07/09/2010 08:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday Talking Points [130] -- Who Is This "They" Obama Speaks Of?

Since we took last week off to write something patriotic for Independence Day weekend, we've got two weeks to cover today. Fortunately, every other week in Washington (or so it seems) is vacation time for Congress, meaning they were only in session (or "working") for one week of that. Add to this the fact that Congress usually defines "a work week" as from noon on Tuesday to noon on Thursday (nice work if you can get it, eh?), and it puts it all in perspective.

But since it's still going to take a while to cover all this (and we're not even bothering to cover crazy Republican statements, other than Michael Steele's), we're going to skip this whole "intro" section this week, and move straight to the awards. Then, in lieu of Friday Talking Points, we're going to take a look at a speech by President Obama and an interview given by Rahm Emanuel, with a bit of commentary. So let's get right to it!


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

I have to give a little mini-shout-out to Vice President Joe Biden here, for traveling to Iraq and forcing the news media to pay a shred of attention to the country for a brief period (after calling on them to do just that last week). Biden was in Iraq mainly to tell the Iraqis that it is time to get their act together and form a government, because the U.S. troops are leaving on schedule whether they do or not -- and it'd be a whole lot better for them if this was completed real soon now. But, as I said, Biden did remind the media with his trip that we are now down to 77,500 American troops there, and are on track to hit 50,000 by the end of next month. So an Honorable Mention is in order for Joe.

This week, though, we're going to (quite possibly prematurely) award the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to a coalition calling itself One Nation, for (at least so far) performing a near-impossible cat-herding feat: getting Democrats to act together, instead of at cross-purposes.

From a Washington Post article today about the effort:

Liberal leaders see "much of the progressive agenda at risk in this election," said Paul Starr, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor The American Prospect [sic], a liberal magazine. "There is no choice but for these groups to get together. The historical pattern is that voter turnout falls disproportionately among minorities and young people at these midterm elections so they are fighting a historical trend."

Leaders of the groups have been meeting for about three months in a planning process that some participants called arduous, debating everything from the name of the coalition to what the branding and logo should look like.

The network's first goal is to plan a march to "demonstrate to Congress that these agenda items have support across multiple demographics," Jealous said. The demonstration, to be held Oct. 2, will center on pressing for more government spending on job creation.

Lest we be compared to, say, the Nobel Prize committee, we have to say that we're mostly impressed at this point that One Nation has gotten this far (see: previous cat-herding comment). We have no idea how effective or large their October rally will be, but we have to applaud them for even making the attempt.

For coming together right before a big midterm election, we salute One Nation and hereby award them the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Good luck on the rally, too!

[A quick search turned up no website address for One Nation, so if anyone has contact info for them, please post it in the comments.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

The entire Senate, on vacation for a whole week (while still being paid a handsome sum, of course), deserves some sort of mention here for fleeing the heat (both politically and literally) in Washington without passing an extension of unemployment benefits. For shame, guys. We offer up our very first Most Deserving Of A Gigantic Raspberry award to all of them.

[Etymological Note: The slang term "raspberry," sometimes referred to as a "Bronx cheer," is actually the result of one of the few instances where Cockney rhyming slang made it to the shores of the United States intact. This patois, for those unfamiliar, uses the first part of a compound term or phrase -- the second (unsaid) part of which rhymes with the word that the whole thing replaces. Such as, for instance: "I left my mickey this morning...." Mickey, in this case, refers to "Mickey Mouse," which rhymes with "house." Got all that? Well, the term "raspberry" for making a rude sound with lips and tongue actually refers to "raspberry tart"... and (in the interests of propriety), I will leave it to the student to complete the exercise with what rhymes with "tart" and sounds similar to a Bronx cheer.]

Ahem. Where were we? Oh, right, the MDDOTW, of course.

The winner this week is the Democratic National Committee as a whole, and spokesperson Brad Woodhouse in particular. In response to an enormous Republican gaffe by RNC chairman Michael Steele on the winnability of the war in Afghanistan, Woodhouse responded with a statement:


Here goes Michael Steele setting policy for the GOP again. The likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham will be interested to hear that the Republican Party position is that we should walk away from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban without finishing the job. They'd also be interested to hear that the Chairman of the Republican Party thinks we have no business in Afghanistan notwithstanding the fact that we are there because we were attacked by terrorists on 9-11.

