Winning Message No. 6: Conviction

Sixth in a series on “The 7 Winning Messages of Democratic Politicians”

Robert Frost once famously said, “A liberal is a person so broad-minded he won’t take his own side in a quarrel.”

That was never so true as in the last midterm election, except that it wasn’t broad-mindedness that kept Democrats from defending their own positions, it was cowardice.

And so we were treated to the pathetic spectacle of Democrats running from health care and President Obama, only to get trounced anyway. Instead of standing proud and making a strong case for their views, they scattered like startled pigeons—obfuscating, dissembling, and trying to pass themselves off as pseudo-Republicans. The poster child for that misguided strategy was Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, in her Senate race against Mitch McConnell, who refused even to say if she voted for Obama, made commercials showing her shooting guns, and shunned the president who gave her state health care, the most important quality-of-life legislation since Medicare.

Why were Democrats all over the country running from health care when it was working exactly as planned, helping millions of people get health insurance who otherwise couldn’t afford it?

And why were they shunning President Obama, refusing to allow one of modern politics’ most eloquent communicators to speak on their behalf?

That’s not a political strategy—that’s a self-esteem issue.

Conviction—being confident in what you believe and stating it boldly—is one of the most important qualities of a winning politician. Americans admire leaders with strong beliefs, politicians who say what they mean wholeheartedly and without wavering.

It’s why the accusation of “flip-flopping” is so ubiquitous in campaigning: Voters hate politicians who don’t know what they stand for. It’s one reason President Reagan is still admired, even (grudgingly) by his ideological opponents. And it’s why the Tea Party has become a force in American politics in a very short time—because it clearly and unapologetically stands for something (even when that something would be disastrous for the country).

Conviction should be one of a politician’s most basic attributes—yet it may be the one thing Democrats and liberals suck the worst at. We have let conservatives turn the word liberal into an epithet, without firing a shot in return. Democratic politicians have let themselves be cowed by the ferociousness of the Tea Party attack, assuming a submissive position in the face of a dominant aggressor.

If Democratic candidates think the Democratic agenda will lose them votes, they’re not telling the right message. Running from Democratic positions is a horrific political strategy for several reasons:

  • It makes Democrats seem like wimps, and nobody votes for wimps.
  • It negates the chance to build the case for why we are right.
  • It dilutes the Democratic brand.
  • It hurts other Democratic candidates when their colleagues in other districts and states are backing down from a controversial issue.
  • And worst of all, it’s just unnecessary:
    1. It doesn’t work. No one is fooled when Mark Udall of Colorado says (as he did in a debate), “The White House, when they look down the front lawn, the
      last person they want to see coming is me.”
    2. Democrats are in the right. We have the moral high ground, and polls show that a large majority of Americans agree with Democrats on specific issues.

If Democrats want to repaint the electoral map in 2016, our candidates can’t abandon their posts when the fighting gets tough. They will need ideological fortitude and conviction.

Conviction means having a strong belief in your ideals and stating your positions consistently, with clarity and strength, even in the face of opposition. It doesn’t necessarily mean liberals have to abandon their beloved nuance (although that would help), but it does mean believing wholeheartedly in the rightness of your cause. It also doesn’t mean candidates can’t be strategic: If you’re a House candidate in Texas, it’s probably best not to bring up gun control.

It does mean, however, that Democrats must close ranks on core issues like health care and that they don’t run from the past eight years of the Obama Administration. It means Democrats must find appealing, populist arguments to vigorously defend their positions, and they must always tie those arguments to core American and religious values (see other posts in this series and the essay “The Case for Liberalism”).

Conviction also means aggressively taking on your opponents and their political philosophy. Every Democratic politician must launch a rousing, coordinated offensive against not just Republicans but conservatism in general. Democrats should explain to voters why conservatism is a dead, uninspiring, selfish, backward-looking philosophy that is unworthy of a great nation in the 21st century.

Every Democrat should have campaign literature telling voters not only why they’re a good candidate, but why they’re a Democrat, and what the Democratic Party stands for.

For those who need a refresher course, these are a few of the things Democrats stand for:

  • Helping the poor, middle class, and working people—especially those at the margins of society. Democrats have stood with union workers for a hundred years. Democrats vote to raise the minimum wage. Democrats have provided the social safety net for society’s most vulnerable people—affordable health care for everyone, welfare programs for the unemployed and disabled, food and housing programs,
    Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and much more.
  • Fairness and equality. We believe in the idea that all people are created equal. We have been at the forefront of civil rights, women’s rights, and now gay rights.
  • Giving a voice to everyday Americans. Democrats make sure that the rich and powerful aren’t the only ones running America: We fight for consumer protections, campaign finance laws, net neutrality, and regulating the excesses of big business.
  • A belief in progress. We’re not afraid of new ideas. We are optimistic about the future. We believe we can make the world a better place because we have made it better. We look forward, not backward. We believe America’s best days are ahead of us, not behind us.
  • Compassion for others. We are a nation of individualists, but we’re also members of society. We are our brother’s keeper.
  • A strong nation. We believe our country need to meet the responsibilities of a superpower, at home and abroad.

Democrats should be rightfully proud of their political ideology and their long and impressive record of improving the lives or working Americans and the poor. If Democrats are having trouble in moderate and conservative districts, it’s because they aren’t telling the right populist message. The word must go out to candidates for every national and state office: Stand firm. Make your case. Do not run from a fight.

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