Connoisseurs of political spin are directed to “The Lexicon of Political Clout” by conservative consultant and GOP sound bite guru Frank Luntz in in todays’ LA Times. Luntz, author of the GOP Playbook (see Feb 24 and March 2 posts below) defends his “A New American Lexicon,” in which he advises his conservative clients to use specific phrases and avoid others in describing their policies. Luntz decries the “Orwellian” label liberal commentators have used to describe his terminology. But at the very least, he displays a flair for euphemisms that torture reason and language. For example:
I would assert that “responsible exploration for energy,” which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just “drilling for oil.”
Similarly, I’m for calling the money paid to help parents choose their kids’ school a “scholarship” because “voucher” trivializes the powerful opportunity the transaction confers on poor families. I’d argue that it’s more accurate to call “school choice” “parental choice in education.” Considering how such a program equalizes education for rich and poor, the most accurate phrase would be “equal opportunity in education.”
What Democratic strategists can learn from Luntz is to pay closer attention to crafting the language of political discourse, a pivotal factor in GOP victories of recent years. If we keep our language clear and straight, the GOP will be regarded as the party of equivocation.
With the exception of the battle over Social Security privatization, the Republicans are finding weak resistance to their greed-driven legislative agenda, the disastrous bankruptcy bill being the most recent example. Yet, opinion polls indicate a solid majority of Americans want strong leadership for economic reforms that benefit working people. Writing in the Boston Globe, columnist Robert Kuttner, also co-editor of The American Prospect, notes that 63 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week felt that President Bush “had different economic priorities than those of most Americans.”
Kuttner explains that some Democrats’ timidity in challenging the white house economic agenda derives from five factors — corporate contributions, fear of being labled ‘populists,’ lapdog media eating out of Bush’s hand, cultural conservatism and the war in Iraq. But he argues that the hefty majority for economic reforms reflected in recent polls offers Dems an opportunity to reverse the GOP’s recent string of victories without alienating the Democratic base — if they can find the courage:
Democrats need to challenge Bush on the best strategies to keep Americans safe, but they are not maximizing their advantage on the pocketbook issues where they should be eating Bush’s lunch. The one happy exception is Social Security, where Democrats have managed more unity than usual, and they may prevail. There’s surely a lesson here.
As Kuttner says, “Bush’s economic program harms ordinary people. And a majority of voters notice.” And when Democrats stand up and fight for economic justice, they win needed reforms for their constituents and electoral victories for themselves.
Judging by the mainsteam media coverage, you wouldn’t think the votes to pass the Bankruptcy bill (S. 256) in the U.S. Senate were all that important. NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week, for example, lavished substantial air time on the steroids in baseball issue, but zilch on the Bankruptcy bill, which will affect the economic well-being of millions of working people. The mainstream print media, with a few notable exceptions (liberal columnists Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman and David Broder), was only marginally better.
The Bankruptcy Bill ranks high on any list of the 10 most odious pieces of legislation considered in recent years, “a nightmare for the poorest of the poor and the weakest of the weak,” in the words of Senator Edward Kennedy. Kennedy also noted:
It favors the credit card companies, the giant banks and the big car loan companies at every turn. It favors the worst of the credit industry — the interest rate gougers, the payday lenders, and the abusive collection agencies. It hurts real people who lose their savings because of a medical crisis, or lose their jobs because of outsourcing, or suffer major loss of income because they were called up for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. It protects corporate interests at the expense of the needs of real people.
It does absolutely nothing about the glaring abuses of the bankruptcy system by the executives of giant companies like Enron and Worldcom and Polaroid, who lined their own pockets, but left thousands of employees and retirees out in the cold.
It favors companies like MBNA, a top credit card issuer, with over $80 billion in loans, and which has contributed $7 million to federal candidates – half a million dollars to President Bush alone, and spent over $20 million in lobbying, since 1997, when their lobbyists wrote this bill.
