Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Can 2010 electoral disaster be averted? Drew Westen and Mike Lux weigh in


"What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out."
-- Drew Westen, in a new AlterNet post
"What Created the Populist Explosion and How 
Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November"

by Ken

I don't know if you're as sick and tired (already!) of thumb-sucking speculation about the 2010 elections, but it's hard to stay away from it, given the stakes. Even a month or two ago it was still possible to believe that, yes, the Democrats might suffer losses in both houses of Congress, but those losses would be concentrated among members who are more part of the problem than the solution to congressional fecklessness and inaction. It was even possible to imagine that the smaller Democratic majorities might actually be more responsive to the real needs of the American people.

Now that's still a possible outcome, but I don't think anyone's advancing it with a lot of confidence these days. The combination of the reality-defying filth the Republicans and the Right generally have been pumping into the public arena going back to the 2008 elections plus the Bush economic meltdown (and the Obama hand-wave at the resulting mess) plus the massive amounts of right-wing megabucks being poured into every form of politicking in anticipation of the election plus the absence of any counter-argument by those foundering Democrats has put everything up for grabs.

Our pal Mike Lux has a swell piece over at OpenLeft, "Weirdest political cycle ever?, in which he stakes out this position: "This has been a pretty weird political cycle, and I'm starting to wonder whether it is the strangest ever. . . . The weirdness I am referring to is this odd sense I have that both parties are trying so hard to lose."

Documenting the weirdnes, Mike -- after highlighting the more conspicuously self-destructive crazinesses on the part of the official major parties these last two years -- points out:
As a result of all this silliness, both parties' approval ratings are in the toilet. This is a pretty unusual dynamic. In 1994, Republicans' popularity was going up as Dems were going down, and in both 2006 and 2008, Dems' numbers were going up while Bush and Republicans' numbers in general were tanking. Today, two months out from the big election, voters are ticked off at both parties, and that's before the fall attack ad season.

"What's a Democrat to do," he asks, " in this weird and awful political environment?" Allowing that every race is individual, he offers four overall prescriptions, for which you should really read the explanations in his post:
1. Get out every last Democratic base voter you can.
2. Show independence from Obama, but not in a way that undermines the Democratic brand and turns off base voters.
3. Show your anger at the special interests, but also have a substitute plan for improving things.
4. Be specific in going after waste in government.

And he sums up the situation thusly:
In spite of the Republican extremists being nominated, this is going to be an incredibly tough year to be a Democrat on the ballot. We are going to lose a lot of seats in both houses of Congress and downballot as well. But if Democrats turn out their base voters, take on the big banks and insurers and oil companies, and show they are focused on fighting for the middle class, they can hold their losses to a minimum.

Meanwhile, in-a-class-by-himself communications specialist and political strategist Drew Westen has delivered a major essay, "What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November," and like all of his major essays, it's must reading. I always hate to paraphrase Drew, because communications is what he does, and it tends to turn out that the way he makes a point and establishes an argument is the way the point should be made and the argument established. But I do want to give you a sense of the scope of the piece.

Drew lays out his premise:
To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The political brain of Americans today reflects a volatile mixture of fear and fury, and when you mix those together, you get an explosion. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.

The bad news is that it's too late for Democrats to do what would have been both good policy and good politics (and what the House actually did do), namely to pass a major jobs bill when it was clear that the private sector couldn't keep Americans employed. . . .

He arguest that the public mood "can be characterized by a single phrase -- populist anger -- and it cuts across partisan lines," and after looking at the right and left vantage points, he does his re-creation of the how-we-got-here drama part in a discussion headed "How to Create a Populist Explosion: A Tragedy in Two Acts."

Act I: The GOP Sets the Country on a Course of Economic Destruction and the President Calls for Truth and Reconciliation without the Truth Part

Act II: An Anemic Economy Meets an Anemic Health Care Plan

I think you'll get the general idea, but I assure you, you'll want to revisit this sorry story in Drew's retelling. In particular, I think you'll be fascinated by this point in Act I: "The White House refuses to tell the American people three stories they desperately need to hear."
The first is why the economy has gone into the ditch, and who did it. The president is steadfast in his position that we should "look forward, not backward," even as the GOP is blocking his every initiative to clean up its mess. As conservative attacks on him and Democrats increase, he refuses to indict the Republicans in Congress or President Bush for having destroyed our economy and putting one in eight Americans out of work and one in five either behind on their mortgage or in the process of having their homes foreclosed by the same bankers who gambled them away.

