Tuesday, October 28, 2003

It's all in the wrapping

I'm noticing an interesting sea-change in opinion about the Democratic race. As long as it appeared that the nomination was up in the air, criticism of Dean was generally directed towards voters with the message that "it would be a bad idea to nominate this guy because he would lose to Bush in a landslide". However, in recent days, I've noticed an increase in comments that seem to be directed at Dean himself, specifically urging him to alter his positions on key issues because the commentator sees them as political losers.

Could it be that we have reached the acceptance stage as far as the prospect of a Dean nomination is concerned? Could it be that they are shifting their comments because they realize that avoiding Dean may no longer be an option (Clark has yet to really take off, despite his initial splash)? Perhaps. But are they right to urge Dean to shift his positions on these key issues?

Consider the question of taxes. MWO just today issued a call to send letters to Dean urging him to backtrack on his "repeal ALL of Bush's tax cut" position. They are concerned that the Republicans will simply push a "Dean wants to raise your taxes" theme and destroy any chance he might have of beating Bush. They are partly right about the former while almost certainly wrong about the latter. The simple truth is that the Republicans will pain the Democratic nominee as a "tax and spend liberal" no matter who we put forth. The issue is not one of avoiding the inevitable attacks but how we deal with them once they come.

Hesiod makes the point about this:

If you are a voter who thinks taxes is an important issue, would you vote for the party that wanted to cut your taxes a little...or the one that wanted to cut them a lot? Anyone sitting on the fence, and pondering whether the tax cuts are a good idea or not will wonder why they should vote for the Democratic candidate, when they actually admit that raising taxes is a bad idea. Why not just vote for the Republicans? They seem to be CONVINCED they are right about the benefits of tax cuts, even if you are not sure. And, heck, even the Democrats agree with them. So, the Republicans must be right about taxes!

By refusing to even DEBATE this issue, the Democrats are basically admitting defeat before we've even engaged the argument.

The biggest mistake the Democrats have made in recent years is in focusing to much on the particulars of issues and not enough on the framing of messages. In nearly every national poll, on pretty much every single major issue facing America today, the people come down closer to the Democratic position than the Republican. Yet the Republicans keep winning.

Why?

Because the Republicans know how to frame the issue so as to make their point of view sound more appealing.

The Democrats don't need better issues to sell. They need a better salesman to sell them.

This constant obsession over the right formula of issues just feeds into the public perception that the Democrats are panderers. I think the secret to Dean's appeal is that he presents his ideas with a conviction that voters just aren't used to seeing from a Democrat. They don't feel laboratory tested. They feel like he actually believes what he is saying. If you ever get a chance I would recommend watching Frank Luntz's America's Voices program over on MSNBC. Luntz (a Republican pollster by the way) has made the point repeatedly that his focus-group audiences respond favorably to Dean even when they don't necessarily agree with his stands on a particular issue just like how ordinary people react to George W. Bush!

Hesiod is right that, by taking a calculated approach to this issue (and other issues as well) and only stepping half-way away from Bush, the Democrats just come off looking like they are mere shadows of Bush. When the Democratic response to Bush's $700 billion tax cut is to say, "no, let's have only a $350 billion tax cut", then the Republicans have already won..

We have to fight these guys head on. We can't allow them to assume the moral high ground on all of these issues.

When they say that Democrats just want to raise taxes they should respond, "Which would you rather have: the Clinton economy or the Bush tax cuts?"

When they say that Democrats want to legalize gay marriage they should respond, "Why are you opposed to homosexuals having the same hospital visitation rights as heterosexual couples?"

When they say that Democrats are afraid to go into battle to defend America they should respond, "Why are you so eager to bog us down in new battles when you haven't even finished previous ones?"

The Democrats need to put the Republicans on the defensive. If the Democratic nominee cannot do that then he will lose in 2004 no matter how stellar his resume is. Dean has already proven to me that he can do it. I've yet to see any other candidate who can do likewise.

Update: Oh, I forgot to add one more thing to this.

Democrats continue to run scared of the past. The argument against Dean's tax cut position invariably comes back to Walter Mondale's pledge to raise taxes in 1984. Analyst look at that race, where Mondale lost in a landslide, and conclude that that message is a political killer.

Does it ever occur to anyone that Mondale lost because he was simply a bad candidate going up against one of the most natural and likable politicians of our age while having to run on a record from the Carter administration?

The analysts focus so much on the issue (raise/lower taxes) that they lose sight of the personalities involved. Gore, by any rational indicator, should have beaten Dubya by a huge margin. He did not. Was it his message? Or was it just that he wasn't a very good candidate.

The key here is to focus on what works, not on what doesn't work. Why does Bush succeed, despite his positions being so diametrically opposed to the direction most Americans want this country to take? Because he comes off as a guy people trust despite his stance on the issues, not because of them.

Update 2: Over in Hesiod's comment section a poster named Dana Blankenhorn made the following astute observation:

Howard Dean really believes he can convince the majority of Americans that up is up and down is down, despite the Bushies and press trying to convince them of the contrary. Against that, an argument that "a little up is down" doesn't sound like a very sound argument.

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