And, the American people will be interested to hear that the leader of the Republican Party thinks recent events related to the war are 'comical' and that he is betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan. It's simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences.

Now, some might say "Republicans make this sort of attack on Democrats' patriotism whenever a war is questioned, so why shouldn't we use the same tactic against them?" These folks would be wrong, in my opinion. I realize this entire column series is dedicated to teaching Democrats how to use a few tactical ideas in how they communicate (borrowing heavily, at times, from the Republican playbook), but there are certain lines that, once crossed, result in losing the moral high road forever. This is one of those times. It is shortsighted in the extreme for an official of the Democratic Party to say this sort of thing, because it means Republicans are going to point to his statement in the future whenever Democrats complain about such Republican attacks.

Especially since you don't even have to look to the future to see what I'm talking about. Plenty of Democrats in Congress right now probably mostly agreed with what Steele was trying to say (if not quite endorsing exactly how he said it) on the subject of Afghanistan. Meaning the DNC is undermining its own members by this statement.

Which is why we're awarding Brad Woodhouse, and (by extension) the entire DNC this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. Think twice before you speak, next time. Sometimes when your opponent is digging himself in a hole, the best thing to do is just offer to hold his coat and stand to the side while you watch him dig deeper. This should have been one of those times, since Steele was getting so much grief for his statement from the right wing already.

[Contact the Democratic National Committee on their official contact page, to let them know what you think of Woodhouse's statement.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 130 (7/9/10)

Before we begin here, I'd like to recommend a recent column written by George Lakoff in the Huffington Post recently. I fully admit that I'm a rank amateur at this whole messaging/framing/talking points thing, but George Lakoff is not -- he is a professional who has written many excellent books on the subject and who also gets the chance to talk to powerful Democrats in Washington -- who really should pay a lot more attention to what he has to say. In any case, Lakoff's recent column is fairly long and technical, but I still heartily recommend it to anyone interested in this sort of stuff.

With that out of the way, we turn our attention to two recent public appearances. The first was President Obama appearing in Kansas City, Missouri, in a factory which makes battery-powered electric trucks ("green jobs" in other words), and the second was a fairly disastrous interview which Rahm Emanuel gave PBS' News Hour last night.

Now, no matter what your opinion of Rahm personally (or politically, for that matter), usually he's pretty good at giving a good interview. He normally is sharp, quick-thinking, has multitudes of facts and examples he can cite to make his point, and he usually knows how to put things in a soundbite that is media-friendly. You may hate what he's saying, in other words, but you've got to give him credit for clearly making his case. Usually.

Yesterday, Rahm looked tired. He fumbled in his answers, had problems following his own thoughts through to a conclusion, and rambled on quite a bit without even coming close to answering simple questions. He missed a large opportunity to make his point by not having his facts straight, and he could not say whether President Obama really had made any of the key decisions in the past few weeks. It really was a disastrous interview, which is available in full from PBS' website (in both video and written transcript formats).

Obama's speech (transcript only) is also available, for those wishing to read it in full.

Obama's speech is notable, because it was reviewed as "Obama makes the case for Democrats for the fall election." It does have a certain stump speech quality to it, so it's easy to see why it's gotten this reaction.

My biggest problem with both Obama's speech and Emanuel's interview is that neither one of them truly seems to understand that an election is underway. The word "Republican" is not uttered once by President Obama. Rahm only uses the word four times, and only two of those are really drawing distinctions between what Democrats want to do, and what Republicans want to do (or, more to the point, not to do). And neither one of them uses the word "Democrat" (or "Democrats" or "Democratic") once.

This is just inexcusable.

Obama, in particular, put the entire political situation in Washington into the most passive voice he possibly could. He uses the word "we" repeatedly, without defining whether he's talking about all Democrats... or perhaps just using the royal "we" to talk about himself, and his administration. This is contrasted -- again, without explanation or definition -- by "some people" who were against the ideas "we" have. Here's the best example:

We're not there yet. We've got a long way to go. But what is absolutely clear is we're moving in the right direction. We are headed in the right direction. And that's -- the surest way out of this storm is to go forward, not to go backwards. There are some people who argue that we should abandon some of these efforts -- some people who make the political calculation that it's better to just say no to everything than to lend a hand to clean up the mess that we've been in.