Despite the comparative indifference of the traditional media, the liberal blogs and political websites were smoldering last week with heated coverage of the Bankruptcy Bill votes, (See Salon’s Warroom, Gadflyer, Democrats.com and liberaloasis, for example)– and rightly so because few bills now before Congress do more to violate the “first principles” of the Democratic Party. Certainly opposing multi-billion dollar transfers of wealth from poor and working people to corporations and the rich ought to be a “first principle” strongly reflected in Democratic political strategy.
Regrettably, however, 18 Democrats voted with the Republicans for cloture and/or final passage, including Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Biden, who are frequently mentioned as possible Presidential candidates in ’08. No Republicans voted against cloture or the bill. As Kennedy said, “This bankruptcy bill is mean-spirited and unfair. In anything like its present form, it should and will be an embarrassment to anyone who votes for it.” House of Reps Dems, Take note.
According to a January report by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Americans supported an increase in the federal minimum wage as an important priority, with only 6 percent opposed. Yet, the U.S. Senate voted 49-46 to defeat a bill that would have provided three increases of 70 cents in the federal minimum wage, from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next 26 months. All 49 of the Senators voting against the bill were Republicans. Earlier polls have shown strong support for even higher increases.
The Republicans did offer a substitute bill providing a $1.15 increase in the minimum wage, but it was tied to provisions that would have eliminated long-standing wage and overtime protection for millions of workers. Of course the GOP knew their bill was doomed and it would kill any chance of a minimum wage increase. The GOP point man for the ‘alternative’ bill, Sen. Rick Santorum, has voted against minimum wage increases 17 times in 10 years, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy, despite the fact that the inflation-adjusted value of the federal minimum wage has decreased alarmingly in recent decades. The 1968 minimum wage, for example, would be worth $8.88 in today’s dollars.
The GOP opposition may have handed Democrats a potent weapon for mobilizing low-wage workers in the upcomming elections, and the campaign against Sen. Santorum will likely be the marquee contest of 2006.
Don’t lose any sleep worrying about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy for the Presidency. A Westhill Partners/Hotline Poll conducted 2/24-27 reports that 66 percent of respondents opposed a constitutional amendment that would allow a U.S. citizen born in another country to be elected President, with only 29 percent supporting such a measure.
The New York Times has an interesting roundtable discusssion in “Left Behind‘ on the challenges facing American liberals. Peter Beinart, Katrina vanden Heuval and Michael Tomasky, editors of The New Republic, The Nation and The American Prospect, respectively, share their thoughts on Democratic strategies for future victories. Some ideas:
The party has to have a listening tour within its own base but also a listening tour among swing constituencies that are moving away: Hispanics, Jews, the military in particular. (Beinart)
One of the things that came out of this election, which is exciting, is that there’s the beginning of an independent infrastructure outside the Democratic Party, a kind of fusionist politics combining movement politics with electoral politics. And I would build on that, building a farm team of new, Paul Wellstone-type leaders, developing messages and ideas.(vanden Heuval)
Liberal concepts still have more resonance than you might think. Polls continually show that people are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal or progressive.(Tomasky)
There’s more, including a lively reader’s forum responding to the editors’ ideas now underway.
With 120 thousand more votes in Ohio or spread out over a few western states John Kerry would be President today, even though he wrote off the South. But, in his article in The Nation, “Southern Strategies,” Chris Kromm argues that writing off the South in future Presidential elections could be a strategic disaster. Kromm puts it this way:
Given that almost a third of the country lives in the South and it’s growing fast, and that the South still sets the tone for national politics (look at the Tennesseans and Texans who lead the White House and Capitol Hill), ignoring the South is hardly an option….There are four Southern Democratic governors, hundreds of Democratic state legislators, and in six of thirteen Southern states, more registered voters identify as Democrats than Republicans.
But Kromm has no illusions about the magnitude of the challenge facing Democrats. Reporting from “New Strategies for Southern Progress,” a conference of 200 southern progressives in Chapel Hill, Kromm quotes Dem consultant David ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, a proponent of the ‘NASCAR Dads’ strategy: “We’ve lost the white working-class male.” Kromm adds:
Poll analyst Ruy Teixeira rolled out a compelling set of numbers to back up the claim: Although the ideology of the Southern electorate hasn’t changed over the last decade — it’s now 14 percent liberal, 41 percent moderate and 45 percent conservative, only a hair to the right of 1996 — voting patterns have. Bill Clinton got 46 percent to Bob Dole’s 44 percent of the Southern white moderate vote in ’96; in 2004 Kerry had a 58-to-41 deficit to Bush among the same voting group. Even accounting for Clinton’s Southern touch, it’s clear that Democrats have lost ground.
