4 Ways Democrats Should Attack Conservatism

The New England Patriots have been a powerhouse in the NFL for many years, and one reason, football commentators say, is because of coach Bill Belichick’s proven strategy: Find your opponent’s greatest strength and attack it.

That principle serves equally well in politics, of course (just ask Karl Rove). The Liberal Message has been advocating that Democrats must launch a concerted attack not just on specific Republicans but on conservatism itself. So how can the Belichick strategy be applied to an entire political ideology?

Here are four perceived strengths of conservatives (at least among moderate and conservative voters) and how Democrats should attack them.

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The One Chart That Destroys the GOP Tax-Cut Message

Charts are wonderful things. Like a photograph, a good chart is worth a thousand words.

The chart below, for example, can destroy the Republican tax-cut message in a single image. We wish every Democrat running for office would print this chart on a foamcore poster—as big as they can fit in their car—and carry it with them as they knock on doors and to every house party, speech, and debate.

Here is the chart, and the talking points that go with it:

Chart showing disparity in incomes between top 1% and middle class

Click to enlarge



  • Conservatives say they want another huge tax cut for wealthy people in the top tax bracket, and they want to slash corporate taxes. They say that will stimulate the economy and everyone will benefit. It’s called “trickle-down economics,” and conservatives have been telling us that since Ronald Reagan was elected 35 years ago.
  • If anyone thinks that’s a good idea, I have a chart I’d like to show you. Let’s take a look at what’s happened in the last 35 years when we give huge tax cuts to people who already have lots of money.
  • As you can see from the chart:
    • The incomes of the richest 1% in America have tripled.
    • Corporate profits have nearly quadrupled.
    • Even the incomes for the rest of the top 20% have risen almost 70%.
    • And these figures are after taxes and adjusted for inflation, so they show the real increase in income.
  • But what’s happened to average Americans? For everyone else, their incomes have stayed essentially flat. And the small increase the chart does show has been eaten up by costs that have risen faster than inflation (like health care and college tuition) and by expenses families didn’t have in the 1980s (like monthly bills for Internet access, cable TV, and wireless phones).
  • Clearly, the “trickle-down” effect isn’t working. The middle class is hurting, or at least not getting ahead. So what do Republicans say we should do about this? Give more huge tax breaks to the rich!
  • Does that make sense to anyone? Saying you’re going to help the average worker by giving more money to the rich is like saying you’re going to feed the hungry by giving rich people more food, so there will be more crumbs and leftovers for the poor.
  • Supply-side economics—or trickle-down economics—is a bogus theory. It doesn’t work. Giving tax breaks primarily to the wealthy not only doesn’t help the middle class, it will explode the national deficit. How do we know? Because it’s happened twice before, under Reagan and Bush.
  • Creating huge deficits by tax giveaways to the rich, and then using those deficits as a reason to cut food stamps and social services to the poor is immoral, irreligious, and contrary to American values. It is not who we are as Americans. It is not what this country stands for.
  • Why doesn’t trickle-down economics work?
    • Corporations don’t give raises to workers just because they have lots of money. That cuts into profits. Profits go to shareholders and executives, not to employees.
    • Corporations also don’t increase production or build more factories just because they have lots of money. They need to have demand for their products.
    • The rich don’t drive the economy—consumers do.
  • So what do Democrats propose instead? Policies that directly help American workers, such as:
    • Tax breaks aimed at the middle class
    • A raise in the minimum wage
    • Support for unions, so workers can bargain for raises from a position of strength
    • Affordable health care for all workers
    • Paid sick leave
    • Affordable college tuition (including refinancing student loans and Pell grants for low-income students)
    • Affordable child care
  • We need to get the bottom line of this chart moving again. To do that, we can’t use the same failed economic theory that created this chart in the first place.
  • The path to prosperity starts from the bottom up, not from the top down. Instead of doing more favors for people who are already rich, you need people in Washington who will start doing favors for you.


The underlying data and notes about his chart are available here (Excel file).

At Sunday Debate, Democrats Must Give as Good as They Got

As detestable as the speechifying was at the GOP debate last night, we have to admit, from a purely clinical standpoint, that the Republicans are very, very good at messaging. Almost every candidate, with the exception of Bush and, to a lesser extent, Kasich,were absolutely superb in the art of the soundbite and in appealing to their audience viscerally and emotionally, by wrapping almost every issue in traditional American values (however falsely).

They also understood the immense value of free air time for attacking Democrats. Whether they were coached by the RNC or simply understand it instinctively, they were linked arm in arm in their relentless—and effective—rage against Clinton and Obama.

We can only pray that Democrats were watching and learning for their own debate Sunday (though past debates haven’t been encouraging; see the post “Democrats: Stop Being Polite!“) Democrats must understand who the true opponents are on Sunday—and they must remember not to attack individual candidates, or just “Republicans,” but conservatism.

If the Democratic candidates need some suggestions, here are a few unsolicited soundbites for Sunday, just off the top of our head. We hope Democratic communicators are hard at work thinking of more.