But my answer to those who don't have confidence in our future, who want to stop -- my answer is come right here to Kansas City. Come see what's going on at Smith Electric. I think they're going to be hard-pressed to tell you that you're not better off than you would be if we hadn't made the investments in this plant.

Obama then goes on to start referring to "some people" as an even-more-amorphous "they," who should get out and talk to everyone in America who is seeing the benefits of what "we" managed to get done.

Note to White House speech writers: it is perfectly acceptable to use the words "Democrats" and "Republicans" in such a speech. In fact, it is politically negligent not to use these terms, when attempting to define what "we" are doing and why "they" don't want us to succeed.

Think I'm overstating the case? Here's another example:

And that's why, when my administration began, we immediately cut taxes -- that's right. You wouldn't know it from listening to folks, but we cut taxes for working families and for small business owners all across American to help them weather the storm. Through our small business loans, and our focus on research and development, and our investment in high-tech, fast-growing sectors like clean energy, we're helping to speed our recovery by harnessing the talent and the drive and the innovative spirit of the American people. So our goal has never been to create another government program, our goal has been to spur growth in the private sector.

"Listening to folks"? Are you serious? Unidentified "folks" are the ones telling people this? Pray tell, who are these "folks" of whom you speak?

Now, there is a rule in politics that if you can avoid it, you're never supposed to say your opponent's name (so as to not give them free publicity) -- on a personal level. But not at the party level. The midterm elections are going to be about "Democrats want to do this, Republicans don't want to do anything" -- if Democrats can make this case. But you've got to use their party's name to do so. To say nothing of using your own party's name.


Here is one of Obama's wrapping-up paragraphs from his speech:

That's how we're going to take charge of our destiny. That's how we create jobs and create lasting growth. That's how we ensure that America doesn't just limp along, maybe recover to where we were before, but instead that we're prospering -- that this nation leads the industries of the future.

Here is what he should have said instead:

That's how Democrats are going to take charge of America's destiny. That's how Democrats plan on creating jobs and creating lasting growth. That's how Democrats -- and any Republicans willing to meet us halfway -- ensure that America doesn't just limp along, maybe recover to where we were before, but instead that we're prospering. Democrats want this nation to lead the industries of the future, as we've led the industries of the past, but we can only do so with your help, and your vote. I hope you'll think about this in November.

Moving on to Rahm Emanuel's interview, for about the first half of it, Rahm seemed to want to deny that President Obama had any sort of role whatsoever in any major decision in the past month or so, with the exception of firing General McChrystal and replacing him with General Petraeus. Here is Rahm answering Jim Lehrer's question: "Was the decision on this spy swap the president's?"

Well, first of all, what the president does appreciate is the work of the law enforcement community, as well as the intelligence community for their hard work in this case. It wasn't the decision of the president. It was the decision, obviously, of the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. But he does appreciate what they did and making America safer and the hard work that they did to get this done.

So the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. decides on a spy prisoner swap with Russia, and the president isn't really even in the loop? You have got to be kidding me.

Lehrer was stunned by Emanuel's answer. He tried to give Rahm a chance to walk this back, and incredulously rephrased the question five separate times and all he got back was more of the same:

He [Obama] understood that, you know, these type of things are done by the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. He was briefed about it, given the information about it. But the actions were taken by the law enforcement community.

Lehrer moved on to ask about whether the decision to take Arizona to court over their new immigration law, and (to be fair) this sort of decision is not really supposed to be the president's to make (the Attorney General is supposed to operate independently on what cases to bring to court), but it just reinforced the impression that Obama sits in the Oval Office while Washington moves on all around him, without Obama having any influence whatsoever over these things.

Emanuel, however, really appeared off his game in the entire first half of the interview. Here is one of his answers on Arizona, for instance, with mangled syntax worthy of Sarah Palin:

And the good news is -- I'm not a lawyer. And so I think the way to see this is -- is the president's been clear about -- and I think the most important thing is to take away that, on this case, he doesn't believe 50 states should have -- we should have 50 separate immigration laws.

Rahm's usually better than this, I have to say. If you think I'm cherry-picking quotes here to make Emanuel look bad, I invite you to watch the full video and see if you agree that Rahm looked like he was in desperate need of a cup of strong coffee before the interview.

