Unbreakable Rule No. 2

Third in a series on The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

Rule No. 2: Don’t just run against Republicans, run against conservatism.

At least since Ronald Reagan, conservatives have managed to turn the word liberal into an epithet. It’s now rare for a Democratic candidate to declare himself a liberal, while Republicans compete among themselves to prove who is the most conservative. Inexplicably, liberals have meekly allowed their vilification to happen; they’ve simply taken the blows without raising a hand in their own defense. Why? We’re right; they’re wrong. And after 30 years, it’s time to start punching back.

It is absolutely crucial that Democratic candidates begin attacking not just Republicans but conservatives. The object is to delegitimize the very concept of Republicanism, not just quarrel about issues. Democrats must start using the words “conservative” and “Tea Party” interchangeably with “Republicans.” They must constantly paint conservatives as:

  • Angry
  • Dysfunctional
  • Concerned more about the wealthy than about average Americans
  • Afraid of new ideas
  • Pessimists
  • Anti-government zealots who don’t believe in the ability of Americans to govern ourselves
  • Stingy, hard-hearted, and callous
  • Fiscally incompetent (they exploded the deficit twice under Reagan and Bush and will again with their tax-cut proposals)
  • Old-fashioned, backward-looking dinosaurs
  • Narrow, constricted, negative thinkers
  • Unable to envision a better future
  • Un-Christian (for Democrats who dare) or immoral in their policies toward the poor
  • Unable to deal with the complex issues of a modern 21st-century superpower
  • Unworthy of leading a great nation
  • More than a little nuts

Over time, if used consistently by every Democratic politician in the country in every media interview and every speech (and in both safe and contested districts), this will raise the debate beyond specific candidates and issues and will help discredit the very philosophical foundation of Republicans. The point is to recast “Tea Party” and “conservative” as pejoratives, in the same way Republicans have managed to do with “liberal.” If Democrats can manage a vague tone of contempt when they say it, so much the better.

Running against conservatism rather than just a specific opponent has the added advantage of opening a whole new front in the rhetorical wars. Every Republican candidate becomes the de facto spokesperson for every nutty or dangerous or mean-spirited idea conservatives have, nationally or in the state candidates represent. Eliminating the inheritance tax for multi-millionaires, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, slashing food stamps for the poor, taking health care away from millions of Americans, cutting disability benefits—Republicans own all of it.

Here’s an example of how Democratic candidates can weave this language into their daily messaging:

“My opponent’s position is typical of the narrow, constricted thinking of conservatives these days. I think America is tired of that kind of negative thinking. America is a 21st-century superpower. Why are we listening to conservatives tell us all the things Americans can’t do? We can’t have health care for everyone. We can’t have sick pay for all American workers. We can’t do anything about climate change. These are the same people who told us that women can’t serve in the military. That we can’t raise the minimum wage because it will harm business. That the health care law would lead to death panels.

“This constant pessimism from conservatives isn’t leadership. Their ‘can’t do’ spirit, their resistance to every new idea, their inability to imagine a better future, their refusal to accept new scientific information—all of it makes conservatives unworthy of leading a great nation. Their attitude is an affront to the American spirit.

“Stop listening to them! Elect a candidate from a party that believes in what America can do, not what we can’t do.”

Unbreakable Rule No. 1

Second in a series on The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

Rule No. 1: Never discuss issues without discussing values.

The biggest mistake Democratic politicians make is that they talk with their heads instead of their hearts. They fail to explain how their great ideas are rooted in American traditions and values.

Democratic politicians must learn to relate every policy discussion to traditional American values, to American pride and exceptionalism, or to religious or moral values. (See The 7 Winning Messages and related posts for specific examples of how to do this.)

Conservatives learned this lesson long ago, and they practice it with infuriating efficiency. Republicans don’t take a piss without relating it to “freedom” and “liberty.” They never shut up about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. They claim Democratic policies are “unconstitutional.” They glorify the Second Amendment. They wear their religion on their sleeves and talk incessantly about “Christian values” and “family values.” Their fatuous flag-waving and moralizing is designed to appeal to the emotions. By sheer repetition from politicians, Fox News, and right-wing radio, they have convinced large gobs of Americans that Republicans are the only living descendants of the Founding Fathers and the only righteous followers of Jesus Christ.

Liberals, with their intellectualism and love of nuance, seem to find this faith-and-values demagoguery distasteful (probably to their credit). So Democrats have simply abandoned the fight on this front. They stand meekly by, sputtering in quiet, inarticulate outrage, apparently mystified about how to counter this values rhetoric.

