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.”

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