The liberal blog Daily Kos headline sums up the feeling of many Democrats following last week's elections: "Midterms: A Failure to Communicate -- Not a Failure to Govern."
Many Republicans see this as further proof that Democrats just can't see how wrongheaded their policies -- and not just their messages -- are. But as a Republican myself, let me say that the Democrats have a point. Mr. President you lost a lot of opportunities because you lost Independent voters who speak "Republican."
Winning Republicans to your side isn't likely over the next two years, but winning back Independents who you had in 2008 is possible. Going forward, with the new House majority, it will be even more important to speak Republican. So let me offer some translation tips.
My translation skills developed the last time a Democrat President faced a Republican Congress. In 1993, I opened the Log Cabin Republicans' office in Washington DC. Liberal gay activists were baffled; why talk to Republicans when Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House? The following year, Republicans took control of Congress, and those same activists discovered they needed to learn to speak Republican if they wanted important legislation for AIDS funding. We translated, and Republicans stepped up to lead on funding live-saving programs.
For the past decade I've worked with numerous, world-changing nonprofits achieve their policy goals on Capitol Hill and, again, the secret was learning to speak "Republican."
So here's the fundamental linguistic difference, most issues can be positioned as matters of either rights of the aggrieved group or the result impact on taxpayers. Democrats hear rights language, while Republicans and many Independents hear results language.
Let me offer three quick examples:
On the matter of lifting the ban on gay soldiers serving, you said: "Anybody who wants to serve in our armed forces and make sacrifices on our behalf should be able to do so."
In other words, it's a matter of the soldier's rights. What if you try results language?
"After 9/11, the 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy forced our military to fire Arab-speaking linguists who were deciphering terrorist messages, just because they were gay. At the very time we most needed protection and surveillance, this policy put the American people at risk."
On immigration, you say things like: "The overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children."
Again, a rights argument, instead, try:
"Our immigration process is so broken that it incentivizes illegals, while keeping out scientists, nurses and engineers we need. I will reform this process to insure we don't miss out on the immigrants we need to grow, while protecting us from lawbreakers."
On health care you framed the healthcare debate saying: "Well, I think it should be a right for every American..."
While his language sings for Democrats, it repels Republicans and Independents. In fact, it's your "rights" language that drives Tea Party members to start waving their Constitutions.
Instead, you might say:
"America has universal healthcare now--it's called the emergency room. Any uninsured person who falls down tonight will be picked up by an ambulance that will rush to meet them costing the taxpayers around $1000 to transport you to a city hospital, where their stay will cost taxpayers from three to five thousands per night. My plan will get uninsured covered so we can control costs and encourage prevention."
By definition, voters in the middle are persuadable. Regain your campaign rhetoric of a post-partisan problem solver. You're the soaring orator; you can win them over. You just have to be speaking the right language.
Rich Tafel is the President of Public Squared a public policy training program for nonprofit organizations. He was the founding Executive Director of Log Cabin Republicans 1993-2002. He's the author of "Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics As Usual."
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