washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Name That Theme!

Jim VandeHei had a useful article in The Washington Post today on how the Democrats intend to run in 2004. The article’s title is “Democrats will try a hybrid of old, new themes”, which seems fairly accurate. Kerry and congressional Democrats will run on keeping Bush’s tax cuts for the middle class, but repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the rich; keeping the No Child Left Behind Act, but making it more flexible and better-funded; keeping the Medicare prescription drugs bill but using government purchasing power to drive down drug prices; expanding health care coverage but gradually by building on existing programs; and so on.
This all seems pretty sensible and fits in with a strategy of both motivating the virulently anti-Bush Democratic base and reaching out to more moderate swing voters. It seems a little challenged in the Big Ideas department, though. Who, after all, can get excited about voting for a “hybrid”, to use VandeHei’s term? Voters are interested in where you intend to take the country, not that you have thoughtfully synthesized the old and the new, however sensible that synthesis may be.
So there’s definitely more work to be done here. Otherwise, as Ron Brownstein explains in his article today in The Los Angeles Times, the Democrats are likely to simply sprinkle economic populism on top of whatever hybrid program they have and hope that voters are in the right kind of mood on election day.
DR thinks the Democrats can do better. So the floor’s open: what should the Democrats’ grand theme(s) be this campaign season? Kerry may still be wrapping up the nomination, but the sooner we all start thinking about this, the better.

59 comments on “Name That Theme!

  1. Larry Beiser on

    In line with that great definition of insanity, “to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results someday.” Reform the Defence agenda that has turned offensive. Reform the National security agenda which has created insecurity, Reform the Intelligence community which is stupid (because it refuses to admit that its larger self is “operations” and its “gathering and analysis” is subservient to that agenda. Reform the education agenda which refuses to pay for good education but will spend millions to prove that it is not good enough. Reform the higher education system so that young people don’t have to be born rich or else spend time in the military to get into college. (Incourage education rather than social engineering.) Reform the space program so that NASA gets the money for universal research rather than the military for their narrow and silly pig feeding with no accountability. Reform the military by changing thier agenda to include liberal arts and humanist education for their officer corps. Reform the “War on Drugs” (which is really a war on people) so that it reflects the morality of a sane and nurturing society and then spend the money on health care for the indigent and sociopathic people that are the real problem on america’s streets. Basically, I would say, teach america that it is a liberal country and that as such it may deserve to be the greatest nation. As for the tory conservatives, invite them to move to England and feast on Tony Blair.

  2. david christoph on

    campaign theme:
    “Your taxes are not too high because of Democrats! Your taxes are too high because of Republicans!”
    Bush plunged America into record deficits so that the US government overspends and must borrow $900,000 per minute, which will limit consumer loans and private spending, overburden future budgets with high interest charges that our children must pay (show MoveOn.org children ad), and limits government spending on worthy domestic projects and infrastructure that can produce meaningful job growth and tax revenue.
    Bush’s crusade to give the wealthy and big business tax breaks and corporate welfare (or rather Karl Rove’s crusade– Secretary O’Neil’s book suggests that Bush is Rove’s fingerpuppet) has increased the tax burden on working families and crippled the benefits that domestic programs can do for them. Whenever Republicans push a “voodoo economics” tax bill, they purposely give less tax relief to the majority of Americans — working Americans — so that they can convince them that their taxes are too high and win support for more tax breaks for the wealthy and leave working Americans high and dry yet again. (See Paul Krugman’s excellent article “The Tax-Cut Con” in the New Yorker).
    Bush financed his tax breaks for the wealthy by refusing to fund — and then underfunding — education and “No Child Left Behind” so that states must raise income taxes and property taxes and make their own painful spending cuts, again to con America into believing that the government doesn’t do enough for them and therefore should be smaller.
    Perhaps worst of all, Republicans vigorously fight for and defend the loopholes that allow American corporations to evade paying taxes by moving offshore — or just buying a PO box offshore without ever moving the corporate office at all! And Republicans defend the loophole that allows SUVs to be tax breaks even when they will never be used for business.
    Every time Republicans help their wealthy friends to lower taxes and tax loopholes, it is working families that suffer. Suffer through higher taxes. Suffer through a government that cannot fund worthy spending to create jobs. Suffer through public schools that fall short of their potential and fail America’s children.
    And now the Bush administration is contacting employers and giving them tips to avoid paying hard working Americans their hard-earned overtime pay!
    And now the Bush administration is saying that moving jobs overseas is a good thing for Americans!
    And now Bush is backing away from his pipe dream promise to miraculously create the 3 million jobs his policies have cost America!
    And the Bush administration refused to make prescription drugs more affordable to ease the load of seniors and working families!
    When you sit around the kitchen table and worry over bills and the cost of raising your family and providing for your children, it may be tempting to blame tax bills on the party that wants government to be able to do more for honest, working Americans. But when you do the math, when you look back on the things that Bush has done to America, when you connect the dots, the big picture suddenly becomes clear:
    Your taxes are not too high because of Democrats!
    Your taxes are too high because of Republicans!!”

