Recently the Democrats launched their new “A Better Deal” campaign, a supposedly populist plan to help American workers by creating jobs and better wages, lowering the cost of living, and building a stronger economy.
It’s a great idea in theory. As we’ve said in previous posts Democrats must step in to fill the power vacuum created by Republican incompetence and the Trump scandals. They also desperately need to create an identity—to tell Americans what Democrats stand for and how voting Democratic will improve their lives.
“A Better Deal” is the first wobbly baby step in that direction. Unfortunately, as game as the effort was, the rollout perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with Democratic messaging: timidity, politeness, wonkishness, and a tin ear for populism.
Here are a few ways it could have been better.
The campaign rollout reeked of decision-by-committee. According to op-eds from Nancy Pelosi in the Washington Post and Chuck Schumer in The New York Times, the campaign seems to be about three things: creating jobs (great!), lowering prescription drug costs (um, OK), and regulating corporate mergers to prevent monopolistic price gouging (huh?). It’s such as strangely random, disjointed set of proposals, and there are only three of them. That’s their bold populist agenda? This is the new message that will send millions of voters rushing to reregister as Democrats? Sure, those aren’t bad ideas. But they’re not inspiring. They don’t constitute a vision.
Democrats need a radical rebranding—and this isn’t it. Democrats need a comprehensive, rousing message that tells American workers the concrete ways Democrats will change their everyday lives. Which brings us to our second point.
Make it simpler.
Voters generally want to know one thing from a political party: How are you going to make my life better? But on that simple question, the Democrats’ message seemed muddled—at once underwhelming and overly complex. If you look at the “Better Deal” web page, it’s a text-heavy mishmash of ideas—trade, corporate outsourcing, corporate mergers, apprenticeship programs, high-speed internet, and on and on. All of them are worthwhile, no doubt, but how will they help me? It’s not always easy to tell.
The first rule of populism is: Keep it simple. Democrats should have limited their proposals to things people can easily understand will directly improve the lives of average people:
- Creating more jobs by building infrastructure
- Raising the minimum wage
- Apprenticeship programs
- Helping families afford child care and college tuition
- Guaranteed sick pay and paid family leave
- Stabilizing the health insurance market and lowering premiums
- Fighting Republican attempts to destroy unions
- Fighting back against corporations that outsource American jobs
- Perhaps a targeted tax cut just for the middle class
The more esoteric proposals—mergers, trade, the internet—should have been left for later, once America has bought in to their concept.
Beyond the messages themselves, the marketing rollout of “A Better Deal” seemed oddly tepid, considering the party’s future may be hanging on it. We saw a couple of prominent op-eds, Schumer on a Sunday political talk show, and a sparsely attended press conference. (Oddly, you still can’t find the proposals on the Democrats.org website, which is the first place curious people will look; it’s only on their Senate site.) The “Better Deal” campaign did get some modest press coverage, but then was just as quickly forgotten.
Apparently, more pieces of the campaign will be coming, to keep it in the public eye, but we see a couple of problems:
- Future announcements will most likely be less newsworthy than the kickoff, and therefore less covered.
- Op-eds and five minutes on a Sunday talk show are great, but those are outlets for high-information voters. How will Democrats get their critical messages to the masses?
We’ve argued in previous posts that the Democratic Party urgently needs a major rebranding campaign. It should be a full-on media blitz from a top ad agency: TV, radio, newspaper ads—the works—at least in important swing states.
And before they get into the particulars of their policies, they need to soften up the electorate with a general rebranding of the party. That would all be hideously expensive, of course, but if Democrats really want to turn voters around, they have to make a splash. And they have to preach to the street, not to the choir.
Absent that, at the very least every Democrat should be talking about “A Better Deal” over the summer (and we haven’t heard much so far); it can’t just be a one-day event.
We can only hope future announcements on “A Better Deal” will keep the Democratic messages in the public eye, but they can use some work.
Relate it to core American values.
One of the biggest sins Democrats commit is that they fail to relate their policies to their values—to their core beliefs or to deeply held American and moral values we share as a nation. In Pelosi’s op-ed, this is the closest we get: “What motivates us is that the costs of living keep rising, but families feel their incomes and wages aren’t keeping up.”
That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a reason, not a value. It doesn’t speak to the deeper philosophical beliefs that underlie the policy.
So what are those core values? How about:
- Fairness and equality: Americans believe that everyone is created equal. But conservative policies have tipped the game toward the rich and powerful. We need to level the playing field for American workers.
- The American Dream: Everyone has a right to fully participate in the American way of life and to pursue happiness and prosperity. We have to make sure workers don’t lose sight of that dream.
- Fighting for the underdog. Americans fight for underdogs, and right now American workers need a champion. Their voices are being drowned out by special interests with money and lobbyists.
- Optimism: Democrats believe we can make our country better because we have made it better. Democrats have been improving the lives of workers for a hundred years.
- American exceptionalism: America is the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth. Workers deserve a better deal, and they have a right to ask for a better life.
In a coming post, we’ll show how to weave these basic values into the “Better Deal” narrative to create a more powerful message.
Don’t be so nice.
Democrats have an exasperating habit of pulling their punches in the fight against conservatives, and it was on full, maddening display in the rollout of “A Better Deal.” You’d think this would be the perfect time for a bare-knuckles attack on Republicanism, including the failure of their trickle-down economics and their fawning obeisance to the rich at the expense of America’s workers. But at the Democrats’ press conference we got nothing of the kind. In their op-eds we got a few perfunctory words of disapproval.
In the 40 years since Reagan, liberals have been relentlessly bashed by Republicans—why don’t Democrats ever return the favor? Democrats: Stop being so polite!
Of course, criticizing is easy. In coming posts, we’ll try to walk the walk. We’ll rewrite Pelosi’s Washington Post op-ed according to the principles we’ve just described, and we’ll try our hand at a TV commercial to sell the idea to the general public.