Drew Westen’s HuffPo column, “Why the Democrats Are Losing Ground As Obama Is Gaining It” should generate some concern in Democratic Party circles. Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, cites recent Rasmussen polls, which indicate a worrisome trend for Dems:
As the latest Rasmussen polls show, in March the percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats dropped by 2 percent–four times the rate of decline among Republicans (even as the Republicans were publicly flailing, producing numberless budgets, and unwittingly branding themselves as the party of old ideas and the party of “no”). More ominous, the margin of voters supporting a Democrat over a Republican in a generic ballot for Congress dropped to its lowest point since both the Iraq War and the economy had clearly gone south by 2006: one percent (40 vs. 39%).
Westen attributes the decline in Democratic self-i.d. to a failure of political ‘branding’:
But the best products fail without good branding. In politics, you don’t win on ideas alone…Successful branding requires two things: creating positive associations to your own brand, and differentiating it from competing brands. In politics, that means offering voters a clear, memorable, emotionally compelling narrative about your party’s core principles, while presenting them with an equally clear, memorable, and evocative story about the other party that would not make anyone want to be associated with it. If there were ever a time Democrats could offer both stories, this is it.
While Westen’s premise would be more convincing if there were another poll or two indicating similar results, his corrective prescription makes a lot of sense, regardless. He points out that “repetition is essential psychologically, neurologically, and empirically to branding,” and FDR provided a useful template for Democratic presidents:
Roosevelt’s consistent branding of the Republicans as inflexible ideologues at the same time as he showed what progressive, pragmatic action and Democratic leadership could offer led to a political realignment that lasted 40 years.
Westen acknowledges that this has not been President Obama’s ‘style’ — the President prefers to criticize negative values like greed, rather than people, and it’s hard to argue with his success thus far. However, Westen believes that it’s critical for Dems to provide a credible voice to do the needed branding:
But someone needs to be in the fray other than the GOP. The worst thing to be in politics is silent, because it allows the other side to shape public sentiment uncontested. It wouldn’t hurt to have a Southern voice like Tim Kaine’s behind a megaphone with a “D” written on it. But whether it’s Kaine or someone else with credibility and charisma, somebody needs to start saying what Democrats and Republicans stand for other than Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Richard Shelby. That’s a lesson we should have learned a long time ago…In politics, there is nothing so deadly as silence.
Right now it’s hard to identify anyone south of the presidency who has the megaphone to make it stick. Westen’s point about the need for more of a ‘southern voice,’ including Governor Kaine, is well taken. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter are busy being statesmen, but it would be helpful if they joined the fray from time to time. Perhaps it’s time for Dems to organize a southern ‘echo chamber’ composed of southern governors, senators and house members in a concerted branding project.
On the positive side, the progressive blogosphere has made an excellent contribution towards branding the Republicans as the party that ran America into “the ditch…by the side of the road” Westen refers to, and some of it (not enough) has reverbed into the traditional media. But the blogosphere can’t do it all. The Democratic Party will now have to step up and lead the way in more clearly defining itself as the Party of solutions and progress.