Rahm did wake up a bit at this point in the interview, and got a few solid points across, to be fair. But then he got hung up on the phrase "there are choices" -- basically talking about the choice voters were going to make in November. As with Obama's speech, this is couched in the most passive language imaginable:

Well, you know, there are choices here. There are clear choices. There are a set of policies that led to the recession. There are a set of policies and lack of enforcement that led to a financial crisis on Wall Street.

There was a set of policies that also led to, I believe, leaving us in the worst fiscal condition we had ever seen in this country. And the president understands he's made a series of choices, willing to explain them, live up to them, and defend them.

"There are a set of policies"? Where, pray tell, did these policies come from, Rahm? Did they just spring into existence one bright day on the banks of the Potomac? Perhaps you should mention that these were Republican policies? Rahm even went on to name two Republicans -- without mentioning that they were Republicans -- in his next few paragraphs. The term "they" was also tossed around quite a bit --with no explanation or definition.

Once again, sigh.

Emanuel's shining moment in the sun, where he actually names the opposing party came next, but it was marred by the fact that Rahm completely fumbles the factual football in an enormous way while doing so:

Congressman Boehner in Ohio knows the president made some tough decisions that it required to the auto industry -- just take one industry by example -- criticized by business, criticized by Republicans. He said, we're not going to support you unless you make the tough decisions to get your costs under control.

They have restructured. They are coming -- they have come out of bankruptcy. This month, GM, rather than close nine factories, kept them open, because they have turned around. They are filing an IPO, which will be the first IPO in the auto industry in over 50 years in the United States. And a bunch of suppliers have kept people on because GM is profiting.

That was a tough -- going back to leadership, that was a tough decision, criticized at the time. And America, where he said, and the president said, the auto was invented, the industry was created here, and we have now GM back, starting to be aggressive again, good for future shareholders and good for its workers, and I and the president believes good for the United States.

And that was a decision that Republicans at the time criticized. And it turned out and so far to date has turned out to be the right decision for America's economy.

He talked earlier about this Initial Public Offering (IPO) without mentioning that he was talking about GM. He used the phrase "first IPO in the auto industry in over 50 years" more than once.

There's only one problem with this. Not only is Rahm wrong, but he is ignoring one of the best examples he could be using to make the case for green jobs and auto jobs -- which is the main point he's trying to make here. Because if GM does have an IPO soon, it will be the second IPO in the American auto industry this year. And the first IPO, which just happened a week ago or so was for an all-electric sports car company. Google "Tesla Motors" to find out more about this Silicon Valley green job automotive success story.

In other words, the IPO of GM is nice to talk about, but the Tesla IPO makes the case you're trying to make in a much better way.

Rahm ends the interview weakly, by trying to make the case which can be paraphrased as: "here's where the country was when Obama took office, here's where we are now -- we're heading in the right direction because we made tough choices." The only problem with this is that it was an answer to questions about why the public doesn't seem to agree.

Lehrer, in response to Rahm's happy talk, asked again "Whether the public gets it or not?" to which Emanuel limped home with:

No, I -- but it makes it -- I mean, let me say this as a former member of Congress and also somebody that enjoys politics... it is understandable for their frustration because of their own economic conditions. ... That doesn't take away from where we have been, where we are today, and the road going forward.

This is exactly the caricature of "elitism" Republicans love to use against Democrats -- "Trust us, we know what's best for you even if you don't."

I don't know if Rahm just had an off day yesterday. But it is pretty obvious that the White House -- who is supposed to be helping Democrats everywhere have a better chance at getting elected in November -- is not doing this job well enough. Both Obama and Emanuel were so terrified of stating -- in plain language -- that there are two political parties in America, that they themselves belong to the Democratic Party, who has certain ideas for moving the country forward; and that their opponents are the Republican Party who are against every good idea Democrats come up with -- without offering any better ideas themselves.

That is the case to be made this year to the voters. That is the fundamental difference Democrats need to be pointing out, every chance they get from now until November. Running against George W. Bush isn't going to work this time around -- you have to paint the whole Republican Party with the Bush policies they all endorsed at the time. To misquote Ecclesiastes, there's a time for bipartisanship and a time for partisanship. And if an election isn't time for some Democratic partisan cheerleading, then when is?


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground