I am watching my six-year-old daughter in the saddle, working a mare out during perhaps her third horseback-riding lesson. The ring is open oval, with a steep drop on one long side and a spiky hill hemmed in with large glass mirrors on the other. One of the short sections, where I'm watching with my wife is open, where a wide sand driveway runs past the barn and up to the road, houses, and parklands beyond.
Suddenly, the horse breaks into a fast cantor, then, moments later shifting up to a full-on gallop. My daughter tightens her legs against the pure muscle of the massive animal instinctively, unaware she's literally spurring the creature on. Panic washes over her face. The two of them lap the ring three times before it seems I can even process how bad this is. She has no idea how to stop this horse.
And we, her parents, are standing on the sidelines, watching disaster unfold.
The most recent This American Life broadcast featured an interview with campaign strategist Paul Begala about the frustration he and many other Democrats feel about their party's inability to act in a organized manner to get their message across the way the Republicans have mastered.
The Republican Party talking point system, while mercilessly and often mocked via video-clip collages on The Daily Show, seems to work magic on American voters. Begala explains its value and talks about trying to get his party to embrace this daily fax-email-and-phone-call frame-the-debate-in-unison tactic.
He does this even as he admits his personal distaste for the concept. Begala says he feels he can do a better job framing the issue than whoever wrote the emails he may get from the Democratic National Committee and just ignores them. He's aware of the hypocrisy, and he's aware that it's the Democrats' Achilles Heel.
Somehow Democrats won't stoop to the talking point level simply to win public mindshare or, if Tuesday is any indication, elected office.
So instead, too smug by half, they continue to think they're giving the voters "more credit" and go on television stumbling over process and policy and detail. There is never any unifying sound byte to go viral, and only because the individuals in the party regard talking points as lazy and unsubtle?
Here's another way to look at it, Dems: Jesus taught in parables for a reason. Think of your jobs on the 24-hour news channels as telling a story, the story you want others to repeat.
"Help me! Help me!" my daughter's screaming, grabbing on to the mane with two fists, the reigns in the wind now. She's sliding back and forth on the horse's wide back. There's nothing any of us can do; not her twin brother, whose own horse has pulled over to stare; not me or my wife, though we race along every time she swings past. Even the instructor, with probably forty years of experience riding, can do nothing but shout verge-of-panic instructions that would require a level of rational processing my daughter's abandoned.
"Please help me!"
I ache with the helplessness. My girl is on a runaway horse, and it's almost impossible to get, when you've lived an entire life with an adult there to work through any and every problem you've encountered, that in this situation, there is no help. She's six and on her own: whatever happens next is all up to her.
This story is not about the dangers of the equestrian life. It's not even about a little girl and her brush with death. [What ended up happening with my daughter was painful but likely the best move. She pitched herself off the horse and onto the hard pack of mud, choosing the time and place of her crash rather than letting centrifugal force make the choice for her.] No, if you look closely, you'll see it's a story of political ideology. It's like a talking point, but with some soul. Which, come to think of it, should be a pretty good way to describe the Democratic Party's aspirations.
Though the parables in the Bible are rarely wrapped up in an on-the-spot analysis (gotta go to church for that!), I am going to offer the key to the horse tale here:
The Republicans wants to stop government entitlement programs, handouts, stimulus packages, health reform--essentially cut out the "helping people" aspect to the bone. They want people to stand on their own two feet. You know this from the incessant drumbeat of the talking points.
And the response Democrats can't come up with, the talking point that is somehow beneath them, is right there in what I experienced watching that two-ton animal unraveling with my six-year-old strapped on top, gleaming just below the surface:
If you truly care, the urge to help those who need it is an overwhelming, burning urgency. Even if sometimes a person's only option is to solve their own problems, someone who cares can't stop themselves from running alongside, trying to keep up, trying to.
Now, maybe the American people don't want their leaders to genuinely care. If so, vote Republican. Because the Democrats aren't going to stop caring for Americans.
If Paul Begala and other mouthpieces for the Democrats could see that a simple, moving story isn't a talking point, it's the entire point, maybe they'll compete a little better in 2012.
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