This item, by James Vega, is the first section of a three part TDS Strategy Memo that appeared during the week of September 14, 2009. A PDF version of the complete Memo is available here)
Three of the critical mistakes that led to the setbacks in the campaign for health care reform this summer actually preceded the launch of the health care campaign itself and were not the direct result of the specific legislative and political strategies the administration employed. They were rooted in decisions made in the first month or two after Obama took office.
1. A failure to create a clearly defined “core” message expressing Obama’s basic agenda and general philosophy of government.
2. A failure to immediately begin organizing an effective mass mobilization for that agenda.
3. A failure to begin building ongoing social and cultural community institutions to support that agenda.
There were understandable reasons why these failures of strategy occurred and why they were in significant measure unavoidable – Obama took office in the most chaotic economic circumstances of any president since the Great Depression. The point is not to assign blame but rather to accurately identify the critical tasks that have still not been accomplished and to develop a strategy for achieving them
On inauguration day, Obama began his term amid the most dramatic expression of grass roots enthusiasm for a president in living memory – an unprecedented groundswell of support not just from African-Americans but from an extremely broad coalition of the young, the urban, the educated and other groups. The masses of people who traveled to Washington on January 20th or who gathered in other places across the country to celebrate Obama’s inauguration reflected a popular energy and degree of identification with a political figure and a political campaign that had not been previously exhibited since the Roosevelt era.
Within a short time, however, the widely shared feeling that the Obama campaign had not just been a standard political campaign but rather the dramatic beginning of a dynamic mass social movement began to sharply decline. By the time the April 15th “tea parties” rolled around there was barely any sign of spontaneous and energetic grass roots activity among Democrats – there was no nationwide outpouring of local community social activities like “support Obama” rock concerts, street parties, theme evenings at restaurants and clubs or special events to draw people together on an ongoing informal basis. There was no wide viral promotion of new post-election symbols like buttons, tea shirts or bumper stickers carrying forward the “Yes We Can” spirit and linking it to an emerging social movement organized around an agenda for change. There were no tables at shopping centers, people handing out leaflets on street corners or new post-election pro-Obama signs on lawns or lampposts or bulletin boards.
As long time grass-roots organizer Marshall Gans and Peter Drier noted in a Washington post op-ed:
Once in office, the president moved quickly, announcing one ambitious legislative objective after another. But instead of launching a parallel strategy to mobilize supporters, most progressive organizations and Organizing for America — the group created to organize Obama’s former campaign volunteers — failed to keep up… Organizing for America, for example, encouraged Obama’s supporters to work on local community service projects, such as helping homeless shelters and tutoring children. That’s fine, but it’s not the way to pass reform legislation…
Meanwhile, as the president’s agenda emerged, his former campaign volunteers and the advocacy groups turned to politics as usual: the insider tactics of e-mails, phone calls and meetings with members of Congress. Some groups — hoping to go toe-to-toe with the well-funded business-backed opposition — launched expensive TV and radio ad campaigns in key states to pressure conservative Democrats. Lobbying and advertising are necessary, but they have never been sufficient to defeat powerful corporate interests.
The DNC did send out letters. Organizing for America did invite its members to meet in small groups and gatherings and reminded the people on its e-mail lists to visit the OFA website. But the energy and scale of these efforts were deliberately low-key. The DNC letters were in essence standard fundraising appeals and the OFA events were quite specifically designed as “insider” activities for loyal supporters and not as energetic outreach to the general public.
The conservative opposition to Obama’s agenda, on the other hand, created a unique public event in the April 15th Tea Parties, developed a new nationwide set of internet-based social networks and widely popularized a broad ideological framework and perspective with which to attack the entire Obama agenda and administration – the notion that the individual elements of the Obama agenda were actually part of a general movement toward “a government takeover ”, “socialism” or “fascism” and represented an aggressive attack on traditional American values and institutions.
Democrats responded to this threat with an uncoordinated mixture of sputtering outrage, bemused ridicule and point by point refutation of more specific accusations. The charge of “socialism” seemed so absurd that a thoughtful attempt to refute it seemed unnecessary. There was no serious national communications strategy devised to clearly answer the simple but vital question “OK, if the Democratic agenda is not socialism or “government takeover” then exactly what is it?”
This underlying Democratic weakness at the levels of both communications strategy and grass roots organizing led directly to the near-total breakdown during August. The opponents of health care reform were mobilized, organized, armed with basic talking points and backed by professional communications and PR firms. Grass-roots Democrats were looking around in vain for someone to offer leadership and direction.
By late in the third week of August the Democrats had cobbled together a sufficient response to meet the conservative offensive and slow the media narrative of massive public opposition to Democratic plans. But the substantial slide in Obama’s job approval left the campaign for health care reform substantially weaker than it had been in the spring.
At this point, the urgent need is not only for short-term organizing to regain the initiative on health care reform but also for longer range efforts to build a nationwide movement that that revives the “Yes We Can” spirit of Jan 20th and transforms it into a sustained and active social movement to support the overall Democratic agenda. To do this Dems need to do three things.