Democrats need to pay very close attention to this discussion as it develops in the months ahead. To help get up to speed, read the DR posts on Democratic prospects and strategies in the South (Feb. 20, 23 and 27) below. In addition, a new blog, “Facing South,” where Kromm and other southern progressives discuss their strategies, merits the attention of Democrats seeking future victories.
Today’s Daily Kos makes Frank Luntz’s GOP Playbook on Republican strategy (see Feb. 24th entry below) available in a much more accesible format, which can be read chapter by chapter on line. Before today, it was available only as a problematic 160-page download.
A new poll by Ipsos-Public Afairs for the Associated Press indicates that a solid majority of Americans oppose President Bush’s proposals for privatizing Social Security. The poll, conducted 2/22-24, found that 56 percent of respondents “disapprove of President Bush’s handling of Social Security and oppose investing a portion of Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds,” with 39 percent saying they approve. In addition, 66 percent of the respondents said they oppose increasing the retirement age, 93 percent opposed cutting benefits for current retirees and 87 percent opposed reducing benefits for future retirees.
The poll indicated that there was substantial support for one potential reform — 74 percent favored requiring those earning more than $90,000 per year to pay Social Security taxes on all their earnings.
The poll also included some good news for Dems. Asked “who do you trust more to handle the issue of Social Security?”, 43 percent chose Democrats, while 37 percent chose Republicans.
Georgian Ed Kilgore of New Donkey follows up on DR’s recent posts (see Feb. 20 and 23 below) on Democratic prospects among white moderates in the south. Kilgore offers some clarifying insights about the weakness of Kerry’s and Gore’s messages for southern voters in 2000 and 2004:
Personalities aside, the biggest difference between Clinton ’96 and Gore ’00 had to do with how each candidate dealt with two sets of issues: culture, and role-of-government–both big “trust” issues in the South. Clinton was thoroughly progressive, but went well out of his way to make it clear that he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare,” that he supported a modest gay rights agenda because everyone who “worked hard and played by the rules” should be treated the same; and that he fought to maintain and even expand the social safety net on condition that it truly represented a “hand up, not a handout.”…in general, Clinton’s whole ’96 message was that he was willing to reign in government’s excesses, while fighting to defend its essentials–the famous M2E2 (Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment).
Compare that message to Gore’s, and you go a long way towards understanding why the guy lost nearly half of Clinton’s southern white support. Gore was forever bellowing about partial-birth abortion legislation (supported by about three-fourths of southerners) representing a dire threat to the basic right to choose. While Clinton called for “mending, not ending” affirmative action, Gore pledged to defend every aspect of affirmative action with his life. Clinton talked about balancing gun ownership rights with responsibilities. Gore talked about national licensing of gun owners. Clinton talked about making government “smarter, not bigger.” Gore never mentioned his own role in the “reinventing government” initiative, and boasted an enormous policy agenda that added up to a message that he wanted to expand government as an end in itself.
…Kerry tried to avoid Gore’s mistakes on specific cultural and role-of-government issues, but never talked about these themes more than occasionally, and never came across with any kind of authenticity in his efforts to project himself as a man of faith, a hunter, a government-reformer, or a family guy. While Gore got killed by his positioning and the lack of a compelling message, Kerry got killed by the lack of a compelling message and by those personal characteristics–distorted and exaggerated by GOP propaganda–that made him seem alien to southern voters.
Rightly or wrongly, both Kerry and Gore wrote off the south in their campaign strategies. But demographic trends, such as the rapid increase of African American and Hispanic voters and continuing reverse migration may well put some southern states back in play by 2008 — especially with a more thoughtful strategy targeting southern moderates.