Whatever the outcome of the Special Election in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party has a serious message problem in 2010. In September the Democrats squandered an opportunity to reframe the debate around healthcare, campaigning for reform in a dispassionate, technocratic tone instead of communicating reform as a basic human right. Lost was a sense of higher purpose or greater calling. Instead, we found ourselves in a debate about Congressional Budget Office scores. Faced with this reality, Democrats and the White House are planning a massive "re-sell" of the plan if it passes later this month.
In Massachusetts, the Democrats threw a populist Hail Mary in the closing days of the Coakley-Brown race, with President Obama coming to the state to decry "fat cat" bankers and Wall Street. But the argument largely fell flat, as the centerpiece of the Democrat's current anti-fat-cat agenda is a complicated bank tax that voters don't understand and many economists view as inadequate.
Now as we plunge into the 2010 midterm cycle, the Democrats seem ready to make the biggest message blunder of all. Instead of campaigning on a serious jobs platform, or on their four-year record as the party in charge of Congress, Democrats are preparing to make the 2010 election about the one person they still think they can beat: George W. Bush. As Talking Points Memo reported in December, the DCCC (the team that runs the central campaign to keep Democrats in Congress) intends to argue that you should support Democrats next November because the Republicans "just want to rewind the clock to Bush era."
It could be a long year.
What is A "Campaign Message?"
A campaign message is the reason why you should support someone. It's the brief, summary case you make why someone should pull the lever for your candidate or cause. Vote for me, Scott Brown, and I'll kill the healthcare bill. That's a message. Vote for me, Barack Obama, I'm change you can believe in. Kind of vague, but that was his message.
In the 1990's, environmentalists (followed by the Democratic Party) staved off much of the Republican revolution by hammering home a "stop the rollback" message. Republicans, they argued, were trying to end Medicare, abolish the Department of Education, and "roll back" every environmental protection on the books. The message was effective. Newt Gingrich was a real bad guy with a genuine ideological fervor to repeal most of the 20th Century, and "stop the rollback" succeeded at heading off some of the most draconian parts of the Contract with America.
What the Campaign Will Look Like.
For 2010, the Democrats are planning similar message - no rollback to the Bush era - and a campaign that aims to shift the focus from them to their opponents. You can expect a lot of George W. Bush, a lot of Dick Cheney and a lot of scary television commercials reminding us what percentage of the time Congressman such-and-such voted with Bush. The closing days of the race could look a lot like Massachusetts, where Democrats tried to rally their base with charming mailers like this one, which argued (falsely) that Republican Scott Brown wanted to turn rape victims away from hospitals.
The Democrats are also planning to campaign on one signature issue: Deficit reduction. DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen said that Democrats will preach deficit reduction "from President Obama's State of the Union address on down to the rank-and-file," a defensive stance aimed at deflecting criticism that President Obama and the Democrats are over-spending.
Why "No Return to Bush" is a Bad Idea.
As a progressive eager for a "rally the base" defense of liberalism, the "no return to Bush" strategy is depressing. But tactically, it's just a bad idea, for two reasons:
1. Democrats have run Congress for four years. They have had a Democratic President for one. They're in charge. If they can't run on their record, why did we elect them to begin with?
2. It's not true. The Republican Party of 2010 is a far different beast than the party of 2006 and 2008. They certainly want to roll back many of the advances of the last 12 months. But this is a new Republican party dominated by new concerns. Whereas President Bush galvanized the Religious Right and stoked fears about cultural issues, the current excitement we're seeing is outrage over spending and perceived "big government."
In his briefing about 2010 strategy, Van Hollen argued, "The Republican party in Washington today is no different than the Republican party that ran the Congress before." But asking voters to remember back to 2005 is a pretty big gamble, especially at a moment where the nation is seeing double-digit unemployment. What's likelier is that voters will remember the Congressional takeover of 2006 and President Obama's election in 2008 and wonder why things aren't better. The Democrats can either speak into that reality, or try and ignore it.
What the Campaign Could Look Like.
Republicans and the "tea party" movement have co-opted populism. In a page right out of "What's the Matter With Kansas," tea-partiers around the country are campaigning against some of the very reforms that could help improve their lives. The response from Democrats is to create a bogeyman in the 2010 election (Bush) and to respond to charges of taxing and spending by just saying "deficit reduction" over and over again.
What I think could succeed is focused, two-part 2010 campaign that embraces the real strengths of the Democrats record and that argues passionately for a progressive economic platform.
Instead of running away from the stimulus, embrace it, with ads voiced by people whose jobs were saved, taking Republicans to task for saying no to keeping them employed.
If healthcare passes, challenge Republicans to explain why they would want people with pre-existing conditions to be denied coverage.
Remind voters that since 2006, we've seen advances in children's healthcare, in stem cell research, in environmental protections and in equal pay for equal work. Send voters into the voting booth knowing that under your watch, you passed healthcare; you passed a stimulus, and it's creating jobs and starting the shift to a greener economy.
That's part A.
Part B is harder. "Populist" rhetoric falls short if its not paired with an actual populist agenda. (See Gore, 2000.) Tea partiers think that Democrats and banks are the same thing, and they're not entirely wrong. The stimulus is too small, and too littered with tax cuts. To campaign pro-actively, and speak into the national mood, Democrats need to unveil a bold and fast-moving jobs plan for 2010.
The President could take the offensive in the State of the Union, acknowledging forcefully that his administration has not done enough to rein in Wall Street, then proposing a series of clear reforms that would. He could declare, once and for all, the retirement of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. He could highlight a few high-profile infrastructure projects and declare that completing them on his watch would be his - and the Democrats - legacy. And he could press for a jobs program - a federal program that would start this spring. Let the Republicans counter images of people all of the country at work with arguments about the deficit. They're against jobs!
This campaign would be hopeful (we like that) and forward thinking. If supported by serious policy proposals, it would be honest. And instead of going after Republicans for being the party of Bush, which they haven't been for years, go after them for what they are right now- the party of no: No ideas, no proposals, no on the hundreds of thousands of jobs saved last year, no on the jobs we want to create in 2010, no on taxing Wall Street, no, no no.
That campaign would be a risk. But it's my belief that it would energize the Democratic base, and it would engage independents in a real conversation about where they think the country is right now.
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As it stands today, the DCCC and The White House are prepared to send voters to the polls on November 2nd and ask them to express their discontent by voting against a leader they already voted against twice. And they're hoping that campaigning on "deficit reduction" will simmer down the tea partiers and independents, when we all know that Democrats will be hit as "tax and spend liberals" or even socialists no matter what they do.
A campaign with a bad message doesn't stand a chance, and "don't rewind the clock to the Bush era" is lackluster and uninspiring.
My hope is that instead, they will communicate to the American people the value of the investments they've already made. They will campaign for a bold jobs program moving forward. And when necessary, they will shame Republicans for the immorality of their votes in 2009.
I'd be thrilled to go out and support a campaign that defended some of the core principles of the Democratic Party. And strategically, I'd much rather sell that story. It has heroes and villains; hopes and dreams. In each district around the country, you'd have projects to point to as evidence of progress, and hundreds of teachers, nurses, plumbers and police officers that still have jobs because action was taken. It's even a little bit true.