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Nine Keys to Democratic Success in the Midterms

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To hear some pundits tell it, the outcome of the midterms is preordained disaster for Democrats. Not so fast. Much depends on how Democratic candidates frame their efforts - and how Progressives in general frame the political debate over the next three months.

Here are nine keys to Democratic success:

1). The election narrative -- the election must be framed as part of a struggle between everyday Americans and corporate special interests.

Everyday Americans believe the economy is a disaster and the country is on the wrong track. They won't change that view until the economy actually improves.

The Republicans are doing their best to pin the blame on the leadership of Democrats. Democrats are absolutely correct to frame the election as a choice between moving America forward and going back to the failed Bush economic policies that allowed the recklessness of the Big Wall Street banks to collapse the economy, and cost eight million Americans their jobs.

But we need to make certain that we are not only offering a choice of policies - we are offering a choice of leadership. On the one side, those who will fight for the interests of everyday Americans and on the other, leaders who stand up for the interests of Wall Street, insurance companies and Big Oil.

We need to describe a narrative that is about struggle - not policies and programs.

This is especially important when Democrats talk about Congress' many accomplishments this term. In fact, this has been the most productive Congress in recent history. But if a candidate tries to talk about "accomplishments," that will not resonate with the experience of everyday voters.

Instead we should talk about "battles won." Democrats won the battle with Wall Street and the Republicans to rein in the power of the big Wall Street banks. We won the battle to begin holding insurance companies accountable and prevent them from discriminating against people with "pre-existing conditions." We won the battle to rescue the economy from the death spiral created by Bush administration policies and the recklessness of the big Wall Street banks.

The language of struggle, and "battles won" has enormous advantages:

  • It allows us to talk about what Congress has done in terms that everyday voters can understand. It takes their pain and unhappiness and explains why it happened.
  • It places the blame where it belongs and creates a narrative with a clear antagonist and protagonist.
  • It allows us to be on the offense - not the defense.
  • It positions our candidates as outsider champions for everyday voters and their values - not insider apologists for what Congress has "accomplished."
  • It creates the basis for a powerful mobilization narrative that engages the emotions of anger and inspiration.

2). The antagonist in our narrative should be defined as the corporate special interests - Wall Street, insurance companies, Big Oil - and their Republican enablers.

We are much better off doing battle with these massively unpopular special interests than we are engaging in purely partisan warfare.

It is also much easier to convince voters that the big Wall Street banks, insurance companies and Big Oil are responsible for the economic disaster (which they are) rather than simply Republican policies (which are equally responsible). By tying special interests to Republicans we go to their motivation - to whose side the Republicans are on - not simply the effectiveness of their policies. And, of course, it is true that Republicans and the big corporations are, practically speaking, synonymous.

3). Remind the voters that when the Republicans were in charge, they wrecked the economy and created zero private sector jobs.

George Bush and the Republicans cut taxes for the rich and allowed the big Wall Street Banks free rein to engage in the reckless behavior that collapsed the economy and cost eight million Americans their jobs. They said that their policies would "grow" the economy. Yet, every dime of growth went into the pockets of the wealthiest 2% of Americans and, worse yet, Bush produced zero new private sector jobs.

The New York Times reported last year that, "For the first time since the Depression, the American economy has added virtually no jobs in the private sector over a 10-year period. The total number of jobs has grown a bit, but that is only because of government hiring."

Now compare that to the Clinton administration where the rich paid Clinton-era tax rates. Of the total of 22.5 million new jobs, 20.7 million, or 92 percent, were in the private sector.

Do we really want to give the keys back to the people who completely failed to create jobs and wrecked the economy just two years ago?

4). It's all about turnout.

We obviously need to do everything we can to move persuadables - but at the end of the day, just as in 1994, this election will be decided by who turns out to vote. That means two things:

  • Our campaigns and party committees must make a major priority out of the mechanics of GOTV. No message works better to increase turnout than: "I won't get off your porch until you vote."
  • The language of struggle must be used to engage base Democrats who have been discouraged or demoralized. Basically, we have to describe the midterm elections as the Empire Strikes Back: "The Wall Street Banks, insurance companies, Big Oil and other wealthy special interests see this election as their best opportunity to reverse the results of the election in 2008. They want to turn back the clock to the failed economic policies of the past so they can undo Democratic victories that will hold them accountable. They want to have free rein once again to siphon off every ounce of economic growth for themselves at the expense if middle-class families. They're counting on us to sleep through the election. We have to stop them."
5). The Arizona Immigration Law, persuasion and turnout among Hispanics.

The difficulty passing comprehensive immigration reform (which mainly had to do with the unwillingness of Republicans to work on the issue) had caused substantial levels of demoralization in the Hispanic community. Had we been successful, we could have used inspiration as a major tool for voter mobilization there -- no such luck.

But when the Republicans passed the Arizona Law (SB1070), they handed Democrats a cudgel. The Arizona law goes to the identity of Hispanic voters -- as does the Lindsey Graham proposal to repeal the 14th Amendment.

For that reason we have already seen in the polling how, when they support the Arizona law, electoral support for Republicans among Hispanic voters drops. In the last Presidential election Hispanics broke Democratic by 76%. That should now increase. Increasingly leaders in the Latino community are also using the bill to harness anger and fuel turnout.

Their basic message goes something like: The Republicans who passed the Arizona law -- and those who support it around the country -- completely disrespect the Latino community and its enormous contribution to America. We have to go to the polls on November 2 to show them that if they don't respect us, we will no longer allow them to occupy positions of public trust.

6). Seniors.

Seniors will show up disproportionately to vote in this election. As a consequence, a big chunk of persuadable voters is over 55 years old.

Congressman Paul Ryan and his friends have handed us a silver bullet to move these constituencies. They actually say out loud that:

  • Republicans want to cut benefits and privatize Social Security.
  • Republicans want to abolish Medicare and replace it with vouchers for private insurance.

These two positions are like political Kryptonite. Focus groups and polling show them to be devastating attacks on Republicans. We have to put these two issues squarely on the public agenda in September and October.

7). Wall Street Banks.

Polling around the country indicates that a three-part attack on Republican connections with Wall Street is especially powerful.

Congressman X received almost a million dollars from big Wall Street banks, then he voted for the bank bailout and against holding the big Wall Street banks accountable.

a). Contributions
b). Bailout
c). Against holding Wall Street accountable

Where Democrats voted for the bailout, we can make the distinction clearly that our guy also voted to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable and the Republican did not. Most Republican challengers will have received money from Wall Street and opposed the Wall Street reform bill.

8). Staying on Offense

If we're on the defense -- we're losing.

A top message priority of every campaign and political operation must be to always stay on offense - defining the debate in terms of our frames - constantly challenging the Republicans.

9). Defining our candidates as outsiders.

The insider-outsider dynamic is key.

This is not a political environment where it is helpful to brag about how powerful or connected you are -- or how your long term of service helps you deliver for the district. It's not a time to highlight all of your "accomplishments."

In general, voters think the "elites" in America have screwed everyday Americans in order to feather their own nests (and they're right). Instead, they want leaders who can effectively lead the charge against the bastions of elite power. That certainly isn't the Republicans who are owned by Wall Street, Big Oil and the insurance companies.

To win in this environment, our candidates need to portray themselves as populist outsiders, not elite insiders. In the end, whoever wins that battle will prevail on November 2nd.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.