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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Drew: Why Dems May Not Need a Message

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.

3 comments on “Drew: Why Dems May Not Need a Message

  1. Candace on

    ” 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.”

    Hear, hear! (The last paragraph posted here was particularly good too.)
    Kind of surprising to see this here though. The “rather thans” are pretty frequent on this site or at least when I’ve checked.

    I think the criticism of not having a message looks like the Republican Party branding the Democrat. Because *you have to turn that big tent into an outhouse to win, see..* Democrats agreeing its something to aim for looks like they’re accepting Republican’s terms of downsizing who the government serves and how to behave. That acceptance looks like a surrender

    Just like with don’t be merely anti-DT, (other than 100% jokes/ridicule, which I would agree with) that looks like an attempt to stigmatize criticizing Republican policies or talk about Russiagate (I agree you have to be careful with that one)
    Instead, Democrats are supposed to focus on finding that elusive one message or in-fighting, right? Meanwhile Republicans point and laugh.
    The intended results is that voters will believe that if Democrats can’t reach the Republican goal of the uni-mind message they can’t lead so they’ll stay home? And then Democrats can resume the infighting? Hmm.. but wait: are those voters white, black, college educated or not? Let me check the polls. argh

    on inside left and liberal alliance
    http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/change/liberal_left_alliance.html )

  2. Victor on

    Even if one accepts that healthcare should have been the priority in the middle of the Great Recession, what doomed it was the civil war among Democrats about its content and procedure to approve it.

  3. Victor on

    Confusing party discipline with authenticity is self-defeating. Republicans will blame you for voting for a Democratic legislative leader regardless.

    What good is authenticity when you won’t be able to deliver on neither the party program nor your own program because individual legislators turn the party into a social gathering without agenda or coherence.

    Voters blame Democrats not for procedural messaging but for lack of actual legislative accomplishments.

    It is time to stop trying to rewrite history.

    Obama lost because he and the party were perceived to have subordinated fixing the economy to the ACA agenda.

    Hillary won because her change message was convoluted, incoherent and not up to the challenges of the times.

    This website mostly tacitly endorse both the Obama and Hillary strategies. It is complicit in almost a decade of defeat due to poor strategizing. It barely deserves its name.


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