Sunday, March 27, 2011

Panel on the Democrats' "message"

My wife and I went to a panel discussion about "Messaging and Communication for the Democratic Party." It was held in Newton MA and featured three speakers: John Walsh, Chair of the Democratic Party of Massachusetts; Deborah Shah, who managed the successful campaigns of Sonia Chang Diaz (State Senate) and Setti Warren (Mayor of Newton); and Larry Carpman who manages a public relations firm and teaches communications at Boston University.

Deborah Shah -- who also worked for Hillary Clinton -- began by mentioning a few complaints that have been leveled against Democrats. First, that they tended to "speak from the head" -- i.e. emphasize the analysis of issues and list problems and specific programs to resolve them. Second -- and I think most important -- Democrats tend to let their opponents define the issues and the terminology, and even cede major points well in advance of any confrontation. For example, both Clinton and Obama basically refused to allow the so-called "public option" (already a watering-down of single-payer) to be part of their health care reform proposal. In other words, they start the give and take of compromise with an already compromised position. Unfortunately, in an example of the Democrats' lack of preparedness, Shah phrased this last point in a series of mixed and missed sports metaphors. Using terms from sports is generally a bad idea, since a large part of the population is not familiar with these terms, and the remaining group of sports-savvy people can be quite contemptuous of their misuse. From her later comments I got the impression that Ms. Shah is a sophisticated political analyst, but her main advice was that Democrats should try to "speak more from the heart than from the head." I was hoping for more specifics as to exactly how they should and would do this. She did point out that when Republicans started talking about "death panels," the Democrats should have replied that we already have them, but they are run by the insurance companies who routinely deny coverage for life-threatening issues. Yes, we know that, but she is simply reiterating our complaints about the Democrats without explaining why the Dems are so ineffective and what corrections can or will be made.

Next, Larry Chapman -- who also worked for John Kerry -- began by agreeing with Shah's main points. I was hoping he would save time by letting it go at that, but he proceeded to give a "PowerPoint presentation" without the PowerPoint. He listed -- presumably from his B.U. course -- a few bullet points about successful public relations (stuff like "Risk", "Repetition" etc.) with only a few not very pointed examples of each. I felt he was saying: better get this down, it'll be on the next quiz. He tried to give some examples from "pop" culture but was seemingly unprepared to come up with anything -- finally admitting he was not that conversant with contemporary music or TV. Once again this was not a good sign for the ability of Democrats -- or even their PR people -- to come up with "zingers." He also repeated the self-serving line that "we" Democrats are used to thinking -- presumably deeply -- about the issues, while the Republicans played on the emotions. Speaking for himself, he said that "we should not become like our enemies." Presumably he didn't mean we should keep winning the occasional battles but losing wars. Presumably he didn't mean we should be out-Foxed in the use of the media at almost every turn. I was hoping, once again, that the Democrats could actually hire some PR people who are creative, clever and effective. I'm still holding my breath.

(As I've said, the Democrats have yet to come up with anything remotely as good as the Republicans' clip of Kerry wind-surfing in twists and turns, or Sarah Palin's great line: "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' out for ya?")

Finally, John Walsh gave a long exhortation to expand "grass-roots" organizing: "Each of you in this room should contact 50 friends" etc. This is, of course, nothing new. The Republicans do the same thing. He suggested that there are "more of us than of them." This may be true, but unless the Democrats can stop enervating their base by selling out to Big Pharma, Big Banks and Big Insurance, whatever advantage we may have will be lost. Naturally, he downplayed the debacle that was the Coakley campaign against Scott Brown by emphasizing Deval Patrick's win over Charley Baker -- though even he had to admit that Baker "shot himself in the head" [sic: the expression requires "foot"] by running a terrible campaign. Walsh also downplayed the Republicans' success with the TV and print media by asserting that these are declining modes of communication; he suggested that we would be more successful with blogs, Facebook, e-mails and Twitter. I couldn't figure out why the mostly verbally inept Dems should find these media any more congenial than the more traditional ones. However, I admired Walsh's enthusiasm and optimism, while remaining personally unconvinced. He was not responsible for Martha Coakley's ignominious defeat and I'm sure he'll work hard to prevent another such disaster here in Massachusetts. (Too bad our Dems couldn't have nominated a real FDR Democrat like Mike Capuano, who, unlike Coakley, would have gone out to shake hands with people at Fenway Park, Boston Garden, and the local supermarket.)

I came away from this discussion as frustrated as when I entered. The Democrats simply don't have the intellectual discipline at this point to counter the Republicans. Nationally, they pull their punches because, to a great extent, they are subject to the same controlling force as the Republicans: Big Business. They could have used reconciliation earlier than they did to pass a better healthcare bill, but though they had large majorities, they were bound by backroom deals with Big Pharma and the Insurance Industry (who later knifed them in the back anyway). (This reminds me of several of the earlier Civil War campaigns where the North had military superiority but the South made scores of phony cannons out of trees and convinced the ineffective union Gen. McClellan that he was outgunned.) They caved in the face of the slightest threat of fillibuster; they wimped out on taxing millionaires or their estates; their legislative and gubernatorial losses in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states dealt serious blows to organized labor. (Walsh claims the unions will benefit from the backlash -- as if the Dems planned it that way. If he were right, the Dems should have stood firm on repealing the Bush Tax Cuts, knowing that the unemployed would eventually benefit from the backlash against the Republicans for denying them extensions of unemployment insurance. I happen to believe this, but I doubt that Walsh does -- at least he wouldn't say so publicly.) And don't get me started again on the Dems affair with Wall Street. The list goes on.

The Democratic party will not become powerful until: (1) it gets a whole lot smarter and more creative; (2) it is willing to play grown-up hardball and stops patting itself on its back for being so high-brow (which it ain't) and principled (which it ain't either); and (3) it acknowledges that the Republicans have been playing and winning class warfare since Reagan, and starts making some class warfare noises of its own. (That will involve overcoming a century of red-baiting.) See also my two blogs on why workers dump Dems: Part I and Part II.

BTW: During the audience participation part of the forum, I suggested that, for starters, the Democrats refer to the Republicans as the Party for The Rich (PTR) instead of the GOP, and that the Democrats, under the (AFL-CIO) slogan "Make Wall Street Pay", press for a Financial Services Tax (see my blog on The Parasite Tax). Their interest in these specific proposals seemed nil.

We personally will contribute only to specific Democrats running for specific offices -- We simply do not trust the national party to support actively even unions and traditional New Deal programs.

1 comment:

  1. Very depressing. You might have spent the evening reading "Don't Think of an Elephant" to better effect.