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Paul Abrams

Paul Abrams

Posted: December 1, 2010 08:09 AM

At the risk of sounding a bit Rumsfeldian, the right answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer.

I, and others, have been pleading, begging, cajoling, hammering Democrats for years to show backbone. But, no organism develops a backbone if it does not have a back.

Both pre and post election, the blogs and the airways have been filled with excellent, albeit often contradictory, analyses about which policy road Democrats should travel. To regain the House, and hold the White House and Senate in 2012, should they pursue a more progressive agenda, or slink toward a minimalist, centrist posture?

That is, did the Democrats lose because they were too progressive, or not progressive enough?

It is the wrong question.

No matter how that is 'resolved', the argument is itself a symptom of the Democrats' more basic infirmity. Unless Democrats recognize they have more fundamental problems, and fix them, nothing will happen.

Democrats and progressives can complain and wail, but nothing will change until they create the political environment required to achieve their vision. I call that 'political space'.

Dangerously, Democrats especially believe that they actually have said or done all that follows. Like addictions of any kind, the first step is to acknowledge the problem.

We know why Republicans lie. Their programs and policies are designed to benefit the elite few at the expense of the many. They cannot win elections to enact those policies unless they lie about their benefits or instill fear about the motives and integrity of their opponents.

Democrats are afraid to tell the truth. Why?

Problem #1: No Mission. No Narrative. No Political Strategy.

A mission provides clarity and a compass. Democrats have neither. Republicans have both.

Democrats have no political strategy. None. They have no articulated mission, no narrative that embellishes that mission and resonates with the American people, and no political strategy to achieve that mission. Democrats have a jumble of different policies to address this or that problem, sometimes very good policies, but no points of reference to a narrative or a mission that elevates the policies to lofty purposes within a framework of American history and simplifies and amplifies their messaging.

One cannot run a company of 50 people, much less a country of 350 million, without an overarching mission and a narrative that provides common, positive emotional experiences and reference points. The classic volume describing the "great" enduring companies, Built to Last (Collins and Porras), describes the key characteristics of successful organizations.

Surprise: Profits are not the core value of the great companies, but they make more profits over a sustained time than their competitors. That may sound odd or counterintuitive, but the facts demonstrate that basing strategic decisions on a company's mission, its reason for existing, is a far more profitable strategy.

Analogously, although inextricably linked, political strategy is about much more than elections. A failed, or non-existent political strategy narrows the 'political space' in which officeholders have to act, without seeming to jeopardize their own careers blindly. Too many deals need to be struck. Special interest money becomes too much of a necessity. The human impulse for self-preservation prevails.

Urging, cajoling, asking or demanding that officeholders take repeated risks to their careers in that environment is a fools' errand. If it takes a Superman to fight a "never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way", it is not going to happen.

Like many others, I have puzzled over Democrats' inability to set the political dialogue (even when they controlled both Houses and the Presidency!), to convey a narrative that resonates with the American people, to attack the Republicans instead of defending themselves against their inane attacks, to demand Republican accountability and to display Republican hypocrisy.

Democrats do not even credit its importance. Liberal media such as MSNBC does not get it. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras distinguish between clock-building and time-telling. The great companies are the clock-builders. Democrats are time-tellers, or, in political terms, they believe they can conduct polls (see below), determine "what time it is", and formulate policies accordingly.

By contrast, all Republicans -- officeholders and voters -- know their mission: "small government, low taxes, little regulation, strong defense, god". Their narrative is of the Founders, not just what they say they said, but also the times in which they lived -- shopkeepers, pioneers, individual effort and reward -- and liberty (or freedom). [Note the great opportunity here. Nothing in the Republican mission is about delivering results.]

Since there is no competing narrative about working together to overcome hardships, the melting pot, the wonders of a Constitution that can adapt to changing conditions -- even correcting some of its own original sins like slavery and womens' voting -- the separation of church and state, the multiple values in the Preamble of liberty and justice, of a common defense and the general welfare, the Republican narrative thrives.

And, note how Democrats cower and/or defend themselves every time a piece of the Republican narrative is hurled against them or their policies.