True, values messaging was resurrected beautifully in the first campaign of Barack Obama, whose soaring rhetoric about hope, change, and fairness touched a nerve with Americans. And not coincidentally, he won in a landslide. But then that rhetoric was more or less abandoned once he took office—or perhaps was overwhelmed by the prosaic realities of everyday governance.

Talking about values is absolutely critical in helping voters relate to Democrats on an emotional level. It is essential if Democrats are to make inroads in purple and red states. Democrats must practice it relentlessly, making it a part of every speech and media appearance. They must incorporate at least one of the five values messages into every discussion: patriotism, optimism, American exceptionalism, faith and moral values, or fairness and fighting for the underdog. Every issue must be linked to the greatness of America and our role as a superpower, to our highest aspirations as a society, or to the moral character of our nation.

The 4 Unbreakable Rules of Democratic Campaigning

For liberals, the biggest, teeth-grinding frustration of modern politics is that while a majority of Americans agree with us on most major issues, they are voting a lot more for Republicans than Democrats.

How can that be?

The short answer is that liberals-and Democrats in general-have done a sorry-ass job of making their case to the American public. They just haven’t been able to connect emotionally or viscerally with many voters. They can’t seem to find their voice when it comes to establishing a unified, coherent, populist message about what they stand for-and how their beliefs reflect traditional American values.

Then when their disjointed messaging doesn’t connect with voters, desperate Democratic candidates (we mean you, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Mark Udall) start waffling on issues and trying to sound as Republican as they can, which doesn’t fool anyone. That weaselly dissembling is a suicidal mistake, and one conservatives never make.

So what can liberals and Democrats do to better connect with voters? How can they attract more support in swing states and even in the reddish-purple enclaves of the South, Midwest, and rural West? For starters, they should internalize the 7 Winning Messages. Then they need to follow the four unbreakable rules of Democratic political campaigning:

  1. Never discuss issues without discussing values.
  2. Don’t just run against Republicans, run against conservatism.
  3. Be a proud Democrat.
  4. Fight for your beliefs.

In the next four posts, we’ll discuss each of these in detail.

Winning Message No. 7: Self-Interest

Last in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

We have left self-interest as the last of the seven winning messages, but of course it may well be the most important. Voters often judge a political campaign (quite rightly, probably) on the basis of “What’s in it for me?” They want to know, “How will you make my life better?” Often, and more specifically, that means, “How will I be better off financially?”

Republicans have had a significant leg up on Democrats in this category, with their earworm message of lower taxes—the ultimate self-interest issue. But with income inequality now a campaign issue, Republican’s may have to play without their favorite toy this election cycle. Most voters understand by now that the nation can’t afford more huge tax cuts, especially those that fall mostly to the wealthy.

That means Democrats may not have to shout so loudly to have their own self-interest issues heard. President Obama pointed the way in his State of the Union address, with tax cuts for the middle class, tax credits for child care, and paid sick leave.

Beyond that, Democrats need to do a much better job of positioning themselves as the party of the people. Democrats have done a decent job of painting Republicans as the friends of the wealthy, but for some reason they haven’t yet established their own brand as the champions of the working class, middle class, and poor. Liberals have a tremendous story to tell as defenders of everyday Americans; they should tell it loudly, proudly, and in unison. At the same time, they must continue painting Republicans as coddlers of the rich and indifferent to the needs of hard-working Americans and the poor. Democrats, in unison, must portray the GOP as a backward-looking party of pessimists, afraid of new ideas, who spend their time telling Americans all the things they can’t have.

While Republicans will continue to beat their one drum of lower taxes (which Democrats can counter with this, Democrats have a symphony of policies that have protected and improved the lives of the average American. Democrats:

  • Strongly support unions and the right of workers to have a voice in the workplace
  • Provided health care to millions of uninsured Americans
  • Support raising the minimum wage
  • Fought against cuts in food stamps for Americans living in poverty
  • Passed a law to curb the worst abuses of the credit card industry (Why is this not touted much more often by Democrats? It’s a hugely populist issue.)
  • Created an agency to protect consumers from financial fraud and predatory practices
  • Kept the internet fair for everyone
  • Fought to keep low-cost college loans for kids who can’t afford college

Here is a two-minute campaign speech excerpt or debate response that explains to voters why voting Democratic instead of Republican is in their best interest:

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Winning Message No. 6: Conviction

Sixth in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

Robert Frost once famously said, “A liberal is a person so broad-minded he won’t take his own side in a quarrel.”

That was never so true as in the last midterm election, except that it wasn’t broad-mindedness that kept Democrats from defending their own positions, it was cowardice.

