Off Message

Anne Martens

Democrats have no appeal.  The people who point things out have pointed out that we lost values voters, white guys, suburbs, exurbs, security moms, people who favor civil unions for gays, anybody within a fifty-foot radius of a bible, most of middle America, and a majority of all of America.  Other pointer-outers right here on BlueOregon have pointed out many a thing that we ought to be doing to fix it all.  With the understanding that I probably don't know what I'm talking about, here's my eight cents.

Amidst the uber-tolerant whining of how we have values too, the populist accusations of how a Massachusetts elitist liberal can never win (we match the right on this one), the condescension of latte-lubed metrosexuals on how the unurbs are just plain stupid, and the stubborn tunnel-vision of conspiracy theorists on how the vote must be rigged or the media must be hypnotic because we couldn't possibly have really lost, is a stunning lack of comprehension of that fact that people want to believe in something, in anything, that's definable, communicable, concrete but also sacred.

The Republicans have been giving people what the people want to hear in the way they want to hear it.  The Democrats have not.

So after criticizing all the people who point out the things we did wrong, here I am with another thing we did wrong.  Oh well.  It's cathartic.  In the interest of full-disclosure, it should be noted that I spend my days as a press person, and that may be why I find the concept of messaging so intriguing.  Ok, here we go.

One of the things that I hate about politics (and advertising) is that you can't actually say what you really believe.  Messages are committee-developed, poll-tested and consultant-approved before they are permitted to circulate.  It's fascinating as a comment on social behavior and control, but depressing as a comment on individualism and critical thinking. So we as surrogates and followers talk ourselves into believing the message, instead of making the message out of what we really believe.

Repetition works.  It gets into your head and you don't even realize it.  Some study from a reliable source that I don't feel like looking up found that adults have to hear a phrase six times before they remember it.  John Kerry has (had) a plan.  Anyone with a radio can parrot the location of their nearest Shane Company.  And none of this mindless repetition sparks anything like the passion necessary to fuel true belief.

The GOP echo chamber is immensely effective at incessant message hammering.  They've got the repetition thing down, but they also use messengers with emotion, fire, and occasional brimstone.  That passion breeds the appeal, the commitment and motivation that brings their people (and some of our people) to their polls.

I'm not so silly as to think that politicians will ever be allowed to say what they really believe.  And I'm not convinced that copying the GOP strategy, while effective for them, would necessarily work for us.  But I am sick of regular people thinking that they need to be taught how to communicate by party proselytizers, grassroots trainers, or other self-proclaimed experts.  Most people, when speaking what they truly believe, put a palpable passion behind it that makes what they are saying more powerful, more understandable, more interesting, and more appealing.  These speakers are the ones that we should look to when developing our message.  And these messages are the ones that will convince.

Like Randy, tell me where you come from that makes you believe what you believe.  Every issue boils down to a value judgement.  We should be telling people how we came to the beliefs that we hold.  What led you to: decide to look outside of organized religion, realize that gay people and black people and all identity-defined people are really just people, determine where the line should be drawn between a right and a privilege, learn to tolerate differences of opinion?  These personal experiences, in your own words and backed by your own passion, are the extraordinary values, the definable sacred, to which other people can relate.  That's how we win on message, on culture, and on values.

  • Jarrett (unverified)

    Bravo! Yes, beliefs are formed and solidified and negotiated mostly outside of the political arena. Setting aside the doctrinaire religious conservatives, most people who vote conservative are, I believe, motivated by a deeply felt sense of what seems right to them, based on their own life experience, just as most on the left are.

    For example, on gay rights, it's clear that people form and evolve their beliefs based on their own experience of knowing gay people, and that happens one-by-one, at the dinner table, within families and friendships. And it's only one-on-one that I, as an environmentalist, can hear and honor the experience of someone who lost most of the value of his land when it was declared a wildlife corridor, or excluded from a UGB, or whatever. If I hear that, I have more credibility in speaking for why those "bureaucratic intrusions" serve a purpose that is also important to him.

    So invite a conservative friend to dinner! Bring them into your circle of friends, and accept invitations into theirs. Go duck hunting with one, if you have to. (Aim for Canada geese, they're overpopulated anyway.)



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    Solid points all. As a lawyer, we're taught to be able to argue both sides of an argument - not to be able to do it on the fly so much as to understand the other side's point of view. Understanding that allows you to craft a superior message to rebut the other side's argument and make your side appeal to more people. I think the same principle is helpful in our current situation.

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    Anne, you said, "One of the things that I hate about politics (and advertising) is that you can't actually say what you really believe. Messages are committee-developed, poll-tested and consultant-approved before they are permitted to circulate..." and "I'm not so silly as to think that politicians will ever be allowed to say what they really believe."

    Of course, that's not really true. At least, it shouldn't be -- and for winning campaigns, it's not. It's an unfortunate thing that this caricature of consultants and flacks has become accepted wisdom - even among people who are supposed to be professional consultants and flacks.

    Here's the rub: You're confusing message consistency (which is good) with bland 'committee-developed' message (which is bad). Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) once famously said, "Campaigns are won by the candidate with the discipline to say the same thing in the same way over and over and over again." He's right - but that doesn't mean that the message that's repeated for each audience needs to be stripped of all its passion.

