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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

At Vox Sean Illing interviews Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama’s White House communications director and co-host of the podcast Pod Save America. Illing notes that “Pfeiffer’s a sharp political observer, but he’s also spent a lot of time thinking about something he calls the “Democratic messaging deficit.” Some  excerpts from Pfeiffer’s responses pertaining to how Democrats use media: “Our party tends to think the press will do our job for us. We think they’re going to communicate our message. But it’s our responsibility to get the message, or the news, from Joe Biden’s lips or Nancy Pelosi’s lips to the voters’ ears. And that’s not going to happen organically. It has to happen through paid advertising, through social content we generate, through progressive media, and there has been very little effort to adjust our communication strategy. We didn’t have to do this in the Trump years because Trump dominated the conversation and he made the case against himself all the time, and that was sufficient to win elections….The Republicans have spent decades building up a massive, ideologically based media apparatus. We think about it as Fox News, but it’s not just Fox News. It is Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and Daily Caller. And then there’s talk radio, which has been around for a long time and is still incredibly powerful in a lot of places. And then there’s an entire Facebook-centric digital army led by the likes of Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino that dictates the four corners of the political conversation and drowns out Democratic messaging. They have a giant army and we have just a couple people shooting spitballs to try to keep up, and we’re getting clobbered on it….Democrats can still win elections in that environment. I know that because we just did it in 2020, and in 2018. But we are competing with one hand tied behind our back when we do it….The other thing is, I think we’ve spent too much time demonizing Fox News for its propaganda. There’s this visceral reaction from a lot of people in our donor community. They don’t want to be labeled propagandists in that way. Which is why you see Democratic billionaires buying the Atlantic and Time magazine and not trying to build a non-racist, more honest, better version of Breitbart, or a Democratic Fox News, or whatever that would look like….Some of that is because Democratic progressive talk radio in the early part of the century, with Air America, didn’t really work. For a certain set of donors, that was a formative experience. The key difference is that Republican donors view their media operations more as political investments than as profit engines. Pick a digital right-wing outlet that started in the last 10 years and there’s a Republican billionaire behind it.”

On Monday, I noted the solid worker rights record of Judge J. Michelle Childs, who is reportedly on President Biden’s short list of potential nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court. Another potential nominee on the short list, Ketanji Brown Jackson, also merits a mention as a strong supporter of worker rights, as Mark Joseph Stern reports at Slate: “Ketanji Brown Jackson may sit at the top of President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court short list, but until she gets the nod, she’ll keep plugging away at her current gig: a judge on the nation’s “second highest court,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. This court has long served as a springboard to SCOTUS, which may be one reason Biden elevated Jackson to it in June. While Jackson authored myriad opinions during her eight years as a trial court judge, she had not written a single opinion for the D.C. Circuit—until Tuesday, when she made her debut in AFL-CIO v. Federal Labor Relations Authority. The case emerged from a sharp dispute between the Trump administration and organized labor over the rights of federal unions to negotiate their working conditions. And in her lucid, concise opinion, Jackson delivered an unqualified win to union rights….On the district court, Jackson exhibited a deep understanding of labor law, as well as a refreshing lack of antipathy toward unions (all too common among her Trump-appointed colleagues). At this inflection point for labor, as millions of Americans demand better working conditions and fight the decline of unions, she brings important expertise to the bench. Biden vowed to be the most pro-union president ever, and placing Jackson on the Supreme Court would certainly help to cement that legacy.”

