There is a level of glee among the Democrats and in the Democratic Party in Washington that has not been seen since polling led us to believe that John Kerry was going to beat George Bush the day before last year’s election. If Clinton could get impeached for illicit activities, then the Democrats are simply giddy that the Senate Majority Leader is under investigation for insider trading, the House Majority Leader is under indictment for money laundering, the White House’s chief procurement officer was arrested for lying, and Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are suspected of treason-like actions by leaking a CIA agent’s name. As much as that 2004 prediction of certain presidential victory was wrong, so it is also naïve to believe that the Democrats are going to walk into the majority next year simply because the Republicans might self-destruct.
How many liberals have hoped for just that, however, over the last five years? “Just wait and see,” say Democratic loyalists, “ The Republicans will overreach and we’ll return to power.”
What happens, though, if the Republicans turn things around before the 2006 congressional and gubernatorial elections? No one in their right mind believes that the Republican strategists are anything but brilliant. Evil, maybe. Dumb, no. There is, in fact, already some evidence of recovery amongst Republicans and voters in the Deep South where Bush has spent all that time making speeches and doing those photo-ops.
Where will the national Democratic Party be if the GOP does recover? Exactly where they are now. No agenda that the public knows about. A weak infrastructure. No power. Yet liberals continue to tell themselves as they do after every lost election, “The American people agree with us on all the big issues – education, health care, Iraq, the environment – so it’s clear that we’re right.” Who cares if you fell good about yourselves but can do nothing to enact your agenda?
There is a grand opportunity for a return of the Democrats if they reconsider their usual old ways of talking to the American people. It is true that voters give Bush the lowest ratings of his presidency and that the Republican congressional leadership is under a cloud that makes Richard Nixon look like Mother Theresa. But accoring to polls, that is not increasing the American people’s impression of the Democrats. Despite the Republicans’ problems, a Democracy Corps poll (James Carville and Stan Greenberg) concluded that public feelings about the Democrats are at two year lows and that Democrats have failed to fully benefit from the GOP collapse.
Even more frightening, a July Democracy Corps poll (before the hurricanes and the scandals of the last few weeks) showed the Republican Party with a higher favorable rating (43%) than the Democrats (38%).
Here’s an alternative strategy to complacency and wishful thinking. The Democrats must change the tone of the messages coming from the party in Washington to something that voters can understand, that appeals to them rather than the political press corps and hard core activists, and that gives activists something to believe in rather than reminding them of what they already hate.
The leading and overwhelming theme of the messages coming across emails and through press releases is that the Republicans are bad. [House Democratic Leader's Website] [DNC Website] [Senate Democratic Leader's Website] Voters already know without the Democrats reminding them.
Not only do the national Democrats always lead with the negative messages, they invariably sound like DC insider-speak. For example, the DC Democrats complain that the White House is undercutting the Davis-Bacon Act when giving reconstruction contracts to their friends. How many voters know what Davis-Bacon is? Why can’t the Democrats say that folks should be paid the same wages that they got before the storm?
The tone of the messaging from DC should lead with positive themes to which voters can relate. Even many Democrats still are not sure what the national Democratic Party stands for although they are quite sure of why they themselves are Democrats. Only after crossing this hurdle should the Party follow with a comparison to the Republicans' skewed values. Take this alternative messaging that might come from DC about the hurricane follow-up and Bush’s incompetency:
... the Dems are standing up for regular folks who have found themselves out of work and out of home through no fault of their own
... the Dems are fighting for fair wages, not wage cuts; this is the worst time to allow companies to pay people less than what they got paid before the hurricanes hit (no "Davis-Bacon" or "prevailing wage" language)
...the Dems want to make sure that federal money goes more quickly to cleaning up streets, rebuilding schools, and turning the lights back on (no language on “federal appropriations”)
... the Dems want to provide quick help with rent (“checks” not "vouchers") so out-of-work evacuees can pay for their rent until they get back on their feet
...the Dems want to make sure that those who have lost their jobs can get unemployment benefits to keep their heads above water until things get turned back around; why is it taking so long for the White House to make this a priority?
After this is all said, then make the points about abuse of power and cronyism. The American people already know how bad things went and don’t give the Democrats credit for simply reminding them. What voters do need is to understand who the Democrats ARE, not who they ARE NOT.
It's terribly frustrating almost a year after the election to see the national Democratic Party relying again on the same messaging and campaign strategies that we have always used. Waiting around for the Republicans to screw up is not enough. Talking to the political press corps is not enough. And issuing press release after press release is not enough if the Party doesn’t focus on building the infrastructure that is required to communicate those messages to the people. The Republicans have thirteen months to turn things around. If they do right their ship, where does that leave the Democrats and the progressive agenda in November of 2006? Same place we were at the end of 2000, 2002, and 2004.