Democrats need a new playbook

Published July 16, 2006

What is it going to take for Democrats to start winning elections again?

Party leaders like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have looked at Republican electoral successes and concluded that their team needs to start compromising on issues like abortion, or develop a "faith agenda" to inject into campaigns.

That's about as far off the mark as an Orrin Hatch CD.

Democrats have failed to connect with swing voters not because they don't loudly wear their religion or stand for the wrong things. By and large, Americans support the Democratic side of issues ranging from increasing the minimum wage to universal health care and even legal abortion. It is how issues are framed that decide an election, and here the Democrats are as tongue-tied as Porky Pig.

In their book Take it Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future, James Carville and Paul Begala describe the strategic genius behind George Bush's defeat of John Kerry.

According to the authors, Team Bush decided to paint Kerry, a decorated veteran, with three W's - weak, waffling and weird. Every message would fit the narrative that Bush is strong and steady and Kerry is wobbly. When Kerry voted against $87-billion to fund the war in Iraq, after voting for the war, the Bush campaign characterized it as weak on defense and politically calculated.

Kerry's people, Carville and Begala point out, didn't have a story to offer in response. They based the campaign on these issues: jobs, health care, oil, security. Making this a message, the authors say, is like "calling a supermarket full of food a gourmet meal." There was no overarching narrative to introduce voters to the candidate and define his character, judgment and values. And into that vacuum, Team Bush rushed in.

Now, I'm an issues gal. You stand for the right policies, as I see it, and I'm going to vote for you. But what has become distressingly clear is that a large number of Americans don't vote that way. It's more important how they feel about a candidate than what policies he will promote in office.

These people are what Bernie Horn describes as "the persuadable voter." According to Horn, policy director for the liberal Center for Policy Alternatives, the persuadable voter is not regularly engaged in politics or political issues. He or she is too busy finding a dependable babysitter or worrying about how to afford a new car next year. To connect with these voters, a candidate must go beyond a laundry list of issues and start to couch his platform in the language of values.

Of course "values" has become a loaded term since the 2004 election, where it became equated with the Christian conservative voter. When you talk about a "values voter," I think of someone who is antigay, antiabortion and antievolution. But values are really just ideals. They are the underpinning of public policy and can connect to people on a more visceral level than facts and statistics.

Horn offers the example of the minimum wage, which he says is really about the progressive value of opportunity. When discussing the minimum wage, he tutors progressive candidates to describe the lack of a fair opportunity that minimum wage workers have these days to support their family or gain an economic foothold. Compare it to the tilted scale of opportunity that conservatives advance for the rich, such as no-bid contracts and government favors for big business.

Horn says that the progressive value invoked depends on the government's proper role. If the government should be hands-off because individual rights are involved, then our freedom is what's at stake (use Terri Schiavo to illuminate the other side's starkly disdainful view of personal freedom, Horn advises). If the government's role is in providing a more equal playing field, such as in the provision of public education, then opportunity is the underlying value. And when government's role is that of protector, the value is security. Americans strongly support the progressive protective programs of Social Security, environmental protection and the safety of our food and drugs.

According to Horn, progressive candidates need to point out that when conservatives talk about responsibility, they mean that people should be on their own to deal with job loss, hunger and discrimination. When liberals talk about it they mean, as leaders, they will be responsible for extending freedom, opportunity and security to all.

I wish Americans took their citizenship more seriously. We'd have a far better crop of leaders if that were the case. But if we're stuck with elections decided by people's impressions, the Democrats have to start making better ones, and Horn may have found a way.