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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems: we need to face the fact that the health care campaign suffered a significant setback in the last few weeks. Obama and the Dems lost needed support and even lost control of the whole reform narrative. We need to prevent this from happening again

With Obama now meeting friendly crowds as he tours the country and with other local town hall meetings becoming less confrontational, it is starting to look like the Dems may be regaining their balance and stabilizing the situation.
But it would be a major strategic mistake for Democrats to minimize or dismiss the setbacks of the last few weeks as just an unavoidable speed bump in the campaign for health care reform. The decline in public support for the current Democratic attempts to design a health care reform package — and more specifically of support for Obama’s handling of the issue — must be considered troubling – especially the drop in support among political independents. Moreover, in a deeper tactical sense the Dems temporarily lost control of the health care narrative – the national debate stopped being about the major elements of the proposed reforms and became a shouting match on the opponents’ issues and terrain
The increased opposition – which was particularly notable among the active town hall protesters but also visible among a significantly wider group of Americans – was not generally a response to the actual provisions of the various proposed bills. Rather, it has been about something else. At the town hall meetings the protesters generally raised much broader objections – against “the government taking over everything”, “the systematic dismantling of this country”, “the government playing God” or “turning us into Russia” or “undermining the constitution.” All these suspicions – which were deliberately stoked by the Astroturf firms but which were sincerely expressed by the individual protesters – reflected a deeply held fear that something was being foisted on average Americans that was far more than just a new social program. Their comments charged that the Democrats health care reform plans were actually a Trojan horse for something deeply and profoundly sinister.
It is easy to dismiss this as simply irrational, but it is important for Democrats to understand how this view became politically significant.
When he took office, Obama immediately had to manage massive government intervention in both Wall Street and the Auto industry – interventions almost entirely conducted in private, closed-door negotiations – and also to create a recovery program that vastly increased the federal deficit. Opinion polls revealed, however, that people basically blamed the Republicans and accepted that the government could not avoid taking significant actions.
Conservatives first tried to create opposition to Obama by calling his measures “socialist,” but this line of attack provided relatively little traction or resonance (Several polls actually demonstrated that “socialism” was no longer an effective “scare word” , particularly among the young, and focus groups conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that for many Americans the word “capitalism” actually had very negative connotations of greed and of the powerful dominating the vulnerable)
Conservatives then switched to the term “fascism” and particularly the German, “Nazi” version of fascism. The one superficial analogy they offered for this accusation was that the major fascist countries during the 1930’s had also included extensive government intervention in industry but to liberals the accusation seemed obviously absurd because the two central features of Nazi fascism — the creed of Arian racial superiority and the ethos of glorious national military conquest — seemed so utterly and self-evidently right wing rather than left-wing ideals.
But in fact, what the conservative propagandists like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly had done was essentially to redefine the word fascism to something entirely different from its original definition. In their vocabulary it has now essentially become a synonym for “coercive liberal social engineering” or “creeping liberal totalitarianism” – it is the image of pointy-headed Harvard liberals using the coercive power of the state to impose left-wing values and behavior on average Americans

This notion has profoundly strong roots in the 1970’s when it was reflected in the opposition to court-ordered forced busing of schoolchildren for racial integration, sex education, obligatory changes in the treatment of women in the workplace, “political correctness” in the media and in other ways as well. It was also reflected in the opposition to increased government regulation of small business imposed by new environmental laws, occupational health and safety rules, land use restrictions and other measures — all paid by what were described as increasingly “oppressive” taxes.
It was the substantial middle American reaction against this liberal “overreach” that provided the initial political springboard for both Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s and Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s and which led “traditional values” and “free-market economics” to be established as the twin ideological pillars of the Bush administrations.
Even well after the April 15th Tea Party protests, however, the accusation that Obama was following fascist policies failed to achieve any significant traction outside the conservative movement itself. The sequential murders of an abortion clinic doctor and Holocaust museum security guard made the conservative accusations appear as part of an extremist fringe ideology.
The launching of the health care reform campaign in Cngress changed the environment significantly, however. It had four specific characteristics that many people found troubling.

