A New Message for Democrats

After the Democrats’ demoralizing loss in the recent Georgia special election, The New York Times ran a headline with this quote from a Democratic congressman: “Our Brand Is Worse Than Trump.”

He is exactly right. In much of the country the Democratic brand is toxic. Since Reagan, conservatives have done a remarkable job of defining liberals and Democrats for the public as tax-and-spend, weak-kneed, anti-American, abortion-loving, godless libertines. Worse yet, Democrats have let them get away with it, with no real rhetorical counterattack against conservatives. The results have been disastrous. Conservatives now control all three branches of national government-the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court-along with three-fifths of state legislative houses and governorships across the country.

Curiously, while voters are soundly rejecting Democratic candidates, they’re not rejecting Democratic policies. Poll after poll shows that a majority of voters agree with Democrats on many major issues, from health care to climate change to immigration. That can mean only one thing: Democrats have a serious image problem. Voters simply don’t like Democrats. They have no idea who they are, what they stand for, or how the party plans to help them.

Democrats desperately need a new message, and they shouldn’t underestimate the mountain they have to climb. Restoring their image will take an enormous marketing, advertising, and communications campaign.

It can be done, but Democrats need a plan. Luckily, we happen to have one.

“Finding Our Voice, Reclaiming Our Majority” is a 28-page communications strategy to help the Democratic Party rehabilitate its image and recapture the minds and hearts—especially the hearts—of the American people. This position paper lays out four primary messages the Democratic Party should convey:

  1. These are the values Democrats stand for.
  2. Democrats fight for workers and the poor.
  3. Democrats are the party of reform and clean government.
  4. Conservatism is dead.

“Finding Our Voice” justifies and outlines each of these messages and gives specific examples of how Democratic politicians and spokespeople can incorporate them into every political discussion.

The paper also offers a three-step plan of action for communicating them to the public.

  1. Create a vision: Democrats must tell voters what they stand for. They must help Americans visualize exactly how Democrats will make their lives better. The party needs to create a formal mission statement of Democratic values and lay out a specific agenda for helping Americans: tax cuts for the middle class, raising the minimum wage, guaranteed sick pay, affordable college tuition and child care, and so on.
  2. Launch a branding campaign: Democrats need a major marketing and advertising campaign to rehabilitate the party’s image. TV, radio, and print ads should focus not on specific candidates or issues but on Democratic values and accomplishments. In a future post we’ll show exactly how that can be done.
  3. Speak with one voice: The Democratic Party needs a strong, centralized messaging strategy, so that Democrats everywhere know how to communicate our common values and talking points. In a coming post, we’ll offer ideas on how that can be accomplished.

Democrats have an amazing story to tell. We hope party leaders will take a look at “Finding Our Voice” and reimagine how Democrats communicate with America.

Download “Finding Our Voice, Regaining Our Majority” (28-page PDF).

Sen. Sherrod Brown Proves—
Yet Again—That Democrats
Suck at Messaging

The biggest crisis in the Democratic Party today is its utter failure to present a coherent, inspiring message to Americans. Voters have no idea what Democrats stand for or how the party plans to improve their lives. If you want to see a perfect example of why Democrats are so god-awful at communicating, take a look at the clip below of Ohio senator Sherrod Brown’s appearance on last Sunday’s Meet the Press.

Host Chuck Todd sets up the segment with the premise that voters simply don’t know what Democrats are for beyond being anti-Trump. His first question to Brown: “Is that a fair criticism?”

It’s a big, slow softball over the heart of the plate: a perfect opportunity to explain—now, at last—what the party stands for. It’s a question that Brown—who certainly knew why he was on the show—should have knocked out of the park and into the Allegheny River. Instead, he fouls it into his own dugout. Watch the first 1:40 of this exchange:

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‘A Better Deal’ Done Better

In our previous post we critiqued the messaging behind the “A Better Deal” campaign, the Democratic Party’s awkward first step toward populism. Though we awarded points for trying, we also criticized the messaging as wonky, muddled, overly complex, and way too timid in its attack on conservatives. And as always, Democrats failed to relate their policies to core American and moral values.