    An example: Bill Clinton, 1992. He had message control and passion. During the '92 campaign (and mostly, for the rest of his eight year presidency) he had obsessive message control. [Remember the War Room 'haiku'? "Change vs. more of the same. It's the Economy, Stupid. Don't forget health care."] Now, every single speech, every debate question got answered along those lines -- but he was passionate and real and spoke from the gut/heart.

    Another example: Bob Graham, 2004. He had message control, but no passion. On and on and on he droned about Afghanistan (for) versus Iraq (against) but he sounded like he was droning on about municipal trash collection policy.

    A third example: Al Sharpton, 2004. Lots of passion, but no message control. 'Nuff said.

    Final example: Joe Lieberman, 2004. No passion, no message control. That's how you end up with Joe-mentum.

    A good consultant helps the candidate find his/her passion, express it clearly, and then hammers that message home. A bad consultant tries to cram the candidate into a little box that's uncomfortable for them and strips their message down into little poll-tested idiocies. Say, someone like Bob Shrum, who loves lofty rhetoric that's devoid of passion and meaning.

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    Sorry to go all Tenskwatawa on you all, but here it is. Rub some dirt on it, stand up, and learn:

    First, MyDD:

    "If the Democrats in the House want to regain the majority before the next historical cycle gives them a break in 2012, they will start picking a fight. Not in the halls of Congress, but out in the street, out in the CD's."

    Next, a person who's quickly becoming the conscience of this party, Markos Zuniga:

    "How did Matsunaka get so close? A Colorado 527 ran a series of ads, in which an actress portraying Musgrave picked the pockets of a corpse in a funeral home, a soldier fighting in Iraq, and a bunch of children. The ads outraged Republicans and far too many Democrats, but they were viciously effective.

    Negative ads work. And Democrats will need to stop being afraid to wield them. The moralists in the GOP have no problem with going hard negative. Dems should stop crying when the other side goes negative, and instead make sure to be the FIRST to go negative."

    Finally, the incomparable Steve Soto:

    "A message for those of you in the Christian Right: your devotion to God does not give you a free pass to be in a cult that is uninformed by choice, and unconcerned about economic hardship and social injustice next door, while you allow our soldiers to die for your SUV. Get over it; you are a right winger, and no different from that corporate slimeball or Bush Administration appointee who is willing to destroy this country and our communities just so he can make an extra buck while cloaking themselves in a phony moral superiority. Wrapping yourself in Jesus doesn't change that fact."


  • Jeff Alworth (unverified)

    After watching a relevant Frontline about this on Tuesday, I have been meaning to get a post up on this. Possibly today. In any case, there's one more element of the consistency argument that's critical. The GOP not only have clear, easily-expressed messages, but they have a vast network of think tankers and media flacks fronting larger arguments about those sound bites. The result is that when a Republican talks about wanting a "smaller government," voters understand, thanks to Limbaugh and Cato and countless politicians, what this means.

    If I were to fault Kerry for anything (and I'm very reluctant to--I thought he ran a wonderful campaign), it's that he didn't stick with his 3-4 sound bites and hammer them the whole way. There's a big role for people like bloggers and voters here. We can help form that network of voices making the Democratic argument so that the sound bite has resonance. But right now we are a party with many threads and no themes.

    I'll stop here--post to come later...

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    As a former political press person myself, I do think that Anne is on to something here. In the interests of communicating the right message to as broad an audience as possible, the messenger (politician) is often urged to go against their own instincts and beliefs. Not just by press people, but by campaign managers, policy people and others around them.

    I'm often intrigued by politicians who seem to be able to communicate complex messages that don't seem "poll-tested and voter-approved" and who somehow gain a reputation as a maverick in the process. They are often popular despite what you would think are controversial beliefs. I'm thinking of people like John McCain and our own Randy Leonard, who often say things that those on the right or left object to but remain electable.

    I know John McCain has flaws (witness his lukewarm support for President Bush's campaign this year) and that his own Presidential bid failed, but it seems to me when he stands up to his own party and the Administration and talks about the dangers of global warming, he gains more political capital, not less.

    I guess I'm arguing for freeing our politicians up to say controversial things that voters may not agree with, but allow them to show the courage of their convictions. We still may lose, but hey, we'll be showing those values voters that we have values, too.

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    Hear, hear, Leslie!

    "I guess I'm arguing for freeing our politicians up to say controversial things that voters may not agree with, but allow them to show the courage of their convictions."

    I'd be happy with a politician who's not constrained on what to say by flacks and handlers during the campaign, and who speaks his or her mind to lobbyists, colleagues and committee witnesses once in office.

    Truman didn't seem to be afraid to call a dumbass a dumbass.

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    With respect to Kari's position, when Anne says,

    "So we as surrogates and followers talk ourselves into believing the message, instead of making the message out of what we really believe."

    it really rings true with me. Nuance and caution are the most distasteful part of political activism for me, altough I absolutely understand the necessity of this approach to communication.

    I can't count the number of times that I had to defend candidate statements and positions with which I disagreed, or the number of conversations I had with members of the "great unwashed", where they made valid points opposing my guys and I was left to start from a weak "yes but" for my rebuttals.


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