Jeff Hauser and Max Moran explain “What Biden’s Message Should Be” at Democracy: A Journal o Ideas: “Our organization, the Revolving Door Project, has spent the last several months collaborating with polling firm Data For Progress to poll-testing a potential message for the White House to pursue, and researching the policy tools it would need to carry out a corresponding agenda. (Data For Progress has provided research and polling assistance, but the views in this article reflect only the authors’ opinions. The Revolving Door Project is a watchdog group focused on corporate influence over the federal executive branch.)….Put simply, our analysis show that Biden is in desperate need of a villain, and what that should translate into is a corporate crackdown. Biden needs to take the fight to the elite villains who are screwing the American people. He needs to tell the public who the villains are, and he needs to fight them on the people’s behalf. And the best villains available today, on both policy and politics, are predatory megafirms whose abuses harm the public….As President, Biden has unique powers that could let him generate conflict on his terms—federal investigation, prosecution, regulation, and more. These policy tools are also powerful messaging opportunities….Here, then, is the challenge for Biden: He needs villains whom he can credibly identify to the public as his adversaries and then pursue under longstanding law. He, and frontline Democrats down-ballot, need to know and believe they will be well-liked for pursuing these villains. Corporate and ultrarich lawbreakers fill that need….Our polling finds voters agree with the following statements: “Wealthy people and corporations are regularly not punished for breaking the law” and “The criminal justice system unfairly targets poor people over rich people,” by margins of +67 and +48 percentage points respectively. Majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all agreed with both sentiments. Voters supported providing more funding to federal agencies which investigate corporate lawbreaking by a margin of +49 percentage points, again with strong net support even from Republicans. These results square with other polling showing support for policies like higher taxes on the wealthy and forcing fossil fuel companies to pay for the costs of climate change adaptation.”

Hauser and Moran continue: “Democrats don’t like to hear this, but to many voters, this is a genuinely open question. We Democrats sometimes like to flatter ourselves by saying we’re “the party of labor” in America. But most of the party’s actions haven’t supported that claim for at least three decades—longer than most Millennials have been alive. Since the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans have both willingly enabled laissez-faire deregulation, corporate concentration, tax cuts for the wealthy, race-to-the-bottom trade pacts, and other hallmarks of our neoliberal age. There’s a reason many people feel that Democratic and Republican politicians are the same kind of people in different-colored ties: On far too many economic issues, they have been….This means that neither party is necessarily set up to capitalize on this populist fervor. However, only one party has been trying to in recent years—and it’s not the Democrats. Every high-profile Republican right now wants to attack the “elite.” Insurrectionist Senator Josh Hawley wrote a book railing against Big Tech, onetime establishment robot Senator Marco Rubio supported unionizing Amazon’s warehouse employees (although only to punish the firm’s alleged “wokeness”), and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance has gone from hedge fund investor to decrying global trade pacts. Donald Trump attacked free trade agreements and wealthy “globalists” in 2016, and voters both considered him the most liberal Republican candidate in recent history, and preferred his message on the economy two months out from the election….Unfortunately, phony populism still trumps no populism at all. Any politician invoking populism with any success then gets to define who is and isn’t part of “the people,” and describe what does and doesn’t make the elite “elite.” To trump Republicans at their own game, Democrats can instead name the actual elite as their villains: CEOs, wealthy heirs, and everyone else at the top of the socioeconomic ladder who’ve pulled it up behind them. But doing so will require some hard looks in the mirror….Biden’s milquetoast messaging also lacks any narrative propulsion. If the White House does not provide political reporters with conflict, reporters will naturally look for conflict elsewhere. For example, zeroing in, as they have, on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema  as they (particularly the former) continue to hold the President’s legislative agenda hostage to their corporatist whims….People like to see their President fighting for them, and the media want to cover such fights. When the deadly virus is no longer Biden’s go-to villain, abusive mega-corporations and the ultra-wealthy will still be around. The post-New Deal executive branch was built for cracking down on economic abuses of power—abuses that include pharmaceutical companies hoarding vaccine know-how developed through government funding….Biden’s rhetoric should instead be about fighting against big corporate malefactors on behalf of the average American. Our own polling indicates enormous support for the public policy departments Biden can use to make enemies of corporate America, and strong support for a President willing to wield them. The Department of Labor polled with a net favorability of +28 percent.”

2 comments on “Political Strategy Notes

  1. Allen-taxPayer on

    “Trust us. There’s a LOT we disagree with Liz Cheney on. But standing up to Trump isn’t about politics. It’s about preserving our democracy.“

    It’s all about politics and power with you guys. Please explain to me what democracy are you trying to preserve?

  2. Martin Lawford on

    Hauser and Moran are right. Biden and the Democratic Party should curb the abuses of the big businesses who have gotten away with far too much for far too long. Not only is this good politics, it is the right thing to do.


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