Of course it’s always easy to criticize. To put our money where our mouth is, we thought we’d take a crack at devising a better message. To illustrate what the campaign rollout should have been, we chose to rewrite Nancy Pelosi’s Washington Post op-ed introducing “A Better Deal.”

Here is Pelosi’s original op-ed. Our rewrite is below. We’ll let you decide if it’s better, worse, or just more of the same.

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‘A Better Deal’ Needs
Better Marketing

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.

Be bolder.

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.

Sell it!

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:

  1. Future announcements will most likely be less newsworthy than the kickoff, and therefore less covered.
  2. 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.

Hallelujah! Democrats Have a Plan to Fix Health Care

Praise be to the political gods! No sooner did The Liberal Message exhort Democrats to stand up and start aggressively laying out an alternative to the Republican agenda, including health care, than we read that 10 House Democrats are proposing ways to fix the Affordable Care Act.

We’re going to humbly take credit for this welcome news, even though we doubt any human being actually read our previous blog post. And we have a couple other points we’d like to make on that subject.

First, Democratic leaders need to embrace these proposals and make this a major publicity campaign. As we pointed out in our previous post, this accomplishes several things:

  • It shows leadership and strength.
  • It emphasizes the gratuitous cruelty of the conservatives’
    unnecessary plan.
  • It embarrasses conservatives, because our plan is simpler, better,
    and more humane.
  • It helps provide a desperately needed identity for the Democratic
    Party by telling voters, “This is what we stand for.”

Second, it would be a shame if Democrats allowed this proposal to founder because some liberals want to focus instead on a single-payer proposal. That’s a long-term debate. The ACA needs fixing right now.

The Democratic message should be that we have a reasonable and far more compassionate way to improve the current law. And we should be shouting that message nationwide, with a focused, coordinated marketing campaign.

Democrats: Don’t Just Stand There—Do Something!

As delicious as it is to watch the Republican Party floundering in the wake of Trump scandals and their own incompetence, Democrats are making a grave mistake if they just stand by gleefully watching the fiasco.

With conservatives on the ropes because of their cruel budget, widely despised health plan, and other missteps, Democrats should seize the moment to counterpunch. They should be aggressively laying out their own agenda for the nation, contrasting their positions with Republicans, and helping voters visualize how much better life would be under Democratic governance. They should be telling Americans what their budget would look like and how they would fix health care.

Of course, their proposals will go nowhere, but they wouldn’t be meaningless. By loudly announcing a coordinated, detailed plan of action to help average Americans, Democrats would accomplish several things. They would:

  • Present a stark and eye-opening contrast between their reasonable and compassionate proposals and the heartless GOP alternatives
  • Show strength and a willingness to lead
  • Further embarrass conservatives and paint them as weak and ineffectual
  • Help provide a desperately needed identity for the Democratic Party
  • Start setting a compelling agenda for 2018 and softening up swing voters

Some cautious Democrats may reasonably argue: “When Republicans are busy shooting themselves in both feet, why should we stick our heads up and give them another target? Let’s lay low and let conservatives continue to be their own worst enemy.”

In normal times that position might make sense, but these are not normal times. Conservatives have never been more vulnerable. One of the biggest reasons for the Democrats’ catastrophic loss in 2016 was that they had no coherent message and no real identity as a party. With the crucial 2018 midterms already approaching, voters need to know who Democrats are and what they stand for.

Americans today are desperate for leadership. Democrats should give them some.

What Black People Have to Lose by Voting for Trump

So last week Donald Trump—Master Persuader, artist of the deal—pitched his best argument for why “every single African American” should vote for him: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed. … What the hell do you have to lose?”

