Reaching Values Voters And Mastering The Brush-off

10/04/2006 12:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A word of caution for all on the left who would seize upon the Foley scandal as a way to make political hay: there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. From what I've read in the blogosphere so far, most are proposing the wrong way.

Sure, you could attack the issue head-on -- by running ads (for instance) with the immortal words of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards: "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."

But this is not the right way to handle things. Besides, Edwards is (inconveniently) still serving out his 10-year federal prison term for corruption. He's also (very inconveniently) a Democrat.

The right way is to refocus and frame the debate on morals. Democratic candidates shouldn't even mention Foley, and even if asked about it, restrain themselves. Quickly answer: "The whole episode is morally repugnant, and just goes to show what happens when Republicans completely abdicate their ethical responsibilities of oversight," and promptly change the subject. If pressed, dismiss the subject with a final: "I remember when Republicans were admonishing Democrats that moral relativism was a bad thing. I guess they've changed their minds."

Democrats have indulged in much hand-wringing and (no doubt) focus-group-ing after the media sanctimoniously pronounced the 2004 election hinged on the "values voter." Now the Democrats find themselves in a Kafka-esque situation where Republicans forced a pro-torture vote as an election issue, to paint the Democrats as soft on terrorism. Sadly, most Democrats have ignored this opportunity. Here is an issue that is tailor-made for an appeal to values voters, which the GOP has handed on a plate to Democrats, late in an election year. The only question is whether the Democrats capitalize on it or not.

Picture a Democratic candidate explaining his or her stance thusly:

"I could not in all conscience vote to approve torture because my moral Christian upbringing and values prevented me from doing so. Jesus was tortured before He died. I cannot be a party to authorizing such tactics against any human being -- because I asked myself: 'Who would Jesus torture?' and the answer I came up with was: 'Nobody.'"

This is a brilliant tactic, because it truly brooks no argument. You can logically disagree with the statement, you can call it naive, or you can insinuate that the person making the statement "just doesn't get it," or whatever else -- but (and this is the key) you cannot attack the statement itself. An attack on such a statement would be seen as a slur on religion, Christianity, Jesus, morality, and deeply-held personal beliefs. Not exactly what the GOP wants to be seen doing. More importantly, not exactly what motivates the moderate suburban churchgoer to vote for your party. And although the example I've given is obviously for Christian candidates, rewording it for almost any religion would be fairly easy to do -- it's not just a "Christian" argument, in other words.

Appealing to values voters in such a fashion would also serve a broader purpose: remind such voters of the Republican failings on all kinds of "values" issues. You wouldn't even have to mention Foley by name, because the discussion would inevitably include his discretions. Let the journalists and the public do the heavy lifting on this one.

The point about talking about morals and torture is that you are not talking about gay Republican perverts in Congress. In the first place, values voters don't want candidates to be that negative, and, secondly, they already know about the issue anyway (and probably don't want to hear any more about it). Take the moral high road in general, and leave it to others to make the obvious connections.

This also demonstrates a great tactic that Democrats need to start using as much as possible, especially since "candidate debate season" is just getting underway. To explain the tactic, we must look to its uncontested champion: former President Ronald Reagan.

I don't admire Reagan for much, but I have to admit he perfected the "brush-off" answer. He often did it with humor, he did it sometimes by being insufferably glib or patronizing -- but the result was the same, no matter how he pulled it off: whatever question he was responding to would never be asked again. One of many examples was when his advanced age was seen as an issue in the 1984 campaign, and he quipped during a debate: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." It got a big laugh. And he got re-elected as the oldest President ever. This is a valuable political trait which earned Reagan the "Teflon" title, and it's a shame the Democrats can't seem to master it.

Why can't Democrats learn to successfully paint their opponents into a corner? Why can't Democrats seem to come up with their own "There you go again..." moments? The "Who would Jesus torture?" line is a good one, but there are many other occasions which could use a non-stick response.

Here's a quick and easy example: the New Yorker recently had an article detailing the usage by Republicans and conservative media types of the word "Democrat" when the proper term is "Democratic." From a George W. Bush email quoted in the article: "The Democrat Party has a clear record when it comes to taxes."

How hard is this to bat down? Any junior writer on Saturday Night Live could easily do it justice. [Which reminds me -- why hasn't some bright political campaign hired Al Gore's daughter Kristin to write their jokes for them?]

The first chance a Democratic candidate gets (in a debate with his or her opponent, or while being jointly interviewed) to directly answer a Republican misusing "Democrat Party," jump on it!

"The voters of this district need to choose between a man who doesn't even know the name of his opposing party and myself. Mr. Moderator, if I started referring to the 'Republic Party,' wouldn't you start wondering if I was a little stupid? I think the voters want someone in Congress who is smart enough to know the name of both major political parties in America."

I guarantee you that if such a comeback made the national news, every Republican in the country would bend over backwards to use the terms correctly from that point on. To do otherwise would just make you the butt of endless jokes. And ripe for a "There you go again..." moment.

It's not that hard to come up with such moments for Democrats to use to their advantage. It only took me a few minutes to come up with a few.

[Feel free to post your own as comments, which will probably be funnier than mine. To get started, try reading Larry Gelbart's excellent list here at Huffington Post to refresh your memory.]

"Republicans keep trotting out that tired old slogan: 'tax-and-spend Democrats,' when the 'borrow-and-spend' Republicans have mortgaged our country's future to countries like communist China -- who now hold the note on our country's debt."

"If Democrats had been in control, we wouldn't have lost track of billions and billions of dollars given to Republican war profiteers in Iraq. We'd hold hearings, and we'd demand it be repaid."

"So I ask my opponent -- if a flag-burning amendment passes, would that make it illegal for the President to walk on an image of the American flag on the fifth anniversary of 9/11? Would he just have to pay a fine, or serve some jail time for it? Or are you OK with what President Bush did?"

"I'd like to ask my opponent -- if you were in office and received a report labeled 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' would you continue a month-long vacation, or would you do something about it?"

"If you had just been informed that America was under attack, would you spend the next seven minutes reading My Pet Goat to schoolchildren, or would you leap into action?"

There are dozens of opportunities to come up with such zingers. All that is required is the backbone to actually use them.

It's a shame Al Franken won't be running for the Senate until 2008. Love him or hate him, you've got to admit that Al wouldn't shirk from shooting down in flames any crap that Republicans throw at him -- and probably make you laugh at the same time. A spokesman like that on our team would do the Democrats a world of good right now.

 

[Note: I've already written about torture qua torture before, and am only concerned here with the political tactics demonstrated by the given example. For those who still can't let go of the torture debate, there's a provocative article in the Washington Post and an interesting Huffington Post article by Joshuah Bearman that are both worth a read.]