On a more concrete level, Democrats also fail to tell more accurate narrative about how the economy works. We do not have, nor have we ever had, a laissez-faire economy. There is a role for government, for public-private partnerships, and the private sector. Not overly centrally managed, but not chaotic. That's how we became the world's number one economy. [when we lurched backwards under the disastrous Bush Administration -- you lost your job and your home and your security.] The fight is not over government-run vs. free markets. It is between a mixed economy (public, public-private, and private) with its parts in harmonious balance vs. the chaos of unregulated markets. More simply -- rebalancing vs unregulating. Capiche?

And, there is no narrative about the role of government. One nearly choked listening to the President on 60 Minutes indicating that we regulate "in collaboration" with big private interests. I am not even certain which side of the ledger I would support if the choice is between no regulation and regulating in collaboration with industry. The latter may be the worst of both worlds -- no regulation, but the appearance of it. What ever became of the concept of "counterveiling power", with daily examples in drug, food, mining, road, automobile, children's toys and, now, financial protections against the whims and proclivities of amoral (not immoral, but amoral) profit-maximizing corporations?

Problem #2: Misuse/Reliance on the Public Opinion Polling

Democrats follow the polls rather than work to move them in their direction.

That, in part, arises from having no mission, no narrative and no political strategy. For Democrats public opinion polling IS strategy. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, obtaining accurate information from public opinion polling about peoples' views is an inherently flawed exercise. Yet, that is what Democrats place almost biblical reliance upon.

Republicans do the opposite. They have a position, and figure out what to do to move sentiment in that direction. With the help of FOX, they also create news.

Democrats demonstrate no appreciation of the power of unconscious mind, that 98% of our decisions are emotional (not in the sense of frenzied, just instinctive), and we then quickly rationalize those decisions to ourselves. Since we are all, therefore, poor reporters of what drives our decisions, public opinion polling -- even if done with exquisite controls on sampling randomness and size, careful unbiasing of question structure and sequence, and so forth -- cannot really tell politicians what motivates voters nor, importantly, how to connect with voters to create the political space necessary to move their programs.

Take one example. Every year polls ask voters whether they like and approve of negative campaigning. Every year voters say "no" in overwhelming numbers. Every year negative campaigning works. (Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich have built entire careers on it). If public opinion polling cannot get this totally non-partisan question correct, why would one believe anything those polls tell us?

Want another? In 2004 I asked senior strategists in the Kerry campaign why they were not attacking Bush/Cheney for the grossest failure of diligence and strength in American history -- 9/11. The answer: public opinion polling told them that independent voters did not like hearing the President attacked like that!

Today, the President believes that public opinion polls that report that overwhelming majorities want the parties to work together will mean that his political power will rise if he holds out his hand and the Republicans reject it. Yep, just like that strategy worked for the last 2 years. You betcha.

Public opinion polling also told House Democrats not to engage in a broad investigation of the rogue Bush Administration. People wanted them to handle their problems. So, they didn't. Another great strategic choice, wasn't it? Polls say the same thing now for the House Republicans. But, they will anyhow.

Prior to the election, Democrats cringed in fear of forcing a vote on tax cuts for all income below $250,000 only (the rich also get that part of the tax cut, by the way). Why? The blue-dogs thought that they would be hammered, successfully, for not insisting that the top 2% also get a tax cut on all their income. See how well that strategy worked?

Problem #3: The Unpardonable Absence of a Democratic Attack Machine.

I, and others, have been writing about this for years, most recently in an article with that very title (Rather than make all the same points here, I invite those interested to read that piece). So long as there is no price the Republicans pay for lying, for attacking, why would they stop? And, so long as they relentlessly keep that up, how can a feeling of good will and trust to any of their targets be maintained?

When a rightwing hack like Andrew Breitbart puts together a deliberately misleading film clip of Shirley Sherrod, an unknown public servant in the Department of Agriculture, and the White House -- the most powerful office in the world -- hastens to fire her without inquiring into the facts because they fear a radio/TV talk show host will be parading this nonsense on TV that night, what more evidence is required to show the impact of this glaring deficit in the progressive quiver?