  3. Jeff Applegate on

    This thread is probably dead and gone and no longer seen, but I figured better to post for the moment where it’s on topic than go off topic on a more recent thread. And I think the crystallization of a theme for whichever of these candidates ends up with the nomination is still a key issue. My apologies if I wax poetic…
    I had a thought overnight for which I’m scrapping my last idea. It synthesizes and builds upon a number of other thoughts that have appeared here, and, I believe, could offer a strong point of contrast between the candidate and Bush from a more fundamental point of perspective, and not just in (although leading to) details on policy or character.
    I’m not necessarily locked in on the phrasing for a slogan, but what about something along the lines of “Realizing America’s Enduring Power.” It can draw a contrast with W on a variety of topics to point out how he prefers 20th Century definitions of power to progress and innovation in the 21st Century. It goes something like this:
    Bush defines American international power as hegemonic military strength that enables us to impose our will on the world by force whenever we consider it ‘necessary.’ By this definition, our Power is meant to be wielded like a sword, controlling the world through fear and intimidation. History has shown that this power flares brightly and then burns itself out. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but eventually the force required to maintain the hegemony demands too much from its economy, or the resentment of the controlled boils beyond containment.
    America’s true Power in the world, undiminished in our military strength, can come from leadership, not control — from respect, not fear — and from a position of first among equals, not as an imperial ruling power. Perhaps the strongest contest to Bush’s ‘War President’ could come from convincing voters that in the long run, his approach will make America weaker in the international community, not stronger.
    Bush defines energy Power as coming from fossil fuels, first and almost exclusively. His foreign policy, in many cases, is still guided by the “oil at any cost” principle, and he would rather eke out another few years of oil from our own domestic–environmentally sensitive–sources than stretch current supplies even further by encouraging technologically feasible means of improving efficiency and using renewable sources.
    Truly enduring energy Power will ultimately come, not from making us independent of foreign oil, but independent of oil altogether.
    And Bush defines America’s economic Power as beginning with the accumulation of wealth among the few. He prefers to trust the rich and powerful to use their wealth to boost the economic opportunities of those less fortunate. And yet he has given back the wealth to the wealthy, and still millions of jobs have been lost or exported to other countries. America’s true economic Power is in the industry, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of its people — not just the ones who manage and own, but those who build, harvest, operate, educate, and assist as well. These Americans must be respected and supported as the body and spirit driving America’s economic Power. They cannot be shunted into the background like cattle that should take their share of grain and proceed complacently to the fiscal slaughterhouse.
    America is without a doubt the most Powerful nation on Earth. The strength of our military, the richness of our resources, and the efforts of generations of Americans have brought us to this position. But as the days of steam power, carrier pigeons, and feudal economies gave way to internal combustion, the internet, and industrialized nations, we can choose not to rest and rely upon the Power of the Past. We can choose to work toward America’s Enduring Power of the future and realize our lasting Power, before we lead ourselves headlong into a crisis that forces it upon us…. or strips it away.
    OK, perhaps I got a bit West Wing, but I think it could be used to aptly paint Bush as the Power of the Past and allow our candidate to be about responsibly moving America toward a more sustainable Power. Forward vs. Back draws a pretty stark contrast if done effectively.

  4. LeeMelon on

    “We’re All in This Together”
    Mario Cuomo uttered a great phrase on one of the screaming head cable news shows (can’t remember which one; not important anyway), saying “we’re all in this together.”
    This idea applies broadly from domestic to foreign policy.
    Government services need every able American’s support and taxes should be perceived as “pitching in”; education should be the birthright of any citizen regardless of their home state, region or neighborhood; and we all still live “downstream” concerning environmental issues.
    On matters of foreing policy liberal civil society is a gift from previous generations that deserves not to be taken for granted, and democratic allies, as well as democracies-in-training, deserve the attention and support of all Americans and our leadership.

  5. roublen vesseau on

    oh boy themes, I’ve got a million of them. Of the previous posts I like the sound of “American Values, American Dreams” a lot.
    On defense/foreign policy how about the label of “George C Marshall” Democrats? Gen. Marshall is a revered figure among many, and no one could deny he is closer to being a Democrat than a Republican. Also, the slogan “A strong military to win the war, and a strong diplomacy to help win the peace”
    Ted Halstead wrote in an Atlantic Monthly article many months ago how America is the undisputed world leader in many areas: the best military, the most productive workers, the largest, most dynamic economy; the finest universities, best in medical innovation and advanced medical technology etc. etc. but there are quite a few areas where American performance is mediocre, or downright poor, in comparison with other industrialized countries (child poverty, infant mortality). How about listing the areas where America is best, and where America needs to improve, describing the programs needed to improve them, and then finishing with the tag line, “Let’s make America the Best across the Board!”, i.e. the best in child poverty and infant mortality, as well as the best military. So the overarching slogan would be “The Best Across the Board!” I guess this sort of fits in with John Edwards’s “Two Americas” theme
    some thoughts I had jotted down earlier:
    “Three Phrases, Six Words That Could Make The Democrats The Majority Party: `Middle Class, Common Sense, Golden Rule'”
    Middle Class issues:
    guiding idea: “Everyone who is willing to work for it should be able to afford the essentials of a decent, American middle-class life”
    These should be the “bread and butter” issues for Democrats, which distinguish them from Republicans, and convince the average worker that their lives will be better under Democrats than Republicans
    Common Sense issues:
    “Common Sense” issues are either non-ideological issues, or issues that we wish to make non-ideological, by uniting people over a broad middle ground. Especially, we attempt to take the sting out of polarizing (and often inane) “culture war” issues, and try to form a broad consensus which can heal the polarizing wounds. This might require taking on people on the right and left. Also, “common sense” issues refers to reforming programs that have failed (eg. the War On Drugs), and taking on certain powerful non-ideological special interests.
    Golden rule:
    Golden Rule issues are those that require us to make sacrifices for the good of others. Americans are very generous people: They just don’t think government is an effective vehicle for their generosity. But there are some things that can only be done by governments, or large organizations. We can give a homeless person a meal: we can’t get him a job. Similarly, if we are serious about helping Africa / South America/ Asia / the Carribean, the federal government may have to play a large role. Private charities tend to be inefficient and piecemeal. Liberals should support Golden Rule programs because they are the right thing to do, and also because it will raise their standing with Evangelicals and the religious.
    Middle Class (unavoidably polarizing) issues: progressive taxation (income redistribution) , refundable tax credits for health care and education, eliminating many special interest tax credits and subsidies, supporting private-sector unions, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, other safety net programs, social insurance, taking on special interests in favor of public interests:
    Common Sense (unifying middle ground, reforming) issues: Defense/Homeland Secuirty, Gun Control, Abortion, War on Drugs, Education, Public sector unions, Environment, Special interests, Death Penalty, Tort and Regulatory reform, Judicial issues, Immigration, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, voting rights for DC residents, feminist issues, affirmative action;
    Golden Rule (spiritual, moralizing) issues: “Employer of last resort”, Foreign aid, Nation-building, Education & Equal-Opportunity programs for the poor/disadvantaged, No State lotteries, Voluntary humanitarian military missions
    . . .a middle class government; a common sense government, a government with American values: optimism, the work ethic and the golden rule;
    Let’s end with some preferred character attributes for (Democratic) candidates: “Clean, Smart, Tough, Kind” That is, the ideal (Democratic) politician will be thought of by the voters as (morally) clean, smart, tough and kind.
    BTW Republicans are welcome to these buzzwords too. . .if they adopt my preferred policies!
    Al Gore was though of by the voters as smart, and was probably adequate in the toughness department, but he was not thought of as clean or kind. That is a real shame, because I believe that Gore is actually very clean and very kind. If I have a problem with Gore, it is, funnily enough, in the smarts department. He seems to have some very wrong-headed notions, especially on how to campaign and how to persuade people, which greatly reduce his effectiveness as a politician

  6. mamima on

    Oddly, Bush is a uniter- and the unity against he and his cabal’s policies grows daily. Memes/themes?
    -Protecting Our Future
    A warm and fuzzy, as well as progressive tent. Points out the spendthrift nature of Bush et al, too.
    Could include ideas on security post 9/11 like; maintaining alliances that have worked, and developing new ones; protecting the Bill of Rights and the Constitution (from Ashcroft and from the religious right); fighting terrorism by attacking root causes, not just symptoms (say, working with Muslims to translate and distribute books, both of our culture and theirs, for an exchange of ideas at the grassroots level).
    A Fair tax system sounds right, and either a meaningful supporting of social security or some reasonable alternative.
    Meaningful work for all who want it…tackling infrastructure lacks seems a great idea, esp as it’s unclear how much manufacturing can be held onto.
    Clean, Renewable Energy is obviously a must if we as a whole are to pass anything of value on to those who are yet to be born. We must wean from fossil fuels and that cartel, and developing those technologies opens up whole vistas of meaningful employment.
    And of course endlessly point out the lies emanating from the White House…we must do our best not to lie ourselves, it’s all too obvious that any gains are compromised if we are caught in them.
    I’d also suggest we target elections like Tom DeLays, and see if we can do unto them what they did unto Max Cleland, for one.

  7. Doc on

    Well let’s see…from the Kerry’s reponse when asked if he’s approve of a consitutional ammendment to ban recognition of marriages by same-sex couples:
    “Well, it depends how it’s worded…”
    How’s that for a theme? Any question asked, just come back with that. Every reply a Zen koan.
    Gosh, with inspirational uplifting themes like that, we gay peope should just fall over and kiss his a** in thanks! Usually I get a dinner before I get screwed.
    WTF does he think we are? Log Cabin Republicans don’t mind getting kicked in the teeth be I do.
    How about “Vote Democrate! Now with 25% more waffling and inability to stand up for what’s right”
    I fear we’re going to end up with 4 more years of C+ Augustus. 🙁

  8. Rob MacGrogan on

    Doug G’s comments echo my own thoughts as I read this DR post.
    I had the same thought about what the big issue for the Gore campaign ought to be, but, sadly, Gore ran away from his core principles in order to appease the Washington punditocracy. If he had truly embraced this idea I think he’d have won by a wide enough margin that he would now be sitting in the White House preparing for re-election.
    Energy Independence! That’s the message and it touches everything, as Doug G said. Security, jobs, environment, health, economy. And this is not a message of “doom and gloom” as Reagan once said. It’s an exciting message of hope for the future.
    Don’t let the Republicans tell us what we can’t do. Don’t let them put American innovation down like that.
    If Bush had pushed a program like this (really pushed it and not just made a political game of it or used it as a way of getting big subsidies to big corporations) in the wake of 9/11 (as he should have and as, if he had any leadership in his bones as all, he would have) then at this point he really would be unstoppable. In spite of everything else, I’d be planning to vote for him myself. But sadly Bush does not know how to lead.
    So it’s up to Kerry. Kerry should set a very ambitions goal and pledge to take us there. Within 10 years of my election the United States will be getting 50% of it’s energy from non-fossil fuel sources. And within 25 years we will no longer be powering our country with the 100,000 year old technology of setting things on fire.
    Or something like that.
    I’m telling you this is a winner!

  9. fm on

    The big theme should be a simple phrase. We do not need a list of issues.
    I’m echoing several posters above, pulling what I like best:
    1. Bush is a disaster
    2. American Values, American Dreams … AWESOME!
    3. tagline …. for all Americans
    I like the idea of Two America’s, but agree with earlier poster that it lends itself, more, to the class warfare slant. So the “for all Americans'” says this in a positive way.

  10. Hastings1066 on

    If anyone here has access to Kerry campaign HQ – we need to let them know NOT to let Steve Grossman from the Dean campaign on board with us. He has stated his desire to work with Kerry. I know several Dean supporters who might vote for Kerry in the GE but are furious with Grossman for jumping ship 2 days before WI primary.

  11. sioux on

    I think the grand theme is already set.
    It’s really who we are in the world….are we intending to be an empire, or are we intending to be a leader? Do we like the pre-emptive hegemony or not?
    Kerry’s articulating the energy thing. “Young Americans should never fight for ME oil” (paraphrase).
    ALL Americans would like to be free of ME oil. (actually Al Gore articulated a program…he was branded a flake….but now its a national security issue)
    New cheap energy covers everything….security, environment, jobs. As a campaign issue, it hits right at W’s cronyism with Big Oil.
    You could also hire all those loose nuke scientists in Russia, Iraq & Pakistan, etc to work on new energy.

  12. Ryan on

    Like many of the others here, I think the best theme would marry a critique of Bush with a vision of Democratic governance. Edwards’ “Two Americas” offers a good critique, but his solutions seem a little half-baked. Instead some sort of future or progress-orienting theme with a national greatness catch would be best. The New American Century (sorry Wolfie), or something but more catchy. I do like Doug G’s “Securing the Future” slogan.
    I think it’s instructive to look at the Clinton ’92 campaign. His slogan, of course, is “Putting People First” — which is first and foremost a theme. But Clinton’s rhetoric goes beyond simple populism. He talked, in very future-oriented and forward sounding language, about job training in the new economy, welcoming globalization, using new environmental technologies, along with the middle-class tax cut. Clinton smartly contrasted his forward-looking agenda with Pere Bush’s old industry biases.
    The same contrast is essential to Kerry winning this campaign, I believe. It’s not sufficient to merely say that Bush is a tool of the special interests. What Edwards has been able to do is describe how Bush’s America shafts the worker. Kerry’s goal must be to present an alternative vision. I’d talk about Bush not only beholden to special interests, but to regressive special interests that would hold back American progress — especially old energy companies and big pharmaceutical companies. After a bristling attack on Halliburton, Enron, and Bush’s environmental policies, Kerry can offer optimistic solutions on (tax credits for) envirnomental technology or alternative energy source, but basked in the glow of American exceptionalist rhetoric. Anti-terrorist (identification and protection) technologies would be another one. It wouldn’t just be populism, but siding with the future against the past. And a theme like this may speak to young voters and professionals, two swing blocks that may make the difference in states like Arizona, NC, and Colorado.
    The same theme is repeated on national security and foreign policy: future oriented, optimistic, but trumpeting national greatness. A vision of America as the leader in a nation of allies, which will contrast with Cheney paranoia.
    Edwards showed a way to bash Bush and present a vision within the same theme. Now Kerry must take that idea to another level.

  13. Tom Geraghty on

    On foreign policy, I think one of our themes ought to be “support for liberal democracy.” Well, something catchier, but along those lines.
    George Packer has an interesting article in the New Yorker on just this topic. Various Democrats have proposed
    – Expanded use of NATO in Afghanistan
    – Sanctioning nations and groups that support
    – A “Helsinki Accords” type agreement for human rights in the Middle East
    I might also suggest some sort of “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East, with economic aid or trade preferences linked directly to moves toward liberalization and democracy.
    We could hit Bush on his cozying up to ugly oil-rich regimes in places like Central Asia and West Africa, with no pressures on them for liberal democratic reforms. We’re making the same mistakes there that got us into trouble in the first place.
    Also, redoubling efforts against nuclear and chemical weapon proliferation has got to be a priority. The Center for American Progress has called for strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaties; speeding up the Nunn-Lugar program to dismantle Russian nuclear weapons; and, of course, leading by example — re-directing money Bush has assigned to production of new nuclear weapons toward non-proliferation efforts.

  14. Doug G on

    Americans live for the future. And in this year’s election they are worried about that future; about losing their job to overseas, paying for college tuition and health care coverage, and retirement. They worry about their own future, and that of their kids and of the country. They worry that the middle-class is shrinking, and that they will fall out of it, or never get in. Thus the Democratic theme should be something like: “SECURING STRONG MIDDLE-CLASS FUTURES.” Since almost all lower and working class people aspire to the middle class, they won’t be offended; and this theme subtly suggests that Bush’s policies have helped only the upper-income groups, and put at risk middle-class status for many. Under this theme, national security is presented as one of a number of middle-class concerns in an overall “basket” of widely defined “security” issues.

  15. sioux on

    Theme: Energy Independence.
    They’ve touched on this, but it should be sold like the space race.
    It touches every issue from the enviroment to national security….the technology would create jobs…entirely new ways of doing things.
    Taking our place as leader of the world to free humanity from dependence on fossile fuels.
    As the price of gas at the pumps skyrockets and soldiers are blown up daily, I think it’s a vision that would appeal to everyone……except the oil companies, of course.
    It would change the course of human history.

  16. EdSez on

    America, United, Can Never Be Defeated.
    This plays into the fact that Bush’s claim to be a
    uniter is palpably untrue. It also hints at the obvious truth that Bush’s approach saps our strength.
    Yes, this is a play on an old, left-wing chant: “The people, united, can never be defeated’. But, most people won’t know that, and most of the ones that do will be voting with us anyway.

  17. Jeannette on

    I’d like to make an observation that I think bears on the “theme” question as well as on a lot of other issues pertinent to democrats and the democratic party in these critical times.
    Bush has Democrats as a whole alert and energized and eager to work together to get rid of him. The stakes really are very high and we all know that.
    But there are still very significant divides within the Democrats. It makes the “theme” question a very interesting one.
    The establishment Democrats (DNC, our Democratic representatives in Washingont, party donors, etc.) see the party as a means of wielding power. Loyal Democratic voters like me are seen only as a source of donations and volunteer effort. With the exception of Robert Byrd’s outspoken opposition to the war, our representatives (supported by this Democratic establishment) have let us down by being fearful, weak, and unprincipled — certainly not acting in our best interests, especially re. the war.
    Of the Dean reformers, it remains to be seen how many are committed to internet/grassroots/”take back the party” reform (ie, in for the long haul) and how many are loyal to Dean the individual (in for whatever time frame and alternative(s) he presents to them.)
    Then there are Democrats like me, who always vote Democratic (in my case, for 30+ years now), but are very cynical about politics and both political parties (and who also don’t like Dean the person, but think much of his “movement” is great…)
    All of us disparate democrats are united now — isn’t ABB really the only theme we need? Is there any other theme that could possibly resonate with us all?

  18. mark on

    How about “Rebuilding American Power” – hits the message that the nominee will need to nail over and over about how Bush has weakened us internationally. It also works on the home front for job creation, etc. Optimistic – check! Makes it sound like Bush has totally dropped America in the shitcan – check!

  19. Rick Perlstein on

    “Equality of opportunity” is a meaningless phrase–and, perforce, “opportunity society.” An outcome is an opportunity and an opportunity is an outcome. Conservative free-marektereers easily can claim (and have claimed) to be the true “opportuniticrats”; anyone can make the claim, really, since it’s an empty one. It has no purchase.

  20. Sugar Plum Fairy on

    “Responsible Governance” doesn’t have a nice ring to it but it is something people at home and abroad can identify with.

  21. Sugar Plum Fairy on

    President Bush, when questioned on Meet the Press what he thought the biggest issue in the upcoming campaign would be, answered:
    “Who can properly use American power in a way to make the world a better place.”
    Now who among us doesn’t think that this means terrorism, 9/11, Iraq, and national security all hours of the day and night? Does all John Kerry has in response his war hero narrative?
    Politics aside, given the world we live in and 9/11/01, isn’t it necessary for Democrats to have a foreign policy vision? Perhaps I’ve missed out here, but I haven’t detected any.

  22. AndS on

    There’s a major section of a platform missing from all these comments. What about defense issues? It doesn’t seem that the group here is paying too much attention to that. As has been pointed out that’s one of the perceived weaknesses of Democrats.
    How to change the Pentagon? I don’t think Kerry can get away with not addressing the military issues specifically. Merely stating we need to have more allies joining us won’t be enough against the Bush onslaught.

  23. Mimikatz on

    You are quite right about the need for an overarching theme, a positivie vision of why Kerry is running and where he wants to take the country. Your Salon article does provide a good architecture with the Opportunity Society theme, and the emphasis on the future. The implication is that the gov’t gives everyone an opportunity, but what they make of it is their responsibility. The Dem party needs themes that will resonate with young people too, especially ideas to help them get a foothold and get ahead. Your suggestions do that.
    A Fair tax system is also crucial. Not “repeal the Bush tax cuts on the rich” but “spread the burden fairly and tax wealth as well as work.” There should be minimum amounts of different kinds of income that are free of taxes, but progressive after that. Let the first $12,000 be free of income taxes and have only nominal payroll taxes up to that level to establish elegibility for Social Security, with the cap extended to $250,000 at least, but don’t increase the benefit so much for high income people. If the Repubs want to eliminate the estate tax, fine, but tax inheritances above some basic amount at ordinary income rates. Crack down on the corporate tax loopholes.
    I do disagree about the No Child Left Behind Act–it is based on a fallacious assumption that standardized test are a good measure of learing and teaching to a test is good teaching. Better to give states and schools the resources to devise their own tests and keep track of progress, but cut down on the already excessive level of standardized testing. The current scheme just induces cheating.
    It is easier to talkbout details than overarching themes, but the latter is really necessary.

  24. Vardibidian on

    I want to second the point that the campaign should have half-a-dozen ‘themes’ ready to go, and to see what sticks. Focus groups aren’t enough.
    That said, I do think that the President’s main weaknesses are dishonesty and cronyism; I particularly would like to see them hit his cronyism with some late-summer or early-autumn cabinet announcements (or at least leaks) of really stellar people.
    Redintegro Iraq,

  25. ck on

    A New Deal for the 21st Century —
    Much of the Bush Norquist program is a stealth attempt to destroy the Progressives Reforms of the 20th Century — by invoking the legacy of FDR, it becomes that much easier to expose the Bushies for the Economic Royalists that they are.
    Not that this is the definitive theme — but it could be an effective one, especially for older voters.
    ps: FDR used the term “trickle down economics” to discredit Hoover, in the 1932 campaign.

  26. Upper left on

    THEME: American Values, American Dreams
    American Values:
    1) Democracy: In the words of Lincoln, ours is a goverment of, by, and for the people. This proud heritage is now being corrupted by Bush and Co. to government of, by, and for the corporations and the wealthy. We must restore our democracy. Blah, blah, blah…
    Policies: campaign finance reform (public finance and free air time); lobbying reform; reinvigorated regulation; improved transparency
    2) Equality: In the words of Jefferson, all men are created equal. This has been the shining vision of our nation, for more than two hundred years we have struggled to make our country live up to this ideal. We abolished slavery, extended the vote to women, established basic protections for workers, and fought a long battle to end segregation and provide real civil rights. But our struggle is far from over; our country is faced with rapidly growing economic inequality. Blah, blah, blah…
    Policies: Repeal tax cuts for the rich; close corporate loopholes;
    American Dreams:
    1) Opportunity: Every American deserves a fair chance. Our prospects should be based on our effort and talent not on our daddy’s connections. We must provide early childhood education, and decent schools for all in order to help level the playing field. We must make college affordable to everyone. We must give older workers a chance for retraining and additional education to meet the challenges of an ever changing workplace.
    Policy: extend early childhood education programs; new inititives to support failing schools; dramatic new programs to make college more affordable and to increase vocational traning for those who are unlikely pursue college; new tax credits, financial aid and innovative programs to allow older workers to return to school.
    2) Strong, healthy families: families are the basic building blocks of a strong, healthy society. Real family values are about supporting our families in all the diverse forms they take. Family wage jobs are a family’s foundation. We must have policies that protect good jobs and prepare us to succeed as the economy inevitably changes. We must support families in the dream of home ownership. We must support families as they prepare to educate their children and as they face the challenges and opportunities of retirement. Finally, we must not abandon the many families who struggle: over 40 million who face the daily insecurity of having no health care coverage; not to mention the millions who battle unemployment, bankruptcy, drug and alcohol problems, and a host of other challenges.
    Policy: I won’t elaborate any more but you get the idea.
    3) Clean, safe, and cohesive communities:
    4) A strong, secure, and respected nation:
    Rational for this approach: I think in the post 9-11 environment we need to embrace a non-jingoistic patriotism. We need to frame our critique of Bush and Co. as upholding the best traditions of the country and frame Bush as a betrayer or corruptor of these values. Bush should be portrayed as irresponsible. We need to lay out a positive agenda that addresses the everyday struggles of average families as juxtaposed to the special-interest, crony capitalism of Bush.
    This approach is designed to appeal to swing voters as well as the Dem base. I have been reading “Moral Politics” by Lakoff, and find it truly fascinating. I think the key to winning swing voters is to package liberal content in language that is more appealing to the “strict father morality” of more conservative voters. By placing our critiques of Bush and our positive policy initiatives in the context of fulfilling our national values, I think it will resonate with a broad spectrum of voters. What do others think?

  27. hardy on

    Ruy, I think you’ve already outlined an adequate approach to themes in your recent piece in Salon. “Opportunity society” it is. Now get Kerry to buy in.

