THE BLOG
08/20/2010 11:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Have Democrats Lost the Narrative?

Time after predictable time, Republicans roll out a new set of bogus talking points. And time after time, Democrats argue the facts -- and lose. That's got to change.

Here's how the script goes:

Republican: I'd like to begin by making an outrageous assertion. It's obviously false, but boy, is it ever intense.

Democrat: Why, that is clearly untrue! And here's a list of reasons why...

Republican: Thanks for playing; this is going to be fun!

Just some of the many, many examples we could cite: Obama's an African-born Muslim! Obamacare means death panels! The administration is full of Marxists! The New Black Panthers are coming! We could go on and on. Because these people are operating on a daily schedule, with hourly updates, 365 days a year. As Dan Pfeiffer, White House Communications Director told Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum recently, "we live in a world where there are so many news cycles that there isn't a news cycle anymore."

And with every crazy new claim, if you're a Democrat, your reaction is probably some version of, "What kind of idiot could believe this crap?" Then you start arguing with it.

And as soon as you do, you lose.

You see, the right wants you to debate stuff they know is untrue. If you win on the merits, and you probably will, they don't care at all.

They only want two things: one, they want you -- and the media -- to repeat their talking points, because as we know, a lie repeated often enough starts to feel true. Two, they want you to debate those points. Because it means you're debating on their terms -- and because the sheer act of debating makes you look weak.

Let's take these one at a time. First, how the right designs talking points that get lots and lots of repetition.

The key is to start with an image that excites intense emotion. You want an image that, once imagined, is very hard to get out of your head -- it's kind of like writing the hook to a pop song. You might choose death panels, Marxists, New Black Panthers, whatever. To make your talking point, simply associate that image with your target. NOTE: If this makes no sense at all, that's actually better -- outrageousness gives your talking point a big extra kick. Start it out on blogs and talk radio. Then put a fig leaf on it by getting it on Fox News. Now the legitimate media have an excuse to run it (and they most certainly will). The final payoff comes when Democrats debate it, thereby repeating it yet more.

Congratulations. You've gone viral.

Is this effective? We report, you decide: A recent NY Times/CBS poll shows that 20 percent of Americans think President Obama was born in another country. A Harris Poll finds that 57 percent of Republicans think he's a Muslim. And 24 percent -- one in four! -- think he is the anti-Christ.

Now point number two: debate, in and of itself, looks weak. Think about high school for a minute: Who debates? That would be the glasses-wearing nerds of the Debate Club. Republicans, making their bold, false assertions, are the football players shoving those debaters into the lockers. Is this right? Wrong? Who cares? One side of this transaction is shoving, and the other is being shoved. Who looks like they're in charge? All too often, Democrats are making excellent points, from inside a locker.

As Pfeiffer states, "cable news... doesn't reward getting things done or working with someone across the aisle. It rewards the single most outrageous thing you possibly can [say]."

What to do? Should Democrats respond in kind? No, and yes. No, we should not start with our own outrageous lies. It would be yet another instance of allowing Republicans to set the terms and, need we say it, it would be wrong. But a big yes to getting better at using emotion.

In his campaign stump speeches, one of the most persuasive "points" Barack Obama made came when he would look off into the future and raise an arm towards it, while speaking in the rhythmic cadences of our greatest orators. He had solid ideas about how we would actually get to that future. But it was the gesture and the rhythm that made your heart rise.

Obama's lack of interest in cable news sensationalism is a big part of why we supported him in the first place. He is not a talking point. But in order to raise the dialogue -- to transcend the chatter -- we need to use emotion to show truth. Throughout human history, we haven't simply stated the results of heroic battles. We've sung them as epics. The Democrats have won some heroic battles on issues that matter to millions: health care, financial reform, the environment and more. We need to sing our epics.

Boots Road Group founder Spencer Critchley is a communications consultant whose clients have included Democratic political candidates, National Public Radio, and the Emmy-winning documentary Blink. He served on press teams for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Colorado.