And so we were treated to the pathetic spectacle of Democrats running from health care and President Obama, only to get trounced anyway. Instead of standing proud and making a strong case for their views, they scattered like startled pigeons—obfuscating, dissembling, and trying to pass themselves off as pseudo-Republicans. The poster child for that misguided strategy was Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, in her Senate race against Mitch McConnell, who refused even to say if she voted for Obama, made commercials showing her shooting guns, and shunned the president who gave her state health care, the most important quality-of-life legislation since Medicare.

Why were Democrats all over the country running from health care when it was working exactly as planned, helping millions of people get health insurance who otherwise couldn’t afford it?

And why were they shunning President Obama, refusing to allow one of modern politics’ most eloquent communicators to speak on their behalf?

That’s not a political strategy—that’s a self-esteem issue.

Conviction—being confident in what you believe and stating it boldly—is one of the most important qualities of a winning politician. Americans admire leaders with strong beliefs, politicians who say what they mean wholeheartedly and without wavering.

It’s why the accusation of “flip-flopping” is so ubiquitous in campaigning: Voters hate politicians who don’t know what they stand for. It’s one reason President Reagan is still admired, even (grudgingly) by his ideological opponents. And it’s why the Tea Party has become a force in American politics in a very short time—because it clearly and unapologetically stands for something (even when that something would be disastrous for the country).

Conviction should be one of a politician’s most basic attributes—yet it may be the one thing Democrats and liberals suck the worst at. We have let conservatives turn the word liberal into an epithet, without firing a shot in return. Democratic politicians have let themselves be cowed by the ferociousness of the Tea Party attack, assuming a submissive position in the face of a dominant aggressor.

If Democratic candidates think the Democratic agenda will lose them votes, they’re not telling the right message. Running from Democratic positions is a horrific political strategy for several reasons:

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Winning Message No. 5:
Faith & Values

Fifth in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

One of the great tragedies of modern American politics is the right wing’s hijacking of religion and moral values—and the meek acquiescence of liberals in letting them get away with it. At least since the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s, conservatives have been overt in their Christian rhetoric and their co-opting of family values. And for 30 years Democrats and liberals have simply submitted to their insufferable moralizing.

That perception, that Republicans are the party of God and family values, is partly why the GOP has become so deeply entrenched across great swaths of the Southern and Midwestern Bible Belt, attracting even moderates who might otherwise vote Democratic but feel compelled to support conservatives as the supposed guardians of their religious values.

So how can Democrats reach them? How can we counter conservative religious rhetoric and convince deeply religious voters that Democrats are more deserving of their political support?

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Winning Message No. 4:
Fighting for the Underdog

Fourth in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

One of the most powerful yet vastly underestimated winning messages for Democrats and liberals is fighting for the underdog. It is the only one of the seven winning messages that belongs exclusively to Democrats. It also exposes a major vulnerability of conservatives—the perception that their policies are hard-hearted, selfish, venal, immoral toward people in need, and unworthy of a great nation.

At first glance, an altruistic message of fighting for the underdog may seem wimpish compared to the Republicans’ practiced demagoguery of lower taxes and nativism, but it’s a mistake to think so. Americans are a compassionate and caring people. We have an innate sense of fairness and equality, and we love to root for the underdog. It’s why health care was a winning issue for two presidential candidates—Clinton and Obama—even though most Americans already had health insurance through their jobs. It’s why Americans love superheroes, and why there are six—six—Rocky movies.

What’s more, in a largely Christian society, millions of Americans have been conditioned by our upbringing to believe in the value, duty, and moral imperative of helping the poor and disadvantaged. Make no mistake (although many politicians do): Fairness, compassion, and concern for the underprivileged are powerful messages for Democratic and liberal politicians, and ones that will resonate with moderates and even with many conservative voters. What’s more, the message of fighting for the underdog stands in stark contrast to the policies of Republicans, whose coddling of the rich and contempt for the poor are a moral affront and a direct contradiction to the Christian religion they so often profess (see the essay “The Shocking Hypocrisy of Christian Conservatives”).

The liberal message should be that Democrats have been fighting for a hundred years for America’s underdogs—for people in poverty, for workers and union members, for people denied their civil rights, for the elderly, for consumers, and for all the people who can’t afford a lobbyist. Social Security, the minimum wage, collective bargaining, poverty programs, women’s rights and equal pay, consumer protection from predatory industries, health care for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it—all of these were Democratic ideas (see the essay “The Case for Liberalism”).

