Why Democrats Keep Losing the White House
This excellent article by Drew Westen doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said a million times. Everything he says has already been covered in countless psychology and political science classes. And yet these basic lessons just don’t seem to sink in.
In order to win an election, you MUST reach out and connect with the voters EMOTIONALLY. All Democratic candidates — write that sentence on the blackboard five hundred times.
Republican candidates and consultants know this basic fact inside out, backwards and forwards. Bill Clinton is the only Democrat of the past 45 years who knows it. Why do you think Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got elected to the White House? Because of a 72-point plan for security and prosperity? Most voters liked them — or at least they liked the images that their campaign managers crafted for them.
In 2004, John Kerry gave a list of logical dispassionate reasons that his policies were better than George W. Bush’s. Then Karl Rove yelled out “Gay Marriage!!!” and guess who won the election. Michael Dukakis gave crystal clear explanations of his plans and ideas. George H.W. Bush yelled “Willie Horton!” and won the election. Four years later Bush himself got driven out of the White House by the more folksy and likeable Bill Clinton. And so on…
Molly Ivins had a column several years ago saying that all political candidates should have a little “Elvis.” She said Bill Bradley’s problem was that he was “all substance and no Elvis.”
As Drew Westen puts it: “Think Michael Dukakis. Think Al Gore. Think John Kerry. They all ran on laundry lists. They never told coherent stories about themselves or their opponents. I can't for the life of me remember the narratives any of them laid out about why we should vote for them instead of their opponent. But I remember clearly the stories their GOP rivals told…Armed with nothing but laundry lists, all three Democrats got taken to the cleaners. It didn't matter that the public agreed with them on most of the issues.”
And forget all that drivel about “taking the high road” and “not dignifying an attack by responding to it.” If the Rightwing Noise Machine launches a smear campaign, Fight Back Goddamnit! Westen says:
“Consider the case of George W. Bush, whose life story telegraphed everything voters needed to know to make an informed decision about him: He had dodged the Vietnam-era draft while avidly supporting the war; he had drunk his way through much of his adulthood, even while he had young children at home; he had shown extraordinary incompetence in the business world; his campaign had smeared Sen. John McCain with stories about mental instability and an allegedly illegitimate baby to get Bush through the South Carolina primary in 2000; and he had mocked a fellow born-again Christian whom he put to death as governor of Texas. It was quite a story. The problem was that the Democrats wouldn't tell it…When you hear a pollster or strategist say, ‘We've got 'em beat on the issues,’ you know you're on the dispassionate river, and you know you're going under…voters disagreed with Ronald Reagan on about 75 percent of the issues. But they liked him.”
Westen describes a hypothetical successful Democratic contender for 2008: “They drink from the wellsprings of partisan sentiments, which account for more than 80 percent of votes. They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in. They don't say, ‘Karl Rove needs to testify under oath about the CIA leak case because we must have a transcript.’ Rather, when the president invokes executive privilege, they ask, with righteous indignation: ‘Mr. Bush, just what is it about ‘So help me God’ that you find so offensive?’”
So how does our current crop of White House contenders look? Is there anybody out there who reaches out and grabs you?