In the last post, we talked about the seven messages Democratic candidates should convey to voters whenever they discuss policy issues, including optimism, patriotism, and traditional American and religious principles such as fairness, equality, and helping people in need.
These are deeply American values, and they emphatically belong to liberals as much as to conservatives. They are messages that will resonate even in conservative strongholds.
That’s all well and good in theory, but how do liberals specifically weave these messages into their campaign speeches, policy discussions, and debates? How, for example, can Democrats counter the very effective Fox News messages of demagoguery and self-interest: lower taxes, nativism, and militaristic foreign affairs. And how do we wrest from Republicans the values of religious faith, patriotism, and American exceptionalism, which they have twisted and warped for their own ends?
In coming posts, we’ll discuss each in turn, but let’s start with a big one: How do liberals respond to conservatives’ incessant and superficially attractive message of lower taxes and smaller government (and to their portrait of liberals as spendthrifts and tax lovers)?
The Democratic counterpoint should be a two-part message:
1. Conservatives are trying to diminish a great nation and turn America into a second-rate superpower.
Democrats can turn Republicans’ own rhetoric against them with this counterargument:
“The conservative agenda is not the philosophy of a great nation. America is the world’s only superpower—a role that comes with tremendous benefits but also great responsibilities. Conservatives, with their never-ending calls for drastic budget cuts and their small-government rhetoric, would cripple American power and influence abroad and force us to abdicate our responsibilities here at home.
While countries like China are growing, the Tea Party wants America to shrink. While other nations are vying for more responsibility, Republicans want America to have less. When poverty is growing and our infrastructure is deteriorating, conservatives want to cripple America’s ability to meet our needs here at home.
America’s challenges are growing in the 21st century, but conservatives want to put our nation on a starvation diet. The goal of conservatives, as one of them1 famously said, is to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” That is not a vision of greatness. It’s a small, selfish, narrow-minded vision of America that is unworthy of a superpower.”
This recharacterization of conservative rhetoric is a powerful message because it incorporates six out of the seven winning messages: patriotism, positivity, American exceptionalism, fighting for the underdog (by avoiding cuts to social programs), conviction, and self-interest.
2. If Tea Party Republicans ever managed to get their way, it would be a disaster for America.
As a corollary to the first point, Democrats must also tell Americans exactly how Republican policies would diminish America. There is a reason Republicans usually talk only generally about smaller government: If they ever told voters all the things they would have to do without, they would never get elected. So that should be the Democrats’ job—to help Americans envision life with Republicans in charge. By offering specifics of life under ultraconservatism, Democrats can make their arguments much more vivid. As a bonus, it paints conservatism as negative, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, and hurtful to underdogs.
The Republican budgets under Paul Ryan and now Tom Price, plus the Republican campaigns and debates, are a sordid blueprint of the right-wing agenda, and all of it—every extreme or wacky proposal—should be ammunition for Democratic candidates. If Republicans in the House vote for dramatic cuts in food stamps, or if Rep. Paul Ryan wants to privatize Medicare, every national Republican candidate owns those proposals, as examples of what Republicans are capable of.
Democrats will have no trouble drawing the ugly picture of what a shrunken America would look like under the Republican budget:
- An America of growing inequality, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer
- Soaring deficits
- A tattered safety net for families in poverty
- The privatizing of Medicare, threatening seniors with an untried, untested new system
- The repeal of the health care law, leaving millions of Americans without insurance
- Devastating cuts to food stamps and Medicaid
- Drastic cuts in scientific research and space exploration
- Diminished funding for education, including fewer loans for students who can’t afford college
- The continuing decline of the nation’s infrastructure
- The deterioration of our national parks
- The degradation of the environment and our natural resources
- Reduced foreign aid and the declining influence of America abroad
Again, the point must be made that conservatives are trying to shrink and diminish the world’s greatest superpower. Conservatives would force America to abandon its responsibilities at home and abroad.
Here is a two-minute campaign speech or debate response that shows how these messages could be used on the stump:
“If Tea Party conservatives ever managed to have their way, the results would be a disaster for America. Most Americans would be shocked to find out what a Tea Party version of small government would really look like. But the Republican budget tells us exactly what conservatives have in store for our country, and it doesn’t sound anything like the great nation you and I know. It would mean:
- Medicare would be radically altered and privatized.
- Deficits would soar, like they did under Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
- People in poverty would face devastating cuts in food stamps and medical care.
- Education funding would be slashed, including loans for students who can’t afford college.
- Millions of Americans would lose their health insurance, with nothing to replace it.
- Our infrastructure would continue to deteriorate.
- Funding would be slashed for scientific research, our national parks, and the agency that protects our air and water.
“And Republicans say they’re only getting starting cutting government to the bone. The conservative agenda is not a vision of greatness. These are not the values of America. This is not the agenda of a superpower. This is a mean-spirited, narrow-minded, stingy political philosophy unworthy of a great nation. The drastic budget cuts Republicans are demanding would have serious and far-reaching consequences. They would dramatically undermine our nation’s ability to meet its domestic and foreign responsibilities. Don’t let the Tea Party diminish America. Don’t let conservatives forsake our own citizens. Don’t let Republicans turn our country into a second-rate superpower.”
1 Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform