Who Hijacked Our Country

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

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?

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29 Comments:

Blogger Larry said...

Good post:

Lets face it there are no charismatic candidates in this race, and Edwards probably comes ahead in that dept, but not by much.

The sad thing is the media, an offset of Corporate America have the candidates already chosen.

They just haven't told us who will win in the end.

September 4, 2007 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Larry: Yeah, I think you've got it dialed. The MSM and their corporate puppetmasters probably have the election already decided, and they just haven't told us yet.

September 4, 2007 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

I would think the MSM has probably decided the Dem nomination for Clinton, and decided the 08 election for Fred Thompson or Rudy Giuliani.

Good article, I think the points made are valid. When the Dems nominated Kerry, my immediate thought was "This guy can't win. He can't relate to average Americans. We've just been handed four more years of Dumbya!", etc.

It isn't like a candidate needs to dumb his or her vocabulary down or anything like that. The Dem candidate just needs to do what this author says, to tell personal stories with which voters can relate. Everyone has a story, and we all probably agree on more things than we disagree on... If it means being "folksy" or whatever, so be it. But the author is right... the GOP does whatever it takes to win, and that's why they tend to win presidential elections.

September 4, 2007 at 5:38 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Snave: That sounds like a good guess -- Clinton vs. either Giuliani or Thompson, and Clinton losing. I think we all knew Kerry was toast the minute he got the nomination. I think Kerry himself even said that no matter how dull he was, he'd win because so many people would vote against Bush. Didn't work.

That author is right -- Democrats get complacent because the public agrees with them on most issues. Then they nominate a dullard who gets trounced. This happens way too often. I hope they can change this pattern before 2008.

September 4, 2007 at 6:05 PM  
Blogger Mile High Pixie said...

ooooh! I like that "so help me God" line! Wish I'd thought it up so I can use it!

Indeed, my Dems need to figure out how to schmooze and get likeable. You may have the greatest ideas int he world, but they don't amount to a hill of beans if you can't get into the White House in the first place. And frankly, they need to take a page from many comedians out there--you can take the high road by first cutting the other guy's legs out from under him with a good one-liner, *then* you follow it up with an intelligent comment. Maybe the intelligent comment might get forgotten, but a good oneliner won't, and *that's* what people remember the morning after the debate. Recall Lloyd Bentsen's "You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy" comment to Dan Quayle. Quayle may have won the White House, but boy did he lose that debate and forever got himself the reputation of being an incopetent unintelligent poser.

September 4, 2007 at 7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After the 2004 election with giddy republican strategist interviewed by NPR were giving the same advice, you have to appeal to the people and get rid of the "interest groups", which means the Democrats must get rid of their core base like Labor, Poor and People of Color something the Republicans never ever picked up on.

I don't believe that, I still don't believe the way to win elections is to cheat, lie and invoke fear (like Willie Horton, Terrorism and the big bad Government) that the republicans have done.

The problem is the big issues call for frank talk and that does go not over, the republicans are masters of the simple but meaningless phrases (like Tax and Spend, and Weapons of mass destruction)that blow the whole thing out of water.

There are Charismatic people (did you forget Obama?) as well as Edwards and Richardson who are getting around, getting through and talking about real issues.

If we can remind bible belters again and again that Larry Craig and Mark Foley were Christians, bring up Tom Delay and Randy Cunningham again and again, take heart that someone like Ted Stevens is probably the next one to go. Move-on would be happy to run national ads to do some dirty work and hammer that through. If not the presidency then a stronger majority in Congress.

In a California State wide election the Republicans usually get a moderate who does very well with a centrist message, he blows it everytime when the far right comes collection and demands equal time, the media picks up on it (there's no effort to hide it) and the people see his true colors, that's how Boxer wins every time.

Even Governor Arnold got in trouble by calling the teachers and nurses "special interest groups" c'mon

Bill Clinton won by centering on the economy and was helped by a stumbling incumbent with denial.

W was the same and I sat there as Gore and Kerry laid off instead of going for the jugular like Mondale (Which would have worked on anyone but Reagan)and Clinton did. Which does that always mean out and out attack but driving the point home and putting a period on it.

In my observation the public respect a person with a strong conviction, even if he's a nut! When HW Bush hammered at Dukakis about being a Liberal and he stood there with his deer in the headlights look, Willie Horton put the icing on the cake.