  28. PJM on

    Make an appeal to American ingenuity. This country has always been full of the ability to pull itself up by its bootstraps to meet challenges, and that the Republicans, who embrace ideology over ingenuity, underestimate their own people and are anti-innovation. Examples:
    “We can land two robots on Mars, but we can’t build a SUV that gets 40 miles to the gallon? Either the Republicans don’t think our workers are that smart, or they’re too far in the pocket of the oil industry.”
    “We can foolishly throw money after missile defense, but we can’t better fund higher education to increase the number Arabic-speaking U.S. citizens to translate documents for the CIA and FBI?”

  29. rt on

    I’m not there yet, either. A few responses to what’s been said so far:
    things I liked:
    *America for all Americans. frankly0 is right that that runs less risk of being tagged with the class warfare baggage. Two Americas has to be a central part of our case for what’s wrong, though, part of the response to the question “What do you mean by America for all Americans? Isn’t that what we have now?”
    *working “mainstream” in there somewhere, prominently, as Dan suggested. This Administration really is extreme and we have to define them as such while emphasizing how mainstream our approaches are. As part of this case we can implicitly remind voters that Bush ran as a compassionate conservative, implying moderation that has been invisible since the day he took office.
    *party of the future vs. party of the past (Andy). Helping make economic change work for the benefit of all Americans and not just the top 20% or so, as has been the case for the last 30 years now. Rewarding work relative to wealth resulting from other peoples’ work, as Andy said. In our stance favoring science to proceed without the shackles of religious correctness with which some want to bind it, we’re right. And this is crucial to creating new areas for jobs growth in this century and improving the quality of life of many people here and abroad.
    One obvious synthesis that came to mind is to incorporate BrianY and Eric’s case for emphasizing development of alternative energy sources by having that be the lead item under Andy’s 21st century environmental policies. When people think about dealing with global warming they also fear “job loss”. So mentioning things that generage jobs higher up under that sub-theme is preferable.
    On the trade issue we have to be careful. The purpose of providing security and opportunity to workers who unavoidably lose their jobs due to the changing economy is so that we can expand trade and move ahead while taking all Americans along with us. Bush should lose on this issue. On the one hand, he is indebted to constituencies which want to hold back scientific advances that are needed to create good jobs and improve the quality if life for people. On the other hand, he could care less about those who get left behind–he does nothing either to cushion the blow and provide people with something to fall back (health insurance, retirement security), or that amounts to a serious commitment to helping as many as possible retain their dignity and become self-supporting again. If our opponents succeed in saddling us with a protectionist image it will be hard for us to win our argument that we are the party of and for a better future. But if we sound the same kind of free trade, people-last rhetoric of the Republicans, we are not making good on our commitment to helping all Americans at least weather, if not thrive from, economic turbulence that is a fact of life.
    *I like leo’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Not as a theme but maybe an elaboration of one. When the Republicans resort to scaring people that’s a good comeback for our nominee to use as part of a counteroffensive. Bushes scares people: we’d do a much better job of protecting them.
    things I did not care for so much (not because I disagree with doing these things but because I don’t see them as our best themes):
    *duty and fairness: To many Americans they may sound like broccoli–good for us, but do we have to? The professionals who Ruy’s analysis shows to lean our way (I’m one of them) don’t, in my experience, resonate much to duty and fairness motifs–unfortunately. Appealing to civil pride works better. Civic pride can be framed to get at some of what duty and fairness issues should be about, but in perhaps a more broadly appealing way. And it helps improve our patriotism image and credentials. Kerry’s service plan that he spoke about last night is something I like to move that beyond just talk.
    *process reforms aimed at curbing the ways in which money corrupts the system are very important. But I don’t think we can run on that as our major theme. Most voters don’t care how the sausage (policies) gets made if it tastes good in the end. They see process reforms as a means to presumably better ends–policies that get more of what they want. But it is a good subtext to several other themes that might work well.

  30. Jeff Applegate on

    How about something plainspoken and simple, like “Credible Optimism.” I can think of several advantages:
    It, without explicit attack, builds upon the growing public recognition of Bush’s credibility gap in a variety of issues. It also sets up the difference inherent in the ‘hybrid’ approach to many of these issues–a realistic, credible approach may actually lead to genuine solutions, as contrasted with the ‘saying what they want to hear’ approach on everything from the cost of the Medicare bill to the budget deficit to how rosy trillions of dollars of tax cuts will be.
    It also would set up the marketing tool of spinoff catchphrases: Credible Opportunity, Credible Security, Credible Energy Independence, etc., once again driving home the fact that the solutions will involve some pragmatism but be achievable, again, in contrast to the ‘say what they want to hear while the other hand is doing what the special interests want to see.’
    It’s just a thought, and not without its flaws. To make it work, the candidate’s own credibility would have to be damn near flawless and unassailable, because you wouldn’t want to see a successful attempt to put a hole in the balloon on which you’re floating your campaign. And it hangs its hat less on a dream and more on a promise, but perhaps there’s something to be said for that in times like these…

  31. larre on

    On further consideration, I think Edwards’ “Two Anericas” theme needs tweaking. It sounds too much like a jury lawyer’s argument against the other side. The same points can be recast into a more positive, goal-oriented “One America for All.”

  32. Nick Rey on

    On national security/antiterrorism the emerging Dem “S’MORES” action plan should be:
    More Human Intel
    More post war capable troops
    More homeland security funding
    More international cooperation-NATO, allies, UN etc.
    More control of loose WMD
    More assistance to failed states
    More public diplomacy with a better product.
    Paid for by higher taxes on richest 2% of taxpayers who should be happy to pay to keep their lifestyle out of the hands of terrorists.