1. Unlike the previous economic actions, it was an entirely voluntary and deliberate attempt to comprehensively re-engineer one of the major sectors of the economy
2. There was a clear effort by the administration to move the legislation to a final vote as quickly as possible
3. Negotiations with key industries and interest groups were conducted but there was no formal mechanism for public involvement in the formulation of the plan.
4. There was no extensive and systematic series of public meetings held around country to present the main elements of the plan and explain the rationale for them.

These four characteristics – which are actually understandable responses to the complex legislative maneuvering required to shepherd a major bill through both houses of Congress – significantly validated conservative criticisms of the process and gave plausibility and resonance to the widely circulated questions, “Did you even read the bill?”, “What’s the hurry?” and the assertion that “we don’t trust you”.
Moderates did not necessarily accept the extreme conservative characterizations of the bill but, for many, the growing complaints from GOP spokesmen and grass roots protesters were sufficiently plausible to significantly weaken their confidence in the way Obama was managing the campaign.
As a result, the opposition to health care reform now consists of two very distinct groups.
On the one hand, many hard-core conservatives now very honestly and sincerely believe that sinister left-wing totalitarianism menaces America and once a person accepts this basic interpretation of events, it then creates a vicious cycle. Every wild new accusation — death panels, rationing, wiretapping – suddenly seems “plausible” because it corresponds with most Americans deeply embedded and widely shared cultural models about how “totalitarians” act and what they do.

• “Death panels” – Americans have extensive cognitive libraries of images and memories regarding Nazi eugenics, dozens of dystopic science fiction movies, news reports of assisted suicides and medical debates over “decision to pull the plug” terminations of life-support.
• “Shortages and lines for goods like “toilet paper” (as one town hall protester put it)” – American schoolbooks and the mass media have shown countless images of images of lines and rationing in communist countries
• “Union or ACORN goon squads” – Most Americans have some schoolbook mental images of Fascist Brownshirts, the Gestapo, the Soviet-era NKVD as well as negative depictions of trade unions.
• “Obama inspired government monitoring of conservative’s e-mails, making enemies lists and building concentration camps for opponents” – There are both classic portraits of these kinds of actions in famous novels like 1984 and Brave New World and there are many specific examples in American history (Nixon’s enemy lists, FBI wiretapping of dissidents, internment camps for Japanese-Americans)