Fear of No Health Care
Fear of Jobs imported over seas
Handle immigration by going after the people that hire them.
Your Privacy IS important and we're going to tell you why
Terrorism is better fought at home
They raided Social Security, we're going to bring it back
Look at their "morals" record
and the war in Iraq.

Erik

September 4, 2007 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Mile High Pixie: Yeah, that "so help me God" line is great. That's exactly the kind of gut-level emotional phrasing the Democrats will need if they want the White House. Clinton did it, but it didn't rub off on any of his would-be successors.

That Lloyd Bentsen line was classic; definitely the most memorable part of that 1988 campaign.

Erik: No, they don't need to lie or cheat or ditch their core supporters. They just need to express themselves in a conversational manner, like any time two or 3 people get together and shoot the shit. Nobody talks like Bill Bradley or John Kerry when they're just chatting with friends; if they did they wouldn't have any friends. Democrats need to phrase things in a way that grabs the listener.

Your examples at the end of your comment are exactly what they need to do: Fear of being without health care or being bankrupted by their medical bills. The reason Sicko was a huge hit was that Michael Moore gave this issue a gut-wrenching presentation. If the movie consisted of Bill Bradley reading a bunch of statistics, everybody would fall asleep in the theater. We need to create fear and anger toward being spied on by Big Brother; fear of being dropped by your insurance company if you get sick; anger and fury toward phony "family values" types who don't practice what they preach.

The Democrats' message is good, but they need to know how to present it.

September 4, 2007 at 10:57 PM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

I don't think Chimpy belongs in the "won" column. There is way too much evidence (and an indisputable popular vote) that says Al Gore beat him in 2000, any way you want to look at it.

Rigging elections is not "winning," and what happened in 2000 and 2004 aren't really good examples of how to "win" an election.

September 5, 2007 at 1:18 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Jolly Roger: No argument there -- the 2000 election (and probably 2004 too) was stolen. But the fact remains that most Democrats are too cerebral and too wonkish in their approach, and this approach doesn't connect with lots of voters.

September 5, 2007 at 1:38 AM  
Blogger Candace said...

Don't forget Obama. He's charismatic. He touches people emotionally. Have you watched his speeches? Rememeber how he energized the convention? Record crowds are attending wherever he goes (20,000 in Austin.) Record numbers of people are giving him money, even in denominations as small as $5.00. People who never considered themselves political are getting involved in his campaign. People who've never voted before are registering just so they can vote for him.

Not only charasmatic, the man is smart. Have you read The Audacity of Hope yet? I doubt anyone who has read it can then say that the man is too inexperienced to run this country.

I'm seeing here and there that the DNC is getting worried about Clinton's lack of electibility. Damn, are they just now realizing that? There are people who would get out of their death beds to vote against her. It isn't fair, or right, but it's the reality.

Obama, OTOH, is known for his bipartisanship, his ability to reach across the aisle, both in the U.S. Senate, and while he served the Illinois Senate for six years. The man got things done by consensus. What a concept!

He appeals very much to Independents and moderate Republicans. Let's not write him off just yet. :)

http://www.barackobama.com

Back to regular programming ...

September 5, 2007 at 9:03 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

Check out this article on Post Mortem America.

Post Mortem America

September 5, 2007 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

Jolly Roger: No argument there -- the 2000 election (and probably 2004 too) was stolen. But the fact remains that most Democrats are too cerebral and too wonkish in their approach, and this approach doesn't connect with lots of voters.

In 2000, apparently they did all right, and in 2004, extroardinary measures had to be used to present a repeat.

Without these criminal bums at the top, we might be writing about why it is Goppers can't win. The last 4 elections, in all likelihood, were won (or would have been won) by dems.

September 5, 2007 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Candace: Yes, I think Obama has more of that emotional connection with voters than any other candidate; plus a lot of substance. Fred Thompson (from what I've read) also connects emotionally, but I don't think there's much below the surface.

I just hope his race and his Moslem name won't keep him from getting elected. The rightwing smear machine can be pretty clever about playing the race card in subtle ways, without being blatant enough to look or sound racist. They're already having a field day with his middle name being Hussein (even though that's the Arabic equivalent of Smith or Jones) and that Islamic school he supposedly went to. And there are lots of dumb voters out there who fall for that kind of propaganda.