We’re assuming that question was rhetorical (whether Trump realizes it or not), but just for the record, we thought we’d answer it anyway. Just off the top of our head, here are eight important things black people (and Americans generally, for that matter) could lose by voting for Trump.

1. A president who is sensitive to black issues

Hillary Clinton spent some time in her early activist years working on civil rights issues in the South. She has earned support from the black community for showing concern for black issues and for developing an agenda to address them.

By contrast, Trump:

2. Their jobs

According to two extensive reports by Moody’s Analytics, Trump’s economic proposals could cause a “lengthy recession” and cost Americans over 3 million jobs. Clinton’s proposals would add more than 10 million jobs.

3. Their right to vote

A recent federal appeals court decision struck down North Carolina’s GOP-enacted voter ID law, saying the restrictions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” in their attempts to suppress voting. Trump and his Republican Party aggressively support similar laws in other conservative states. Black people who have trouble securing the proper voting identification would be unable to vote in elections. Voter ID laws hit hardest at the elderly, students, low-income voters, and those without easy access to transportation.

4. Any hope of addressing police violence and unfair enforcement against the black community

Clinton has been supportive of calls to reduce police violence, unequal treatment, and racial profiling of African Americans.  Donald Trump and Republicans have shown contempt for the Black Lives Matter movement and hostility toward the issues black people are raising. Trump, in fact, has called for police to be more aggressive.

5. Their health care

Trump has vowed to repeal the current health care law and replace it with a vastly inferior version. Millions of black people enrolled in Obamacare or in expanded Medicaid would stand to lose their current health insurance.

6. Their social safety net

If Trump’s Republican Party manages to pass the federal budget that House Speaker Paul Ryan has outlined, it would devastate social services in America. Republicans have already tried to pass major cuts to food stamps for America’s poorest citizens (they were stopped by Democrats). Since poverty and unemployment disproportionately affect African Americans, those cuts would disproportionately harm black people.

7. A living wage

Trump has made contradictory statements about whether he would support a raise in the minimum wage, but he apparently doesn’t support an increase to $15, as Democrats do. And his party is dead-set against any federal raise at all, saying it should be left to the states. Any black households with a family member working a minimum-wage job would most likely not see any meaningful raise in the national rate under Trump.

8. Any possibility of affordable college tuition, affordable child care, guaranteed sick pay, or family leave

Clinton and the Democratic Party are fighting for all of those significant improvements to the lives of workers. Like all Americans, black people will have to depend on Democrats winning office to achieve any of them.

The Stump Speech Hillary Clinton Should Be Giving

In our last post, we criticized Hillary Clinton’s stump speech as a deadly dull exercise in policy wonkishness that ignores crucial lessons from this election season and from her own Democratic convention. Which undoubtedly will raise the question: “OK, smartass, then what should she be saying?”

Glad you asked. Every Clinton speech (and every speech from Democratic candidates around the country) should be conveying four things:

  1. The values she and the Democratic Party believe in, and how they relate to traditional American and religious/humanitarian values.
  2. Democrats are the party of working people and the poor.
  3. Democrats are the true party of reform.
  4. Conservatism is broken.

So, in the spirit of putting up or shutting up, here’s an unpolished example of a Clinton stump speech that illustrates what we mean:

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Why Is Hillary Clinton’s Stump Speech So Awful?

Because blue-collar voters in swing states are so crucial to this election, we thought we’d watch a couple videos of Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches, to see what messages she was bringing to the hard-working people of Ohio, Florida, and the country at large.

