In her New Republic article, “Do Democrats Really Need a Message?, Elizabeth Drew explains “How a fixation on messaging could harm Democrats as they head into the 2018 midterms.”
“The lamentations on the part of numerous political observers that the Democrats lack “a message” are becoming more frequent with the advent of the midterm elections,” Drew writes. “But they don’t comport with reality, even though many Democrats also express the same worry.”
Drew argues that “message discipline isn’t particularly characteristic of the Democrats, as opposed to the Republicans, who are more homogeneous and hierarchical.” She cites the “ideological and regional differences within the Democratic Party, ranging from the very liberal left to centrists” and the recent example of the “split among the Senate Democrats over immigration strategy.” Further, adds Drew,
It’s a lot easier to convey party cohesion in a presidential election year, when there exist an actual head of the party and a platform. (An exception to this general point is Newt Gingrich’s poll-tested “Contract with America,” which served as a party doctrine for the House Republicans in 1994.) But even when the Democrats have a presidential candidate there are limits to their cohesion. Ours isn’t a parliamentary system where voting is largely done along party lines, as is the voting of the members once they’re elected. Our elections are more based on the individual candidates than on their party identity. Indeed a candidate’s biography could well be his or her platform—the message. It could be some kind of an outstanding record: heroic military service or athletic achievement or a famous prosecutorial career, and this can matter a lot more than party identity.
Drew argues that “one positive effect of the lack of a “message” is that it allows a candidate to define his or her own race and to come off as authentic rather than as a party tool,” which is a gift to Republicans, who “specialize in portraying Democratic candidates as instruments of a party leader who can be stereotyped.”
Drew quotes Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), “one of the more authentic figures on Capitol Hill,” who says,
Messaging has become a crutch; it’s like a narcotic. You can bring in your pollster, you can strategize until you’re blue in the face; and you’re inauthentic. You’re placating the public rather than leading. I think the people know the difference…Once you get addicted to the drug, you put your polling ahead of your performance.
“He believes,” Drew writes, “that too often Democrats have walked away from a fight for fear of upsetting some important figure, or don’t want to take on a battle unless they’re sure that they’ll win it. Whitehouse believes that the message comes from taking action, from fighting the good fight, rather than sitting through hours of meetings, studying charts and graphs about the public’s views.”
Drew’s observations about authenticity of individual candidates being more important than some sort of group message makes sense for Democrats, who can leverage their greater message flexibility to win more elections, if they do so boldly and authentically, without straining to conform to a nonexistant group mind. Let the Republicans parrot their meme du jour, which has its advantages in steering media coverage of politics. But if Democratic candidates come off as less regimented than their adversaries and more ‘real,’ that could be an advantage in many races, particularly with voters who distrust rigid ideologues.
The Democratic party does have to “stand for something.” But that’s not the same thing as everyone being in synch on a particular message. Dems should coalesce around the idea that they are the party of working people of all races and give each of their candidates the latitude they need to affirm that image. When that is accomplished, Republican message discipline won’t make much difference.