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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Seeing the Battle and the War

By Heather Hurlburt
We’re at an extraordinary moment in the political life of the Democratic Party. The Truman Project is joined by partisan and non-partisan advocacy groups as diverse as Democracy Corps, National Security Network, the Peace and Security Initiative, The White House Project, Third Way, and US in the World in offering national security messaging advice whose basic thrust is:

“The key is to both stand up for strong national security, while highlighting our values – including a core value that we must keep Americans safe.” (“A Progressive Battle Plan for National Security.”)

These groups span the spectrum from Lieberman staffers to MoveOn activists. Yes, their advice differs on many important details, and some would probably object violently to my lumping them in with others, but compared to 2004 or even 2005, the convergence is real. I can actually tell a candidate that there’s general agreement that he or she should come out strong on national security, not avoid the topic; present a specific, positive, new policy direction that draws on core American values; and then critique his or her opponent for being satisfied or complicit with the Administration’s incompetent, ineffective, unrealistic approach.
So why aren’t we hearing more hallelujahs? I’ll posit three reasons, some of which the Truman writers point out, all of which I’d like to see them – and their colleagues at other institutions – focus more on.
1. Democrats are deeply suspicious of messaging guidance.
An irate left-wing respondent on DemocracyArsenal.org, where I blog on these topics, recently compared me to a Nazi. That would be laughable if I didn’t often hear the same sort of thing, in politer terms, from my academic and activist friends who happily inhabit the left end of the Democratic base. We have a large group of core supporters who reflexively equate being thoughtful about how we frame our positions with being dishonest about our core values.
But that view is shared by the left and right wings of our party. One of the megastars of the Democratic foreign policy establishment blew up a strategy meeting earlier this year by declaring, more or less, “You can’t poll foreign policy. We just need to keep doing what we’ve always done.” I have had national security experts whom I respect deeply tell me that you simply cannot use metaphors of daily life to explain foreign policy to non-expert audiences – even as I see folks from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama do exactly that, sincerely and to great effect.
And it doesn’t seem that the campaign consultant community is convinced: even as we all churn out these great ideas for communicating effectively about security, I hear reports from the field that candidates are in fact being advised to turn away from national security and go back to an economic message.
So we have much more work ahead of us over time, to help our crack national security professionals, our base voters across the spectrum, and our political professionals understand what good journalists, novelists, artists and ad executives take for granted: that communication is only effective if your audience hears what you intended them to hear. Most of us have had the experience of an email, seemingly so straightforward in black and white, conveying the opposite nuance of what we intended. And it’s clear every day in politics that media and citizens alike often hear what they expect to hear.
That’s where research-based messaging guidance comes in – as one tool for helping candidates, national security experts and advocates do a better job of getting the message across.
On this, we could learn from each other: the actual language proposed in “A Progressive Battle Plan” would benefit from a scrub that asks smart communication questions like: do these phrases inadvertently direct listeners’ minds back to the positions of our opponents? Where there’s a wide choice of synonyms, do they use words and phrases that recent testing shows voters react to well? Does the order in which concepts are introduced help open voters’ minds to an alternative approach, or close them? In each of those areas, there’s good open source data and even more closely held data to draw on. (For some examples of what’s publicly available right now, click here or here.)
2. It’s a long-term problem.
This brings me to a point that Grinberg, Kleinfeld and Spence perceptively make: This is a long-term problem. They rightly note that their solution, offering an alternate “story line,” can’t be accomplished in one election cycle.
That’s not because Democrats aren’t good storytellers; it’s because we need to change the terms of the conversation so our story gets heard. Our target audience – independents, potential swing voters, disaffected voters and non-voters – has firmly established mental “shortcuts” about Democrats and national security. The media reinforces them because they are easy and evocative. A regular diet of local TV news and shout radio also reinforces conservative mental shortcuts: Government is ineffectual abroad as at home, the world beyond our shores is a dirty and dangerous place, the US is the only country that does anything, other countries and international institutions with a very few exceptions are fundamentally untrustworthy.
Any alternate story about the United States, our place in the world, and the safety of our citizens that stays true to our progressive values is going to bounce off those shortcuts until we start putting long-term effort into replacing them with other images, not just bombarding the ramparts with strategy after strategy.
In this longer-term arena, we need a broader strategy than the one Grinberg, Kleinfeld and Spence propose. We need to go back and pick up the foreign policy concerns – working with allies, leading with American values on issues such as poverty, genocide and the environment, building coalitions to solve problems from disease to trade – where the public agrees with Democrats but gets distracted by highly charged short-term talk of safety and threats. In between electoral cycles, Democrats and progressives can be building genuine links in the public mind between competence on the whole sweep of our involvement overseas and progress on the hard issues – instead of avoiding these issues and relying on spurious links at election time, and then wondering why they seem to favor Republicans (e.g. “draining the swamp.”)
With more time and oxygen, Democrats need to be crafting effective policies and smart messaging about the other insecurity voters feel – their place in the global economy. And there’s still more to do to back up the short-term national security machine Democrats have put in place in the past few years with a deeper bench of folks thinking equally interesting, but less politically tuned, thoughts that can be tossed around for years at a time.
The long-term challenge is to deny conservatives their monopoly on words, images and ideas surrounding national security. Democrats could do “everything right” for the next six weeks and still get beat by gas prices, terror alerts, and some quick progress in Baghdad that lets troop withdrawals be foreseen. Over the long term, we must aim to create a national environment where those Republican trump cards will be worth less, where we have more pathways into voters’ minds – a better campaign story on national security but also a better background story about how national security and international involvement fit into the lives of Americans.
3. It’s a systemic problem – voters are disillusioned with everyone.
Finally, I worry about a more fundamental problem. Voters are disillusioned with the Republican story line, no question, but there’s some evidence that they are preemptively disillusioned with the Democrats as well–that in fact the experience of watching most of our political class support a war that has gone so badly has soured Americans on the whole notion of principled US activism, whatever the principles, outside our borders. That is how I read the Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations and other polls reporting American “isolationism” rising to levels previously seen at the end of Vietnam and at the end of the Cold War. Both of those times, public discontent produced a short period of policy retrenchment. But both times, the longer-term effect came when it was the forces of the right that came up with the new ideological and policy arguments that reengaged a plurality of Americans with the right’s own ambitious international projects.
While the folks whose job it is to win elections are right to worry about “standing on principle” today, we are in dire need for the best progressive minds – and the deepest-pocketed progressive funders – to start looking a decade or more down the road and talk to Americans about what our principles will look like and how they will be tested once Iraq is over, the next compromise on immigration has been reached, and the challenge of Iran and other non-status-quo powers has reached its next level. If we don’t start now to get the politics right, in the long run there simply won’t be the intellectual space to get the policy right.

