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Do Democrats Really Need a Message?

How a fixation on messaging could harm Democrats as they head into the 2018 midterms.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The lamentations on the part of numerous political observers that the Democrats lack “a message” are becoming more frequent with the advent of the midterm elections. But they don’t comport with reality, even though many Democrats also express the same worry. First, message discipline isn’t particularly characteristic of the Democrats, as opposed to the Republicans, who are more homogeneous and hierarchical. There are ideological and regional differences within the Democratic Party, ranging from the very liberal left to centrists, particularly those who don’t represent the coastal states. The recent split among the Senate Democrats over immigration strategy was one example. It pit the more leftward Democrats, especially those who are considering a run for the presidential nomination in 2020, against those from more conservative states. The leftward members and what some other senators call “the 2020s” wanted to make a statement that guaranteeing protections for the so-called Dreamers, or DACA kids, was more important than keeping the government open—a position that Republicans were using against Democratic senators up for reelection this year in the more conservative states. (Those who’ve criticized Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for “caving” apparently didn’t see that he was trying to get his at-risk senators off that limb. They also overlooked the fact that the Democrats didn’t have the votes to prevail and therefore lacked the “leverage” that they imputed to him.)

It’s a lot easier to convey party cohesion in a presidential election year, when there exist an actual head of the party and a platform. (An exception to this general point is Newt Gingrich’s poll-tested “Contract with America,” which served as a party doctrine for the House Republicans in 1994.) But even when the Democrats have a presidential candidate there are limits to their cohesion. Ours isn’t a parliamentary system where voting is largely done along party lines, as is the voting of the members once they’re elected. Our elections are more based on the individual candidates than on their party identity. Indeed a candidate’s biography could well be his or her platform—the message. It could be some kind of an outstanding record: heroic military service or athletic achievement or a famous prosecutorial career, and this can matter a lot more than party identity.

Actually, one positive effect of the lack of a “message” is that it allows a candidate to define his or her own race and to come off as authentic rather than as a party tool. Running as an individual can also protect a candidate from being “Nancy Pelosied.” The Republicans specialize in portraying Democratic candidates as instruments of a party leader who can be stereotyped. For decades the Republicans have defined a Democrat running for Congress as a vote for Nancy Pelosi, understood to be a “San Francisco liberal.” (Meaning pro-gay rights and pro-leftmost policies; it’s been so pounded in that what’s supposed to be objectionable about her no longer needs be spelled out. She’s been made into a symbol rather than a person.) Pelosi got a bit of a reprieve when Hillary Clinton ran for president. I don’t think it’s an accident that the two most politicized Democrats—by Republicans—in recent years have been women.  

It’s simply a fact that the Republicans are better at attack politics than the Democrats are. And I mean that without a value judgment. If a Democrat occupying the Oval Office had done any one of the following things, all hell would have broken loose from the Republicans: allegedly, but a charge with solid documentation, buying the silence of a person (or maybe more) with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; refusing to implement a law to put new sanctions on an opposing country for having messed with our last presidential election; and presiding over a White House staff with more than a hundred people who lacked security clearances, many of them obviously requiring such a clearance to do their job.

The list could go on, but this, too, is all part of the matter of messaging, and who does it better—whether or not that’s a positive thing. Consider the difference between the dangers supposedly posed by Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server at her home while she was secretary of state and dozens of people without a security clearance in highly sensitive jobs seeing the most classified material anyway. (There’s also been a substantial difference in the attention of the press to these two matters, but that can be at least partly explained by the overload of scandals produced by the Trump administration.)

I also find it baffling that Democrats haven’t noisily taken on Trump for refusing to implement a law passed overwhelmingly by Congress that allows him to impose new sanctions on Russia. It was a law Trump opposed, but had to sign because a veto would have been overridden. The Republicans have traditionally been adept at seeing threats to the national security in the administrations of Democratic presidents, but it would seem that in the case of the current Republican administration, Democrats have been strangely quiet on this subject. By and large they’ve been relatively restrained about Trump’s odd deference to Vladimir Putin. What is it, it’s widely wondered, that Putin has on him? The president, lacking subtlety in general, has been blatant in his soft-pedaling of whatever outrageous things Putin has done, which include even undermining the cornerstone of our democracy.

Are the Democrats putting all their eggs in Robert Mueller’s investigation? What if something is evident but not legally provable? (This was the case in Watergate until almost the very end—with people demanding “a smoking gun” in a room full of smoke. Though it’s worth noting that even without the late discovery of a scrap of a transcript proving that Nixon had obstructed justice, the Congress was very likely to impeach him and remove him from office.) Are the current Democrats going to let Trump and his increasingly dependent Republican Congress define what happened? If the situation were reversed—if a Democratic president presented a long stream of evidence that he was under the sway of the head of a hostile country—would the decibel level of the Republicans match that of the Democrats at this time?  

The criticism that the Democrats lack a message often specifies that they lack an economic one. Trump perceived and played successfully on people’s economic anxieties (why the Democratic presidential candidate missed that remains mystifying), and many Democrats themselves worry about their ability to out-Trump Trump in this November’s elections. Whatever other issues are in the air, our elections—one way or another—are virtually always about the state of the economy. 

A big problem with the fixation on messaging is that it can become a substitute for action. Sheldon Whitehouse, a two-term Democratic senator from Rhode Island, holds a somewhat unconventional view about messaging. Whitehouse, one of the more authentic figures on Capitol Hill, says, “Messaging has become a crutch; it’s like a narcotic. You can bring in your pollster, you can strategize until you’re blue in the face; and you’re inauthentic. You’re placating the public rather than leading. I think the people know the difference.” Whitehouse added, “Once you get addicted to the drug, you put your polling ahead of your performance.” He believes that too often Democrats have walked away from a fight for fear of upsetting some important figure, or don’t want to take on a battle unless they’re sure that they’ll win it. Whitehouse believes that the message comes from taking action, from fighting the good fight, rather than sitting through hours of meetings, studying charts and graphs about the public’s views.

When the Democrats met at Mount Vernon at the end of January this year, they went through what’s become a common ritual: a display of five “real people,” like creatures in a zoo, plus an interlocutor to ascertain what these real people think about the issues of the day. It’s as if the politicians otherwise never encounter a normal human being. Much is made of these people’s comments—in the moment. But one wonders how much lasting wisdom emanates from such an exercise. I should think that fairly frequent town halls and accessibility would be at least as instructive.

As Whitehouse points out, such exercises can have a purpose that’s somewhat disturbing. It can be less to understand how “real people” feel about the issues and more for the purpose of “getting them to think the way we want them to,” he says. Has politics thus been turned upside down? Who is leading whom? Canned politicians aren’t nearly as appealing as fresh ones.

What ever happened to instinct? Or taking a chance? The poll-strapped candidate usually comes off as too designing—an experience this country had recently. A danger is that ostensibly authentic candidates can be less real than they pretend to be. Scoundrels can get into the act of faux populism—sometimes successfully, as we know. Which is what makes the real thing all the more necessary.