, one of the beauties of our system of government is that the press functions as a separate, independent entity and is not necessarily cowed by government.


MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: The White House said that they did brief the Congress on this matter and that there is no law called into question. Do you believe that a law is called into question and that this program might have been illegal?

SEN. FEINSTEIN: Well, I'm on the Intelligence Committee. I can tell you when I was briefed and when the committee was briefed, and that was when it became apparent that the New York Times had the story and was going to run it. And that's when and why they came to us and briefed us.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So you knew nothing about it before the New York Times was asking questions?

SEN. FEINSTEIN: That's correct.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And do you believe that there are legal and constitutional questions about this program?

SEN. FEINSTEIN: I am not sure because I don't know the nuts and bolts of how the program is run. We've had a general briefing. But I think everybody would feel better about it had it had a FISA programmatic approval.

Brrrrrng! Hel-lo? Do you hear something -- anything -- resembling a clear position there? Me neither. But the problem, dear Brutus, is not with what we are failing to hear but with what the Democrats are failing to say.

Compare Feinstein's decidedly non-ear-slitting response with the GOP stance on the Times question. Bush said the paper's actions "makes it harder to win this war on terror." Cheney said it makes it "more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future." And Tony Snow said it "could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans." Or as summed up by the inimitable Stephen Colbert: "The New York Times wants you and your family dead." Now which of these messages do you think will break through and be heard by voters?

Of course, it's not just Feinstein. There was Harry Reid's atonal performance at a news conference on the flag burning amendment. "I don't think it's the right time to bring up the issue," he said, followed by: "I'll vote for it." Asked about the contradiction, he explained: "I'm confident it won't pass." Is it any wonder that he's not being heard?

As for what should be their strongest issue, the ongoing disaster in Iraq, Democrats are still incapable of sounding the right tone. Their all-over-the map messaging certainly isn't ringing any bells or setting voters' hearts to vibrate.

One of the biggest problems, as George Lakoff points out in his terrific post, is that the Democrats continue to fight the Iraq battle on the Republicans' turf. Lakoff provides an excellent example of the kind of clear language on Iraq that could be heard across the land: "This is an occupation, not a war." In his Cut-and-Run framing, Karl Rove has found the GOP's crystal clear messaging on Iraq, and the Democrats, even when they disagree with it, are buying into it. And, as always, those who define the terms of the debate inevitably win it.

As well as the Occupation theme that Lakoff has laid out for them, Democrats should pick up the war profiteering refrain -- and bang out every day how, from the very beginning, Iraq has been used to help line the pockets of the Bush administration's corporate cronies. Check out this trailer for Robert Greenwald's upcoming film, Iraq for Sale: the War Profiteers. It delivers a storyline as all-American as motherhood and apple pie -- and a tune as resonant as "God Bless America."

So those are two political ring tones the Democrats should download right away. The ones they're using right now are falling on deaf ears.