[And then Drew explains why it should have been so important for the president "to tell the American people who was responsible for their misery -- and to repeat it again and again."]

The second story the American people needed to hear from the president was why deficit spending is essential when the economy is spiraling downward. It's not a hard story to tell, even in a sound bite. But one of the best educators to occupy the Oval Office in decades chose not to educate -- he actually did it once, with prodding, but never repeated what was a superb explanation --- nor did he remind voters every time his opponents attacked him for deficit spending that they had left him with a 1.2 trillion dollar deficit on the day he walked into office because of their unpaid-for tax cuts to millionaires and unpaid-for war on Iraq . . .

The third story the president needed to offer was an alternative narrative on government. The president and his party were about to offer effective government as a solution to multiple problems after 30 years of solid branding by conservatives since Ronald Reagan about how government is the problem. But the narrative never came.

Again, I'm giving you barely even a skeleton of the case Drew is making. And the same is true of the succeeding section, "Where Do We Go From Here?"

First he reminds us of where we were in January 2009, when "no one could have predicted that Democrats would be in this predicament today."
We had just seen -- and the American public knew we had just seen -- the most disastrous performance by a president and party in living history, and the American people had elected a tremendously charismatic young president with enormous Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. They had given the president and Congress a strong mandate for whatever kind of change was necessary to get us out of economic free-fall and to put Americans back to work.

But there were red flags already by the end of Obama's first week in office that led me to offer the following advice to the new administration: Tell the story of how we got in this mess or you'll own it. Tell a coherent story about deficit spending. Re-brand government because there's only one story out there now (Reagan's), and it's not one that supports a progressive agenda. Never let attacks go unanswered, because doing so only emboldens your opposition and leads the public to believe that you have no answers to them. And if you throw a bipartisan party and no one comes, don't throw another one. All of what followed has been as predictable as it has been unfortunate.

"The question today," Drew writes, "is whether Democrats can channel the populist anger we are seeing around the country this late in the game. The answer is that we'd better try." And he insists, based on message-testing he's done recently, that
there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people's worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors.

He's just as insistent, though, that "actions speak louder than words, and Americans want to see action," and it isn't too late for Democrats to go on the offensive against obstructionist Republicans on a whole series of issues, on each of which "a strong populist message trounces anything the other side can say."
But Democrats need to play offense. They need to take up-or-down votes on bill after bill, including those they expect the other side to block, knowing that every one of those votes has the leverage of a campaign ad behind it. They need to change the narrative from what sounds to the average American like a whiny and impotent one -- "the Republicans won't let us do it" -- to a narrative of strength in numbers shared with their constituents. And they need to make every election a choice between two well-articulated approaches to governance -- and to offer their articulation of both sides' positions and values.

Which, he says, leads to a final point:
What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out. That narrative would have laid a roadmap for our elected officials and voters alike, rather than making each legislative issue a seemingly discrete turn onto a dirt road. That narrative might have included -- and should include today -- some key elements: that if the economy is tumbling, it's the role of leadership and government to stop the free-fall; that if Wall Street is gambling with our financial security, our homes, and our jobs, true leaders do not sit back helplessly and wax eloquent about the free market, they take away the dice; that if the private sector can't create jobs for people who want to work, then we'll put Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools; that if Big Oil is preventing us from competing with China's wind and solar energy programs, then we'll eliminate the tax breaks that lead to dysfunctional investments in 19th century fuels and have a public-private partnership with companies that will create the clean, safe fuels of the 21st century and the millions of good American jobs that will follow.

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At 10:12 AM, Anonymous me said...

I understand the disgust with both parties. I absolutely refuse to vote for or contribute to any candidate who will not put Bushco's crimes at the top of the agenda. If that sends the Dems down to defeat, too fucking bad. They will have earned it.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's four years since this article was posted. Not a single thing has changed. Everything listed here indicates that the Democrats STILL don't understand the need to lead. 2010 I could chalk up to hubris. 2014 I can only chalk up to wilful ignorance and timidity.


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