1. Develop one simple, standardized “core” message that clearly defines the basic goals—as well as the limits — of Obama’s agenda
2. Develop a deeply committed and highly organized group of volunteers specifically dedicated to advocating that core message in meetings and discussions wherever they occur.
3. Develop local activities that can mature into enduring local community social and cultural institutions – institutions that can support a renewed “Yes We Can” movement and allow it to grow.
1. Dems must develop a “core” message about Obama’s agenda
At this point there is no clearly defined set of short “official” statements that explicitly list the major reforms Obama seeks and that express his basic philosophy of government. The opposition has exploited the absence of such materials to assert whatever it pleases about the “real” Obama agenda without having to debate a specific set of documents formally outlining Obama’s actual positions.
This material can be packaged in a set of one page statements that assert Obama’s three signature reforms – health care, energy independence and a 21st century educational system — and then clearly distinguish his agenda from “socialism,” “communism” or “fascism” by asserting a series of basic principles he has expressed about his philosophy of government.
1. The administration does not seek or desire to accumulate or permanently hold ownership stakes in private companies. The government will divest itself of the ownership stakes it was compelled to take in private sector firms during the recent crisis as promptly as it is practical to do so.
2. Regulation of Wall Street and the financial system has only two purposes – to protect consumers and investors from fraud and abuse and to prevent future economic crises like the one that occurred last year. There are no other political objectives behind financial regulation.
3. The level of taxes and the federal deficit will be set with the aim of returning both to the levels that existed during the Clinton administration, when real economic growth was highest and most stable.
4. Public sector programs will not be proposed unless the private sector is unable to provide a necessary service or in cases where there is insufficient competition to protect the public interest (such as with a public option for health care).
The exact language, format and presentation of these “core” materials can be crafted by media professionals and can use any of a variety of familiar political formats, from a “Bill of Rights” to a “Statement of Philosophy” or a “Contract with America” and so on. The fundamental requirement is that these core statements must be brief and simple enough to be read out loud in a town-hall meeting as a direct and coherent response to the charge of “socialism” or “government takeover of everything”. The statements should allow supporters to hold them up and say simply:
“This is what we Democrats actually support – it is not socialism, it is not fascism and it is not a “government takeover”. It is simply a common-sense series of reforms to fix important problems and make a better America.”
Conservative opponents, of course will simply dismiss such materials as nothing more than “a pack of lies”, but conservatives are emphatically not the intended audience. On the contrary, the target audiences for the core materials are the following:
1.The media itself — in today’s “he said- she said” media coverage of meetings and protests, accusations of “socialism”, fascism” or “big government takeover” can only be effectively balanced if pro-Obama forces are equally united around a single, brief, agreed-upon sound-bite — such as promoting “The Democratic agenda for Sensible Reform” , “The Democratic Philosophy of Government” or some other tagline – one that obliges the media to report the existence of a core message around which the pro-Obama forces are united. To fit the rigid “he said-she said” format most mainstream news reporting now follows, reporters will have to film and interview advocates of reform referring to and reciting key phrases from the core documents in order to balance the assertions of the opponents. This is important because, from the perspective of media strategy, one of the key problems the Democrats had this summer was that the opponents of reform had clear 10 second anti-reform “sound-bites” ready for the cameras while the Democrats had 50 page position papers and several versions of a 1,000 page bill.
2. The Unconvinced: there is large group of non-ideological but profoundly suspicious and skeptical voters — not only regarding the need for health care reform but of all of Obama’s agenda. In a Washington Post column, E.J. Dionne noted how important this largely ignored middle group was in the health care town halls:
“Rep. Tom Perriello divided the crowds at the 17 town halls he had held to that point in his largely rural Virginia district into three groups: conservatives, for whom the health-care battle is “about big government, socialism and all that”; the left, for whom “it’s about corporate accountability”; and a “middle” for whom “it’s about health care costs” and the problems with their coverage.” Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, whose district includes Columbus, Ohio said, “I got serious questions, I got hostile questions, I got questions about how this would work, I got questions about how much it will cost. I also got a lot of comments from people who said it’s important for their families and businesses to get health-care reform.”
This critical middle group is strongly influenced by what they observe in the flow of the debate. This was illustrated by the significant changes in attitude that were reflected in the focus groups conducted by D-Corps after President Obama’s speech. For this group of voters the absence of a specifically defined (and therefore limited rather than unbounded) set of reforms and a clear philosophy of government to balance the conservative accusations is inherently troubling. A set of core documents will not by itself convince these voters, but will establish that there is indeed a coherent Democratic answer to the broad challenges of the conservative critics. Without this, to unconvinced voters, the debate often appears to be a contest between wonky Democrats defending specific programs and policies on the one side and Republicans offering broad expressions of concern and skepticism about the proper role of government, spending, deficits and social programs on the other. This leaves the undecided voters confronted with incompatible arguments and therefore unable to reach a firm conclusion.
Without a core message, Democrats will continually be at a disadvantage in debates with conservative critics. With such a message, they will at least be debating on a level playing field.