The candidate with the best story usually wins elections. Stories speak to voters the way logic can't, on a gut level.
My father, an immigrant coal miner, always voted Democratic feeling that there was a sharp philosophical between the two parties and that Republicans favored big business against the working man.
Yet, when he was dying in 1980 of black lung, he quietly told me, "Don't vote for Carter."
President Jimmy Carter had spoken of a malaise in America. His opponent, Ronald Reagan, spoke of a new dawning and of the continuing glory of our country. My father was thinking of his kids and their future in the adopted country he loved. That deep feeling of hope overwhelmed any convictions about the ideologies of the two parties.
In their campaigns for the November elections, Republicans are again showing a superior instinct for storytelling.
President Obama and Democrats in general are appealing to logic and to recent history. Look where we were two years ago, Obama says: America hemorrhaged some 8.5 million jobs largely due to Republican economic policies and, more specifically, to a refusal to exert any control over Wall Street speculation. Family income declined 8 percent during the Bush presidency while the concentrated wealth of America's top 1 percent reached 23 percent of all income in 2009.
Looks like a slam-dunk for the Democrats. The statistics are all on their side.
But the story isn't. Voters are facing the greatest economic crisis in our lifetime. Many are frightened of the future and, indeed, of their president. They're angry.
American voters aren't in the mood for reasoned explanations. They are disappointed in Obama and the Democrats. They don't trust the Republicans but are drawn to the Republican story.
There is a proven psychological maxim that when people are afraid and anxious, they seek reassurance in the familiar. They turn to God and patriotism, towards the better days of the past.
Republicans are appealing to this psychological reality. They wrap themselves in God and the flag.
It's a cheap show, of course. Where House Republican leader John Boehner belongs to a golf club that cost 75K to join, wears thousand dollar suits, and travels on corporate jets, he campaigns in corduroy shirts.
Meanwhile the Republicans are vicious in their attacks on President Obama's Americanism. Newt Gingrich has talked about Obama's Kenyan mindset. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour claim they don't know Obama's real background.
Is it a coincidence that as many Americans grieve a lost sense of familiarity with their country, Republican spokesmen keep stressing Obama's supposed lack of American credentials? Very likely, it's part of a serious Republican maneuver to keep the story not about Republican failures in the past but rather about Obama 's differences from white Americans, particularly those without college degrees or white-collar credentials.
The Democrats need to get smart, and not with pure logic. Though the Republican story is resonating with the average voter, Democrats can still make substantial gains with a new story -- one that stresses the same sense of hope that Obama created in 2008.
Obama and the Democratic Party can generate hope again by admitting and identifying mistakes and by presenting themselves as angry, like the Tea Party, and determined to learn from the past to make the future better. The Democrats are in many ways the natural party of the disillusioned middle class American. That story must be told in human not statistical terms.
Americans want to hope and believe in a better future for themselves and their children. They don't trust politics as usual. But they still have admiration for President Obama and a large degree of admiration and trust for Bill Clinton. These two politicians can still do much to make the Democratic story work in the November elections.
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