In short, all of these specific accusations can indeed “seem possible” to a person because – once the general “creeping totalitarianism” notion is accepted as valid — it invokes a mental library of images and data that can then be cognitively manipulated to generate hypothetical “what-if” scenarios of the future.
Along with the specific accusations, there is also a much broader fear that liberal reforms threaten to destroy the constitution and the American way of life. The protesters – who are not skilled public speakers — express these views in a rather inarticulate, tongue tied, somewhat rambling way that makes many liberals throw up their hands in despair at how to reply to accusations that seems essentially incoherent. As a result, they assume that such views cannot really have any serious resonance among sensible people.
What Dems must understand, however, is that these kind of statements strike many Americans quite differently — as a touching and very honorable “salt of the earth” folk wisdom.
This is not as implausible as it might first seem. In dozens of sentimental war movies made in the 1940’s, American GI would reply to questions about why they were fighting the Nazis with rather similar recitations – lists of simple things like “so that me and my kid can eat a hot dog and watch the Yankees play” or “so I can walk with my gal and listen to the band play in the town square” or “so we can watch the fireworks on the fourth of July” This kind of Norman Rockwell invocation of the basic liberty and freedom of small town America expressed an inarticulate but ultimately valid gut feeling that Nazi totalitarianism was indeed a threat to the most fundamental aspects of American life.
This helps to make the perspective of the protesters somewhat more comprehensible but it does not reduce the very real danger this view also promotes. The danger can be seen in the comment threads of many conservative web sites — the constant invocation of Patrick Henry and the Minutemen, the many assertions that the time has come to be a hero, the large amount of poetry, music and lyrics of civil war and rebellion based on traditional Irish fighting songs about the “gathering of the pikes” and noble death in freedom’s cause. It is an unfortunate fact that this perspective will encourage people who accept it to resort to violence because it directly asserts that they are fighting an enemy whose aims and objectives are every bit as sinister and evil as the Soviet NKVD or the Gestapo.
The moderates and political independents whose support for Obama declined in recent weeks do not accept the extreme conservative views about Obama and his administration. But they have had their confidence shaken about the process that is being used to propel the legislation. They do not seriously think the Dems seek totalitarianism, but they have not been convinced that the goals actually being sought are sound. They desperately need to be reassured, not only by clarification of the issues, but about the nature of the process itself.
At the moment, the response by the White House, Organizing for America and the other pro-reform forces misses this latter point. Thus far, the administration counter-offensive is focused on refuting particular lies and explaining the major proposals as if the problem is narrowly limited to a debate over the details of the proposed reform.
It is not. There is a broader issue regarding the proper and adequate role for ordinary citizens in government – with how laws are passed and what citizen input is allowed. Average Americans feel – quite correctly – that they are almost entirely unable to influence what is going on in Washington while corporate insiders, ivy- league professors, lobbying firms and pressure groups have special access.
For progress over the next four and hopefully eight years of an Obama administration we must regain the trust of the significant group of moderate and independent voters whose support recently declined. They need to be successfully reassured that the process will be revised to be as inclusive, representative, prudent and fair as possible and that their voices will be genuinely heard in future deliberations. If not, the same problems will reappear and the same loss of support will ensue in the campaigns for climate change legislation, immigration reform and every other Democratic initiative in the future.

2 comments on “Dems: we need to face the fact that the health care campaign suffered a significant setback in the last few weeks. Obama and the Dems lost needed support and even lost control of the whole reform narrative. We need to prevent this from happening again

  1. James Vega on

    Thanks for your comment.
    I think you are basically right that Obama could have used TV better than he has up to now, but I also sympathize with the media guys concern about going too far with things that can seem “staged” or “phony” if not handled well. Obama’s infomercial at the end of his campaign was a good example of a nice balance but its hard to hit the right note if you try to do it often.
    The other problem was the strategic decision to “hold Obama in reserve” until congress had narrowed down the proposals. It sounded like a good idea at the time but I’m sure that with the benefit of hindsight the Obama strategists would do it differently if they could get a do-over.

  2. chris r. on

    Mr. Vega is correct that President Obama cannot fix the situation merely by correcting misconceptions and re-explaining the proposals. But I don’t think the solution lies in making average Americans feel more “included” in the process.
    Sure, when government is doing something wrong, people want to vent, and they want government to hear. But few would take up the opportunity to participate in some sort of comment period. Most people are too apathetic or too busy to participate, and most of the rest feel (justifiably) that their voice wouldn’t really be heard anyway.
    I think the way for the Democrats to retake the offensive (and to move future legislation forward) is to be smarter in how they use the bully pulpit. The Republicans gained the upper hand by appealing to emotion, and the Democrats defended by objecting with reason.
    There’s no reason to throw reason away, but emotion speaks more loudly. The President should have provided his own emotional footage for the cameras — like inviting ordinary families to testify how health care costs have drained their life savings and cost them their homes — more often, and more effectively than he did. Make the connection — visually, with real people, across the country. And often. Tie it in to “family values” and the loss of freedom (for the independents and conservatives watching at home). And show some emotion — some grief, and some not-going-to-take-it-anymore honest-to-goodness anger. If he did, those town hall farces would not have topped the news each night and the President would have remained in control of the story.
    It’s time for the Left to stop lamenting the sad but real state of television and internet news, and make it work for them. Acknowledge that it’s a visual medium that attracts viewers through emotion, and make that reality work for them for a change.


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