Heather Hurlburt is Senior Advisor to the US in the World Initiative, consults as a political speechwriter and national security strategist, and blogs at democracyarsenal.org

2 comments on “Seeing the Battle and the War

  1. MQ on

    Actually, I probably overreacted, there are some good points in this post despite the occasionally patronizing tone. It just drives me *crazy* when people won’t respect and take seriously the wisdom in so-called “isolationism”. (In fact, recent American military interventionism has served to isolate us far more effectively than anything else could). Somebody needs to start using the well-founded public suspicion of government activism abroad to get people to question the level of militarism that is endemic in this society and Republicans play on so well. The problem is that many professional foreign policy “experts” in both parties are institutionally committed to constant U.S. meddling in the affairs of other countries, since such meddling increases the power and influence of the foreign policy bureaucracy that they are tied to.

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  2. MQ on

    Yeah, we do have a problem with the whole notion of what you call “principled U.S. activism abroad”. You should be understanding what that problem is instead of talking to the “crack foreign policy experts” (that’s a laugh!) in the party. The Democrats should think about building on the public’s so-called “isolationism” (this is a pure propaganda word, by the way; am I “isolationist” if I don’t want my tax money spent on killing foreigners?), not giving us patronizing lectures about it. We have military bases in hundreds of countries. Our foreign policy establishment tries to sell us on the notion that everything that happens anywhere in the world is our business, up to the point of military intervention if necessary. Does our constant meddling in the affairs of other countries make us more safe, or less? The public SHOULD be suspicious of the bi-partisan post-WWII consensus on the U.S. international role, and it should feel alienated from the so-called experts who push this consensus. We cannot militarily dominate the world any more, nor should we be trying. The Dems need to figure out a way to say this that resonates with the public desire for safety. In order to do so, it’s likely that Dems will have to get away from the kind of patronizing “experts” who tag the publics quite rational desire not to get involved in useless and destructive foreign military adventures as “isolationism”.

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