Drew Westen’s ideas about Democratic strategy are always worth consideration, as are his thoughts from his latest post at HuffPo, “What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November.” Westen provides an extensive and, in places, painful diagnosis of the Dems’ current political predicament, which is worth a read, if only so we don’t repeat some of the more costly miscalculations. Then Dr. Westen offers this prescription:
…Having recently tested messages on economics and jobs, including how to talk about deficits and taxes — widely assumed to be Democrats’ Achilles Heel, particularly now — there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people’s worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors. Even the most evocative boilerplate conservative messages fall flat against honest messages that speak to the need to get Americans working again. And on issue after issue, no message is more resonant right now than one that sides with working and middle class Americans and small business owners against special interests, big business, and their lobbyists.
As for specifics, Westen advises:
…It may be too late for the kind of jobs bill we should have seen a year and a half ago, but it isn’t too late for Democrats to go on the offensive against the Republicans — virtually all of them — who opposed extending unemployment insurance to millions of Americans who were thrown out of work by the Republicans’ corporate sponsors. It isn’t too late for Democrats to contrast their support for the highly popular aid to state and local governments that just saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, and police all over the country with Republicans’ desire to throw them out onto the street. It isn’t too late to make a voting issue out of the bill the Republicans are stalling that would give small businesses a fighting chance in an economy stacked against them, and to make clear that one party stands for small businesses, which create 75 percent of the new jobs in this country, and the other party stands for big businesses that outsource American jobs and offshore their profits to avoid paying their fair share of American taxes. It’s not too late to pass a bill that would limit credit card interest rates to a reasonable percent above the rate at which credit is made available to credit card companies. It’s not too late to pass the first badly need “fix” to the health care reform act to demonstrate to Americans that Democrats mean it when they say this was just the first step, namely a law that stops insurance companies from increasing their premiums by 40 percent while cutting the size of their networks by 50-75 percent, which violates the principles of affordability and choice that were so essential to efforts to sell health care reform to the public. It’s not too late to vow to change the rules of the Senate to prevent the use of the filibuster to give every special interest veto power over every important piece of legislation. It’s not too late to introduce legislation that’s been on hold in both the House and Senate to guarantee fair elections, so that the voice of everyday Americans is heard over the voice of the special interests that finance political campaigns.
On every one of these issues, a strong populist message trounces anything the other side can say. But Democrats need to play offense. They need to take up-or-down votes on bill after bill, including those they expect the other side to block, knowing that every one of those votes has the leverage of a campaign ad behind it. They need to change the narrative from what sounds to the average American like a whiny and impotent one — “the Republicans won’t let us do it” — to a narrative of strength in numbers shared with their constituents. And they need to make every election a choice between two well-articulated approaches to governance — and to offer their articulation of both sides’ positions and values.
Westen’s point about the kind of tone Dems should project resonates especially well at this political moment. Then he gets down to particulars:
…What Democrats have needed to offer the American people is a clear narrative about what and who led our country to the mess in which we find ourselves today and a clear vision of what and who will lead us out…That narrative might have included — and should include today — some key elements: that if the economy is tumbling, it’s the role of leadership and government to stop the free-fall; that if Wall Street is gambling with our financial security, our homes, and our jobs, true leaders do not sit back helplessly and wax eloquent about the free market, they take away the dice; that if the private sector can’t create jobs for people who want to work, then we’ll put Americans back to work rebuilding our roads, bridges, and schools; that if Big Oil is preventing us from competing with China’s wind and solar energy programs, then we’ll eliminate the tax breaks that lead to dysfunctional investments in 19th century fuels and have a public-private partnership with companies that will create the clean, safe fuels of the 21st century and the millions of good American jobs that will follow.
That’s what Democrats stand for. It’s time they said it.
Westen’s challenge may seem ambitious this late in the midterm game, and a couple of readers’ responses after his article argue that he has overstated the Democratic reluctance to attack. There is no question in my mind, however, that our attack could be stronger and more focused along the lines Westen advocates. There is still time to implement some of Westen’s suggestions to good effect — not only for the midterms, but for 2012 and the long haul.