  • As we saw on Thursday, the Republican Party is completely dysfunctional. Pick any candidate on that stage, and at least half of Republicans are afraid of what would happen if he were elected president.
  • Everyone in America should contrast the Republican debate with the president’s State of the Union address. From the president, we heard a dignified, thoughtful, wise message of optimism and working together. From Republicans, we heard nothing but angry, hysterical, mean-spirited, black-hearted pessimism and warmongering.
  • What was once the Grand Old Party has become the Grotesque Old Party.
  • Based on what we all heard from Republicans at the debate, was there anyone on that stage who wouldn’t have America at war within a year of taking office?
  • Judging by the Republicans’ incendiary rhetoric, is anyone confident in how Republican candidates would have handled the most recent incident with Iran? It seems entirely possible they would have turned a peaceable misunderstanding that was over in 24 hours into a deadly act of war with repercussions that would last for months or even years.
  • The leading Republican candidates would not only be wrong for America, they may quite literally be dangerous for America and for the world.
  • Ultraconservatism has joined the Dark Side of American politics.
  • This is a party that confuses warmongering with strength, moralizing with morality, name-calling with political discourse, nativism with patriotism, and restraint and diplomacy with weakness.
  • One of the most important qualities a president needs is a sense of perspective—the ability to reason calmly, act rationally, and know the difference between a problem and a crisis. And Republicans fail that test miserably. Everything we heard from conservatives on Thursday was either reckless or hysterical.
  • Donald Trump keeps saying that we need to bring in the best people to run the government. Well, we should start with the presidency of the United States. Because Donald Trump is one of the least qualified people ever to run for the office.
  • Macho posturing is not the same as leadership.
  • This virulent new form of conservatism does not represent the best of America.
  • In three hours, we heard a lot about the Republican agenda, but there’s one thing we never heard: compassion. That’s an American value, too. They showed nothing but callousness toward Syrian refugees, the millions of people who would lose health insurance if they had their way, the victims of gun violence, Americans in poverty, or the immigrant children they would send back to impoverished countries they don’t even remember. Their agenda doesn’t reflect moral values, religious values, or even simple humanity.
  • If Americans are looking for leadership, they are not going to get it from the Government Shutdown Party, the Jade Helm Conspiracy Party, the Science Denial Party, the Tea Party, the War Party, or the Corporations are People Party.
  • After the last election, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Republicans “have to stop being the Stupid Party.” They have failed completely in that goal.
  • American voters must ask themselves: Are these really the people who should be running a 21st-century superpower? Conservatives every day are proving themselves unfit to lead a great nation.

New Year’s Resolutions for Democratic Candidates

The new year is always about hope and self-reflection. Democratic candidates who hope to win over moderate and independent voters may want to reflect on these suggested New Year’s resolutions.

1. I will not discuss issues without discussing values.

Democrats must appeal to voters’ hearts, not just their heads. To do that, they must explain how their ideas are rooted in American traditions and values, such as:

  • Patriotism
  • Optimism
  • American exceptionalism
  • Faith and moral values
  • Fairness, equality, 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. For examples of how to do this on specific issues, see The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians and related posts.

2. I will not just run against my Republican opponent, I will run against conservatism.

To win over moderate and conservative voters, Democrats can’t just quarrel about issues—they must delegitimize the very foundations of conservative ideology. They must counter the incessant memes that Republicans are the party of freedom, patriotism, morality, and fiscal responsibility.

It is absolutely crucial that Democratic candidates begin attacking not just Republicans but conservatives. Start using the words “conservative” and “Tea Party” interchangeably with “Republicans.” Every Democratic spokesperson—not just those up for election—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 new 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 (see Winning Message No. 5: Faith & Values for more on how to walk that delicate line)
  • Unable to deal with the complex issues of a modern 21st-century superpower
  • Unworthy of leading a great nation
  • More than a little nuts

Democrats must begin raising doubts in voters’ minds about the competence of conservatives and their ability to govern. Remind voters about government shutdowns. Blame the Tea Party for the gridlock in Washington. The point is to recast “Tea Party” and “conservative” as pejoratives, in the same way Republicans have managed to do with “liberal.” Every Republican candidate is now the de facto spokesperson for every nutty, 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, shutting down the government, threatening to default on the U.S. debt—conservatives own all of it.

3. I will be a proud Democrat.

If you don’t think the Democratic message will play in your purple or red districts, then you are telling the wrong message! Democrats are the party of:

  • Workers
  • Improving the lives of average Americans
  • American values like fairness, equality, and freedom of conscience
  • Moral and religious values like helping the poor
  • Progress
  • Keeping America strong and fulfilling our obligations at home and abroad (rather than shrinking America with drastic budget cuts; see How to Fight the Republicans’ Tax-Cut Message)
  • Ending the corrupting role of money in government
  • Responsible financial leadership and prudent budget cutting
  • Fighting for the underdog

That’s a message that should play anywhere.

It is the job of every Democratic candidate to reinforce the Democratic brand. Every candidate needs to encourage Americans to vote not just for him or her but for Democrats generally. The message is that Democrats are the party of the people. We have been on the side of unions and workers for a hundred years. We are defenders of the poor and middle class. We have been the engine that drives progress in our nation, from women’s rights and civil rights to Social Security, the minimum wage, and health care. Every significant improvement in America’s quality of life in the last century has come from Democrats. Tell the story! America does not move forward without the Democratic Party.

4. I will speak with unwavering conviction.

Americans admire politicians who know what they stand for and fight for it. Do not waver, dissemble, or apologize. Do not abandon your president or your party. That doesn’t mean you can’t be strategic. It doesn’t mean you have to be hyperpartisan, or that you can’t position yourself as willing to work across the aisle. It does mean candidates have to believe passionately in the Democratic cause.