Solutions I. Creating 'Political Space' for Progressive Policies.

Democrats/progressives need to articulate a set of principles and a narrative based upon those principles that resonates with the American people. A good source to start is the Preamble: liberty, justice, common defense, general welfare, and so forth. It is not just rooted in the Constitution, it IS the mission statement of the Constitution (that Republicans NEVER quote because it contains justice and general welfare).

From that 'catechism', we do not leap to policy solutions, but rather construct a narrative. It is a story of what America is, and how it has grown into the world's most powerful nation. That story of the melting pot, of a Constitution so rich and prescient that it is able to grow along with the nation, touches far more psyches, and makes many more people feel included in the American family than the exclusive mantra of the Republicans.

It is also a narrative of collective responsibility to create opportunity, of the preciousness and precariousness of democracy that must be defended not only when it is easy, but when it is hard, of the key roles of government to invest in and regulate the economy for the common good, which is how we have been doing it since the Great Depression when we achieved our greatness, and so forth.

Unlike the Republican narrative, it is a true story based upon historical facts. It answers the question who built this country quite differently. Republicans say "they (i.e., the privileged, white elite) did". Our narrative should tell the truth: "we all did". From the sweat of slaves brows, to the aches in waves of immigrants back muscles, to pioneers seeking a better life for their families, to migrant farm workers, to individuals and groups who stood for what was right when power was directed against them, to a responsive and involved government that saved capitalism--and thus economic freedom--many times from its own excesses and a government that has invested in human capital and public goods such as roads, bridges, a legal system and regulatory agencies, to entrepreneurs who dared to strike off in new directions..."we all did".

A grand committee of thousands will not accomplish this task. A small group who do not poll, but who instead understand how the human brain works (e.g., Drew Westen, David Domke, Joe Becker, Valerie Tarico) convening perhaps a group of 15, ought to be able to articulate the catechism and the narrative within a couple of weeks. (It is not hard, it just requires careful work and expertise).

And, then, everyone needs to start using it. Over-and-over-and-over-and-over again.

Otherwise, calls for showing backbone will elicit no response. No organism has a backbone that does not have a back.

Solutions II. Stop Relying on Public Opinion Polling

Believe in the principals, develop policies to reinforce the narrative, be creative. In "Built to Last", the mantra is to preserve the core, but to innovate.

Change communications' strategies. For the most part, this will require doing a complete house-cleaning of the 'strategists' Democrats have employed for years. (One, in the same article, referred to herself as "leading Democratic strategist" and "Martha Coakley's pollster"--you remember, the Massachusetts attorney-general who blew a 25+% point lead to lose Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a little known Republican whose only prior national exposure was as a centerfold). Or, at least, make sure that new-age strategists, with these precepts in mind, run the show.

The communications' goal needs to be to create political space for the (hopefully) sensible policies Democrats/progressive want to enact. It is not to ask public opinion polls to report what people think they want, and design a strategy to address those because the polls themselves are fatally flawed.

Solution #3: Create a Democratic Attack Machine

One need not, nor would I advocate or support, the Republican method of lying, misleading, libeling opponents or their policies. But, truth is itself a progressive policy, and costs less and is more potent than fiction.

Moreover, since the Republicans are lying hypocrites, repetitive exposure can be achieved without adopting their tactics.

As Harry Truman said, "I don't give'm hell; I just tell the truth and they think it's hell".

And, they can attack the mainstream media for treating two competing arguments -- one true, the other a lie -- as if they should have equal weight.

The big, overarching problem, however, is that Democrats must first understand they have this big problem, and want to act upon it. And then donors are going to have to step up, big time, to fund the solutions on a sustained basis. Republican donors have no problem because their success pays them back financially with lower taxes, lax regulations, and so forth, many times over their investment. And, they have been at this for 40 years.

In the end, though, this will cost the Democratic donors less too. It will improve the odds, and thus reduce the money required, to elect candidates. And, a progressive resurgence might go so far as to pass a Constitutional amendment that says that money is not speech and that corporations are not people for purposes of first Amendment rights.

And, at least it will not cost us, as it has the Republicans, our souls.