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This Time, Democrats Need to Keep Control of the Narrative

11/14/2012 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

It started within hours of the polls closing, and with no let-up in campaign ferocity: the interpreting of the 2012 presidential election and The Meaning Of It All (see here, here, here, here, and here). For Democrats, it's the Renaissance; for Republicans, it's the Dark Ages. Whose interpretation will prevail?

For Democrats, knowing this election would be close, the main feeling on election night was profound relief that President Barack Obama got himself reelected neat and clean -- with both the popular vote (close) and Electoral College vote (decisive) -- and he did it that night, with no litigation or recount necessary. The dread I'd felt all day, that nothing would be resolved with this election, lifted as the count came in and the meaning penetrated.

What penetrated was this: Unlike the "status quo" election the losing Republicans claim just occurred, this election was consequential in elemental ways. Not only did the worthier candidate retain the White House, having earned reelection, but a plutocrat with little affinity for the middle class was locked out. The majority hired the better leader for the great ongoing American experiment of balancing capitalism and democracy.

And, on that same capitalism-democracy note: As at least this election shows, money could not buy the White House or the Congress, despite record sums pumped into the Super PACs and channeled into Republican campaigns (see here, here, and here). Frank Capra would be proud.

But not only was the American way of life reinforced, so in a way was our soul: In the teeth of Tea Party extremism, Obama-hatred, and off-the-wall pronouncements from Republicans about women, minorities, gays, and immigrants, the majority of the American electorate pushed back and voted for fairness, tolerance, and sanity. Fairness, tolerance, and sanity: It's America at its best and we got a bit of it back -- and we did so while the whole world watched. The world also saw us return our first African-American president to office, no small thing in the context of world history.

Democrats then can be proud: They muscled up their flagging hope and they produced change the country needs. It's not the euphoric hope of 2008, which couldn't last forever, but more sober, tougher, more sustainable. Given the turbulence and attendant exhaustion of post-9/11 America, the moment was tonic.

But not to forget: This election was close. Almost as many Americans voted against the Democratic agenda as voted for it. So, no gloating -- though it's permissible to gloat over the Republicans' catastrophic return on their Super PAC investments, a surprise development that's good not only for Democrats but for our democracy. And it's permissible to cheer that the Republican efforts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement, while they hurt democracy, did not hurt the election result.

So why was this election so close? The reason, I believe, was because Democrats -- both in the White House and the grassroots -- lost control of the narrative to Republicans early on in Mr. Obama's first term. Readers know the litany: Mr. Obama leaving it to Congress to work out the health care bill, appearing to get rolled by Republicans again and again, which in turn caused the Democratic rank-and-file to despair and let down their defense. No wonder Republicans were certain this election was the Democrats' to lose, despite Mr. Obama achieving a commendable lot.

The point is: This time, Democrats must keep control of the narrative. Starting now, with how this election is interpreted.

Republicans are already at work at the framing game. In addition to characterizing this election as status quo, the Republicans are attributing their loss not to an inferior agenda but largely to demographics (as Rush Limbaugh intoned, "We're outnumbered, folks"), also to a weak standard-bearer, negative tactics of the Obama campaign, bad polling, bad ground game, even the weather. Hurricane Sandy allowed Mr. Obama to appear presidential while monitoring the destruction and underscore the Democratic points, which Republicans were hog-tied to refute, about climate change and the utility of the federal government to aid in natural disasters.

Happily, Mr. Obama seems to have gotten the message about controlling his narrative. His "Let's get to work" remarks he delivered upon returning to the White House after the election showed renewed energy and focused, properly, on our No. 1 problem: fixing the financial crisis and reforming the system (see video here). Republican leaders, initially at least, exhibit a willingness to follow his lead, rather than usurp his power. But why rely on the kindness of Republicans? In addition to working his in-game with Congress, Mr. Obama will work his out-game, continuing as in the campaign to promote his agenda directly with the American public, also with business and labor groups (see here).

In tandem with Mr. Obama, the Democratic rank-and-file also must control the narrative in its own space, and not just at election time but every day. I got my start the day after the election, when a Republican relative said over the phone, "That Obama doesn't deserve reelection. All he did was blame Bush." "Just a cotton-picking minute," I said, "Mr. Obama is repairing the economy Bush destroyed, he's ending the two wars Bush began. You Republicans need to stop hating Mr. Obama and start taking responsibility for your mistakes."

"History is written by the victors" goes the well-known axiom, variously attributed to Napoleon and Churchill, victors in war. The Democrats, victors in the recent war (this past election was war of a non-shooting kind), must write the history, including revising the bad history written about them, and they must control their narrative -- if they wish to retain power. Because, fundamentally, power is what this struggle is all about -- the power to direct the nation's affairs, the power to define 21st-century America.

Of course it's always been a question if Democrats are too nice to wield power, while it's never been a question that Republicans feel it's their natural right to rule (while simultaneously disdaining government -- a neat psychological trick). But, 'tis better to wield the power than scrap for it.

So starting now -- the forthcoming Thanksgiving dinner is a good place to practice --
Democrats need to write the history: defend "that Obama," defend the election, discuss reform. And they need to revise Republican cant that, undefended, became lore: that government is wicked, that Democrats are the anti-Christ -- the list is long, each item vital. Ready, set, defend -- enjoy.

For more on the 2012 election as consequential, see here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a new play titled "Prodigal."