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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Message and Messenger

Don’t know what the rest of you think, but I’m inclined to feel that Democrats should move on from the post-election-analysis phase of our common endeavor. There’s a relatively strong consensus on many important points of that analysis, and I hope this blog has helped formulate them, as suggested by my friend and yours, Ruy Teixeira. The areas where there is a lack of consensus, including national security and cultural issues, have been with us for a long time, and will accordingly require an extended debate that goes beyond a discussion of what happened in 2004.
But there’s one nagging issue that I have not discussed directly that bears at least one mention: the argument that our big problem is not the lack of a compelling message, but simply the lack of a compelling messenger.
This argument often comes up in connection with criticism of John Kerry’s (and four years, ago, Al Gore’s) personal shortcomings in charisma and communications skills. But within moments, the argument always goes back to a paen to Bill Clinton as the prime example of the master messenger we need.
Interestingly enough, this particular variety of Clinton nostalgia is most common not among New Democrat types who view him as an important figure in the modernization of progressive politics, but among those who actually have serious misgivings about Clinton’s distinctive approach to public policy. A good example is in Howard Dean’s recent book, You Have the Power, which devotes a whole chapter to the proposition that Clinton’s unique political gifts made it possible for him to advance an unprincipled, “accomodationist” policy agenda in a way that actually advanced the progressive cause.
A similar argument is being made today among Democrats who say that our real problem as a party is marketing rather than substance, and in the failure to provide a “narrative” rather than our failure to have a message. The “narrative” argument is especially seductive until you think about what it really means. In a recent Washington gabfest where I made a presentation about Democrats and the South, a young journalist whose ability and insight I particularly respect asked me if there was something about southern politicians that made them uniquely able to “tell a story” and provide a “narrative” that helped connect the Democratic message with regular folks. And much as I was tempted to validate the assumption that crackers like me have preternatural political skills, I told her that “narrative” was a supplement, not a substitute, for a political message, which is not “a story,” but an argument for how a candidate intends to organize public resources to advance the interests and vindicate the values and aspirations of the American people.
And that’s how it actually worked with Clinton, folks. Nobody has to explain Clinton’s political gifts to me. I first personally encountered him in 1980 at a National Governors’ Association meeting, when he walked into a room crowded with big egoes and simply lit up the place. The first time I was convinced he was a future president was at a boring economic development conference in Atlanta during his second term as Governor, when he took a boring speech topic and turned it into a compelling presentation about the need to convince southerners that economic opportunity did not demand debasement of public services or abandonment of the higher aspirations of our people.
Then and later, Clinton’s political appeal did not just depend on political skills or “charisma” or the “ability to tell a story,” but on the content of his message, which was consistently unorthodox, provocative and comprehensive–all qualities lacking, in general, from the messages advanced by our last two presidential candidates, and by most Democratic candidates for Congress during recent cycles. Clinton was able to expand the Democratic voting base because he was willing to defy stereotypes about the party and make skeptical voters rethink their assumptions about the ol’ Donkey, which is also why he drove Republicans crazy, who before and after Clinton figured they had our number. And this, not some overweening desire to take credit for everything that happened in 1992, is the source of New Democrats’ special identity with Clinton’s political accomplishments. His message mattered, and without it, he would not have been elected or re-elected as president. Indeed, without his message, he probably would not have survived the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations that hit his 1992 campaign at the worst possible time, and certainly wouldn’t have survived a presidential impeachment with one of the highest job approval ratings in recent history.
Lord knows I wish we had another messenger of Bill Clinton’s abilities in the wings, but he would be the very first to tell you that what he said was at least as important as how he said it. And right now, two years before we seriously begin to audition candidates for the presidency, we ought to focus on what our party stands for and what we would do in power–on our message–on what we can say to persuadable voters, with or without a charismatic leader or a nifty “narrative”–and then worry about how to add the sizzle to the steak.

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