Republicans, by contrast, have fought tooth and nail against every one of them. They prefer causes like lowering taxes on capital gains, corporation tax breaks, and eliminating the inheritance tax on millionaires. They’re for loosening industry regulations and consumer protections. They loathe unions. They have voted to reduce food stamps for the poorest of the poor. They want to repeal the health care law and leave millions of Americans without health insurance. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Republican governors are blocking the expansion of Medicaid (health care for the very poor) in conservative states. On issue after issue, conservatives side with the wealthy and powerful over the average American or people in poverty. Democrats must hammer home the stinginess and callousness of the Republican agenda.

America is a nation of morality, compassion, and faith. Democrats, along with most Americans, believe we have a moral, civic, and religious duty to help those in tough times, or who can’t help themselves. That belief is an important part of what makes America great. It is who we are as a people.

America doesn’t turn its back on the poor, or people in distress. For 100 years, Democrats have been a voice for the voiceless. We have fought for those who can’t fight for themselves. That message must be part of every Democratic campaign.

Winning Message No. 3: American Exceptionalism

Third in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

Americans are rightfully proud of their country’s unique position in the world. We never tire of hearing about why America is special. We love to be reminded about the idealism of American values: freedom, liberty, equality, the American dream, opportunity, and hard work. We are the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth, and we want to feel good about living in the world’s only superpower.

Liberal and Democratic politicians must remind voters of America’s exceptional position in the world at every opportunity. They must always connect Democratic policies to the belief in America’s greatness.

How can that be done?

Virtually every issue, from health care to immigration reform to climate change, can be addressed as a manifestation of America’s greatness, our love of freedom, and our special concern for justice and fair play. You can read two examples below.

At the same time, Democrats and liberals must also contrast our view of American exceptionalism with the pinched and parochial view of conservatives. Republicans seem to define American exceptionalism to mean: Because we’re a superpower, the rules that apply to other countries don’t apply to us. We don’t need to listen to other nation’s opinions. We’re the 800-pound gorilla that does whatever it wants, simply because we can.

To Democrats, by contrast, exceptionalism means that we’re a special country, but being the world’s only superpower means being the leader of the pack, not a lone wolf. While we may act unilaterally in rare cases, true leadership calls for listening to others, cooperation, leadership by example, and meeting your responsibilities not just to yourself but to others, to the world, and to humanity.

Here is how the language of exceptionalism can be applied to specific issues:

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Winning Message No. 2: Positivity

Second in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

Americans are optimists by nature, and the human spirit is ever hopeful. Americans expect the same from our leaders. We want to elect politicians who give us hope for a bright future. The best political communicators in the television era—presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama—understood this. They ran campaigns that were relentlessly positive about America. They never wavered from their hopeful outlooks on our country (though they were very different outlooks, to be sure).

Successful politicians should follow their lead. The message of Democrats and liberals must always be upbeat: America is strong and doing well, and our future is bright.

Democratic politicians must broadcast that message endlessly—and give evidence and statistics to prove their point. At the moment, fortunately, that is easy to do. Here is some of the good news Democrats should be trumpeting:

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Winning Message No. 1: Patriotism

First in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

Patriotism probably doesn’t need much explanation as a winning political message. In this context, it simply means demonstrating pride in and commitment to your country, something that most politicians reflexively do well. But Democrats and liberals need to be much more overt in connecting their policies to their patriotism—that is, to love of country and to American values such as fairness, justice, freedom, equality, and fighting for the underdog. At every opportunity, Democrats must show how their policies are connected to cherished American ideals.

This is something Republicans do habitually, and they have been very effective with it. They hardly seem to mention an issue without dressing it in liberty, freedom, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers, as if they were the sole caretakers of American values.

Democrats have been completely outflanked on the patriotism front. Liberals seem squeamish about projecting overt patriotism, maybe because they know that too often that hand-over-heart ostentatiousness degenerates into simpleminded jingoism and demagoguery. It doesn’t have to, of course. Love of country belongs as much to liberals as to conservatives. Democrats are the inheritors and protectors of freedom, liberty, and the Constitution as much as Republicans.

Patriotism is an unabashedly populist message, but conjoining it with Democratic policies isn’t marketing, or cynicism, or spin. It’s what Democrats already believe; we just have to make sure we say it out loud. Doing so reminds voters that Democratic positions are thoroughly grounded in American values and traditions. It’s a much-needed counterpoint to the insipid and relentless sloganeering of conservatives, who cannot be allowed to corner the market on patriotism.

Democrats need to become more comfortable talking about issues with phrases like:

“These are the values I was taught…”

“Americans believe in …”

“America stands for …”

Here are three specific examples of how patriotism and Americanism can be woven into speeches and policy discussions:

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