  33. Andy on

    Theme-Program for the 21st Century
    The theme I would chose would be to contrast Bush’s policies of the past vs. the Democrats’ policies of the future.
    Does it strike anyone how “20th Century” Bush’s policies are? His tax policies are straight from the failed policies of the 1980s. His environmental-energy policies are straight from the 1950s. His policies regarding workers rights are pre-depression, 1920s. And his polices regarding protecting our food and water are from the early 1900s.
    Contrast that with:
    -A 21st Century trade policy which recognizes the need to protect workers and the environment.
    -A 21st Century education policy which makes it a national priority to teach computer literacy and emphasises life long learning.
    -A 21st Century tax policy which: (1) rewards and encourages work; (2) provides incentives to companies to increase the pay of its work force; (3) provides incentives for companies to remain in the USA; and (4) makes the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.
    -A 21st Century environmental policy which recognizes problems such as global warming and deals with them in a market-based way.
    -A 21st Century health care policy, wage policy, inner city policy, etc.
    Finally, I would tie the “new vs. old” theme with the “opportunity for all” theme that Ray and others have mentioned.

  34. ronb on

    Job One should be to pass a law making it a Federal crime for any person or organization with a vested financial interest, direct or indirect. to attempt to influence the Congress of the United States in any matter involving pending legislation.
    Corporations, unlike people, are not citizens, so there should be no first amendment issue here.
    Job Two should be a law providing that ALL funding for Federal level elections be accomplished TOTALLY through public funding, with each candidate receiving an equal amount of such funding in a manner determined by Congress; included should be the determination that any gifts of cash or other valuable consideration from other sources be defined as a Federal crime.
    Only when these are completed will America truly belong to its People.

  35. Dan Perreten on

    First, it’s important to remember that the Kerry campaign should trot out several Grand Themes to see which sticks. The Bush campaign had “Compassionate Conservative” all along, and it’s ultimately the one that stuck. But they tried a bunch over the course of the campaign (remember “Reformer with Results”?). So there’s no shame in pushing several, either simultaneously or serially, to see which works best.
    Second, I think the “Two Americas” thing works pretty well, though I worry with Frankly0 that Americans tend not to understand themselves in class terms, and it would be impossible to convince them to acquire a class consciousness and then vote on that basis, all in the course of the next nine months. Not gonna happen.
    But if the Two Americas theme is explicitly connected to the crony/insider/corruption of the extremist, war-profiteering ideologues in the White House . . . rock on, man! That would work. In fact, Kerry has been doing a good job lately of describing the Bushies as extremists and Democrats as “mainstream.”
    Which leads to the approach I want to recommend (though I won’t recommmend a theme just yet). Alfred gets us off on the right foot by asking one of the central questions: Why are most folks skeptical of Democrats? I mean, let’s talk about the genius of “compassionate conservative” for a minute, shall we? It addressed the main image problem conservatives had: that they were scolding cheapskates who didn’t care about the poor or women. One little two-word phrase, and voila! Image problem fixed.
    So any phrase-making has to help solve one of the central image problems that Democrats have. What are they?
    – Weak on defense
    – Want to raise your taxes
    – Out of the mainstream, esp. on social issues
    There are probably more, and Ruy can probably identify them from polls and focus groups. But for now I’m going to push the “mainstream” theme. If we can find some word or phrase that alludes to “mainstream,” then we will come up with a good phrase. The idea of “mainstream” covers everything, really: social issues, foreign policy, fiscal matters, etc. Unfortunately, “mainstream” isn’t a great word in and of itself, and it’s not exactly exciting.
    Onward and upward!

  36. melissa on

    I agree that the grand theme should be America resuming it’s “rightful” place in the world – we lead through example and courage and compassion. We use our “might for right” and we embark on an ambitions plan for renewable energy that will free people all over the world from oil dependance and hence the dependance on other’s peoples’ resources. The quest for renewable energy will create massive job growth here at home – all of the infrastructure will have to be changed. (a lot like when the cable guys came to every house and switched us all to digital) Home by home we will need manpower to lay the infrastructure. Jobs create security! Without people working and paying their “dreaded taxes” we don’t have the money to properly fund our “homeland security.” We will also then have the “resource” the technology that people all over the world need and want and we can export that technology along with our goodwill the world over. We will be respected and loved again, instead of feared and hated. It all starts with a bold plan to change the direction we’re going in and forge a new path – where we lead the entire world toward a better way of ife – based on help, hope and humility.

  37. leo on

    To use a hoary old chestnut: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
    BushCo has been able to ram through a lot of horrific legislation (the Patriot Act comes to mind) just by beating the fear drum. People forget all about their long term interests (you know, jobs, civil rights, that sort of thing) and just look for a father figure to deliver them to a safe place. It’s a pretty degrading spectacle, but a perfectly understandable one.
    The Dems should remind the American people that this country has been through scary times before, and we’ll see each other through these times as well. And we’ll do it together, without fear.

  38. alfred on

    Think about the reason most folks are skeptical of the Democrats: we’re not careful (in their view) with their tax dollars. Kerry should make fiscal discipline a major issue in this campaign because it completely undercuts Bush’s lack of it, and appeals to swing voters (and some moderately conservative voters who are persuadable) who are wary of a Massachusetts Senator with a very liberal (in their view) voting record.
    Clinton understood this point and put his Vice President in charge of the commission to reinvent government, which was to make government more efficient and save bucks at the same time. It did so with reasonable success, but was not emphasized by Gore in 2000 for reasons which always puzzled me. Kerry needn’t make Gore’s mistake, and I hope he won’t.

  39. Erik on

    A flight to space with renewable/alternative energy. This moves the technology forward and eventually creates a society where oil is not necessary. Thus eliminating war for purposes of stealing other’s resources. Most of the technology we have today was spurred by the space program of the 50’s and 60’s. This creates a realistic goal unlike Bush’s program of back to the moon, a base on the moon, and then on to mars. Which would take generations. This would also make Bush and Repubs look like tiny men with tiny ideas. We need to settle problems hear first. This would create endless opportunities for the American economy. We need to be in the forefront of moving from fossil fuels to alternative energy. Just as the we were in the forefront of moving from man slave labor to fossil fuel backed industrialized labor.

  40. Dan on

    I agree that “Two Americas” presents a useful analysis of the faultlines in our country but I don’t think that it automatically provides a winning theme for November.
    I would try to rally the country around a renewed sense of civic pride: the idea that we have more in common than the wedge issues that are used to divide us. When I think back to the painful time following 9/11, I remember the feeling across the country that we were in this thing together. Bush let that feeling slip away and replaced it with xenophobia.
    But with civic pride comes civic duty, which plays to Kerry’s strength as a decorated veteran. Americans will need to make sacrifices in the future and these burdens need to be shared *fairly*.
    Bill Clinton delivered speech after speech that made a fetish out of the word “change” and no one got tired of it. Kerry should do the same with the words “duty” and “fairness”.

  41. foo on

    Two americas:
    One neighborhood gets non-combat reserve spots and early discharge if they’re lucky while another neighborhood gets flag-draped caskets or, if they’re lucky, artificial limbs and PTSD.
    One neighborhood gets repeated cushy jobs in comfortably failing corporations while another neighborhood sees their jobs outsourced to Malasia or their healthcare and pay cut as their employers try to compete with cheaper labor markets.

  42. Double B on

    The Big Idea is that the natural resource of the 21st century IS NOT going to be oil and that an effort to change that will be immediately implemented when a Democrat takes office. It will take time and effort, but it will ultimately achieve numerous goals: make America safer, make America cleaner, and make America better off economically.

  43. frankly0 on

    Personally, I don’t like so much the theme of Two Americas. Inherently, it has in it a notion of division that most voters don’t much cotton to. Many people, even if they are part of the middle class or working class, aspire someday to greater success. It’s also subject to the “class warfare” accusation.
    I prefer something more like, America for all Americans. All of the same arguments against Bush’s favoritism towards the rich can be neatly subsumed under this rubric. It is Bush who is damaging any sense of equal treatment and burden felt by all Americans; it is he who is the divider and not the uniter. There is much that is very good that can be brought under this theme, and nothing in it that would even hint at something negative.

  44. Matt le W. on

    What’s interesting is the question of what themes we can fit on top of John Kerry. I think the answer comes from our old friend, Jorge Luis Borges: Everything and Nothing.
    “There was no one in him: behind his face… and his words, which were copius, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one.”
    (Though really the whole short story is a funny sort of description of the man).

  45. Voice of Reason on

    The theme should be:
    New Opportunity for a New America
    The idea is to reenforce the opportunity society idea while linking it to the fact that America did change fundamentally on 9-11. New opportunity means an egalitarian, populist approach that gives more Americans economic opportunities, that provides more schooling and healthcare, and that strengthens our pressence in the world community instead of angering the rest of the world, because a world that cooperates with America is a whole world of opportunities for Americans. And in Iraq, we have a new opportunity to help build democracy the right way, with the aide of our allies and an international force. We cannot run from “the new America” so we should act to synergize it with our hopes that the opportunity society becomes a reality for every American.

  46. Tom Geraghty on

    I agree that the “two Americas” theme seems ideal for our political situation.
    I recommend a blog entry by Trapper John on Daily Kos from Sunday, February 15, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Theme.” “We need to begin tying the micro issue of Bush’s military misadventures [and other relevant issues] into a larger theme about privilege; part of a seamless meta-narrative about the fundamentally elitist vision of the GOP,” as TJ eloquently puts it.
    I’m afraid, though that Kerry’s “split-the-difference” style policy proposals are too tame to provide real meat to the “two Americas” theme. Will they really have much effect on unemployment, declining wages, rising inequality, and so forth?
    Why can’t he propose a full employment policy via job-creating public investments, perhaps using a permanent modern version of a WPA?
    Or how about a real universal health care plan? Despite what DR has written before, the issues of universal coverage and rising costs are fundamentally related issues.
    What about DR’s call for a “universal 401K” plan as an alternative to regressive Social Security privatization, which Bush is sure to propose again?
    How do we propose to make globalization benefit all? We have to go further than just “putting the brakes” on trade agreements. A full-employment plan would help. How about more public help for retraining and relocation assistance? Or an “aid to depressed areas” program for regions hard-hit by trade-related job losses?
    What about Gephardt’s idea for a global minimum wage, so that wages in developing countries rise with productivity, and workers there can afford to buy more of what they produce?
    And how do we do any of this, while also promising not to raise middle-class taxes, while also dealing with our long-term structural budget deficit problem?
    And what do we propose to do about our long-term structural trade deficit problem?
    Issues, issues. I fear that we’re not anywhere close to developing serious proposals for them.

  47. John Lyon on

    Grand Theme?
    I’d like to see the Democrats push reforms that reduce the rights of Corporations. No reason they should have more rights than citizens.
    Also, wouldn’t it be great to be energy independent by the end of next decade?
    As much as I’d love to see us going to Mars, there’s no reason to fund Halliburton’s aspirations.

  48. Brian Y on

    I’ll second that. I like the idea of an “opportunity” society, in which every American has a chance at success in life. So it would not be so much “us against them”, but rather supporting a level playing field for everyone.
    A couple of specific points. One, talk about education, especially higher education. Rising tuition rates directly impact the middle class, and this is something that has been completely ignored by Bush.
    Second, focus on the potential of renewable energy. I would promote the plan by the Apollo Alliance, which is an ambitious program to promote renewable energy, at a cost of $300 bill over 10 yrs. This would serve quite a few needs. One, it would provide a “Big Idea” for the Democrats, and could be directly contrasted with Bush’s oil-dependent policies. Second, it allows the Democrats to present an optimistic vision for the future, so the campaign won’t just be negative bashing of Bush. It can even be tied into a discussion on national security, as our centralized power plants have inadequate security.
    I also think it will have strong appeal in Midwest swing states (see polling results at Apollo Alliance website), as a way to replace the loss of manufacturing jobs.

  49. wrubel5 on

    Stanley Greenberg’s The Two Americas is a good place to start when thinking about possible “grand themes” for democrats. It’s a tremendously useful book in its own right — a complete map of the American electorate, both left and right. It’s final chapter makes specific policy recommendations for a bold Kennedy-type “opportunity” campaign.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.