To be honest, we were appalled. Clinton and her staff seem to have ignored every lesson they should have learned from a successful Democratic convention and from the wildly popular insurgent campaigns of Sanders and Trump. Here are just a few of the things missing from Clinton’s stump speech:

  • No call for change and reforms in Washington
  • Little empathy or acknowledgment of financially strapped families
  • No emphasis on traditional American and Democratic values. The whole thing is mostly uninspiring policy wonkishness
  • A few jabs at Trump, but no major contrasts between progressive and conservative values and beliefs, and no full-on attack on conservatism. With Trump at the top of the ticket, Democrats have a golden opportunity to sully the conservative brand by linking it to him. Why aren’t they doing it?
  • No point-by-point rundown of what Democrats will do for blue-collar workers. She does talk in detail about policies, and they will help the middle class, but she doesn’t really frame them as such.
  • Very few personal anecdotes about why she’s running for office, her core beliefs, and the mission that drives her, which were so effective at the convention

As much as we’re fans of Clinton, she will never be a captivating speaker. Fine. But at least her messages can be sharp. Sadly, they aren’t. They’re not even close. Clinton’s stump speech is as dry and lifeless as a poli-sci lecture from your least-favorite professor. It’s all head and no heart.

She starts out with her requisite howdy-dos to local pols, and then almost immediately launches straight into a litany of policy positions:

  • Creating jobs
  • Stimulating growth by developing our infrastructure
  • Small business development (with a few digs at Trump for refusing to pay his contractors)
  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Equal pay for women
  • Improving education and increasing teacher pay
  • Affordable college tuition
  • And so on

Are you still reading?

All this is important, sure—and certainly a contrast to Trump’s mindless generalities. But good Lord, where is the soul? After all that’s happened this election season, Madame Secretary—after all we’ve learned about the pent-up anger and frustration of the electorate—this is what you think voters are hungry to hear? Infrastructure? Americans need spiritual nourishment. They need a leader who understands that many of them feel abandoned by politicians who seem more interested in money and special interests than in improving the lives of everyday people. They need to know what you stand for. They need inspiration.

We hope other Democratic candidates nationwide aren’t making the same mistakes. Just for the record, here are the elements we believe should be part of every candidate’s stump speech:

  1. Start with the general and work toward the specific.
  2. Begin with a declaration of your values—not your policy positions. Tell your audience what you and the Democratic Party believe in, and how those beliefs reflect traditional American values.
  3. Throw in a dollop of patriotism, American exceptionalism, and positivity. Remind us why we’re proud to be Americans.
  4. Outline three or four major issues—the ones most important to your audience. Unlike Clinton, try to avoid a laundry list of position statements. Be specific, and use anecdotes and unassailable facts to make your case.
  5. Describe how you’re going to tackle those issues.
  6. Contrast your views with your opponent’s. Globalize your argument—don’t just attack your opponent, attack conservatism. Try to undermine the very foundation of conservative ideology.
  7. End on a hopeful, upbeat note and a call to action.

In our next post, we’ll try to practice what we preach and take a stab at writing the stump speech Clinton should be delivering.

Related post:

Clinton stump speeches:

Democrats: Preach Values, Values, Values

For months now The Liberal Message has been begging Democratic candidates to never talk about policies without talking about values—that is, the core beliefs that underline those policies, such as fairness, equality, personal freedoms, helping people in need, etc.

So we were thrilled to run across a recent blog post by a bona fide Smart Person with actual readers who says the same thing. Every Democratic candidate should read this essay by George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science who wrote the famous book Moral Politics (which describes the “strict father”/”nurturing parent” psychology that underlies conservative and liberal beliefs, respectively). This latest essay is mostly about the psychological mechanisms that make Trump and his supporters tick, but the good stuff for Democrats is the last section, on how progressive candidates can counter the Trump/GOP messaging.

Briefly, Lakoff says Democrats should:

  • Start with a discussion of values and then relate policies to them.
  • Stay positive, emphasize facts, and use repetition in making your case.
  • Support the police.
  • Support unions (as an instrument of freedom for workers).
  • Don’t let yourself be drawn into mudslinging. Channel President Obama and keep it classy.
  • De-emphasize identity politics. Democratic constituencies are important, but be sure to speak inclusively, for everyone (including, he says, poor white Americans; see our previous post).

Lakoff has lots more good details. It’s valuable reading and a complementary viewpoint to our own 7 Winning Messages for Democratic Politicians.