He's probably our best hope; I just hope he can rise above the rightwing smear attacks.

Larry: Pretty gruesome article. I hope it isn't too late and the damage isn't irrepairable.

September 5, 2007 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger Candace said...

Tom, I agree - no doubt they'll play the race card against Obama. The so-called Moslem school has been debunked, but of course that doesn't mean a thing to the Right wingers. But I think that the only people to whom Obama's race and Moslem name will matter are the ones who watch Faux News, anyway. They won't vote for anyone besides the Republican front-runner.

Here's the thing, though: There doesn't seem to be the hatred out there among (some) Repos, Dems, and Independents for Obama as there is for Clinton. Research is showing that although Clinton leads Obama, at present, among Democrats, it is Obama who wins against the Repo candidates, not Clinton.

I just saw and WSJ article saying that a lot of former Bill Clinton advisers are on the Obama team, advising on everything from AIDS to foreign policy. Why are they not on Hillary Clinton's team? Interesting.

I personally have nothing against Hillary Clinton. I think she'd be an okay president, and I'd love to have lived long enough to see a woman in the Whitehouse (and jeebus, how could she possibly be any worse than what we've got now?). I also think it would be a hoot to have Bill Clinton as our "First Lady." :) He's such a ham, he'd love it, and he could do a lot of good traveling around to other countries repairing the damage done. However, I'm afraid Sen. Clinton is going to be a huge liability for the Democratic party if it turns out she's the front-runner. It's an electibility issue for me.

Besides, I really believe Obama is the best candidate in the field for reasons already stated. (His wife, Michelle, seems like the real deal, too.)

September 5, 2007 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Candace said...

P.S.: I forgot to mention that the repeat of Obama's appearance on The Daily Show is tonight.

Signing off now...

September 5, 2007 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger Mentarch said...

"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."

Yup. 'Nuff said! ;-)

September 5, 2007 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Candace: That's true, the people who would hold his race and religion against him probably wouldn't vote for him anyway.

Some of Bill Clinton's former advisors are now working for Hillary? Uh oh, I wonder how Hillary likes that. Bill is probably sleeping on the couch (or maybe he already has been since 1998). I'll try to catch the Daily Show tonight.

September 5, 2007 at 2:59 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Mentarch: Yup, something needs to be done to make them grasp that simple message.

September 5, 2007 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger LET'S TALK said...

After viewing what has been going on in California, I wont be surprised if we see another election swiped away before we know what happened.

There's a lot of time for anything and anyone to become the front runner in both parties. I think after January, we will be down to a few remaining to run for President, if Bush allows it...we all know how he can put a stop to it, if he so please and there's nothing we can do about it.

Great post Tom.

September 5, 2007 at 6:55 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Let's Talk: You mean that initiative on the California ballot, for dividing up the electoral votes? That really sucks, but I can't imagine the voters passing it.

But we have to watch our backs. There's nothing the neocons won't stoop to.

September 5, 2007 at 8:45 PM  
Blogger PoliShifter said...

Maybe they should all don southern accents, jeans, button up flannels, and drive around the country in a old beatup pickup truck.

September 5, 2007 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger LET'S TALK said...

You make a great point Tom. There is nothing the neocons want stoop to, and whatever the Democrats come up with, had better be more than that laundry list others failed with.

Clinton as you say, had a platform and a drive that only Bush and other Republican candidates have had in the pass.

Edwards had better get more of a punch or drive behind him, just in case he is the nominee. He cannot let his wife be the voice for him and he has to park that nice guy role to play hardball with the Republican nominee.

September 5, 2007 at 9:37 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

PoliShifter: Yeah, there you go. And don't forget a stack of Bibles and a bunch of fire and brimstone phrases.

Let's Talk: True, Edwards is another candidate (probably the only other one besides Obama) who connects with voters emotionally. He has lots of first person stories, etc. But if he can't get away from his "pretty boy" image (which the Right is playing to the hilt) he won't have much of a chance. Like you say, if he plays hardball and comes out swinging, that'll help.

September 6, 2007 at 12:38 AM  
Blogger Mike V. said...

I have to say that the only candidate that speaks to me is Dennis Kucinich and I think that we should be supporting him.
I will NEVER support Senator Clinton, and I think the other media-assigned "front-runners" are not much better.
Dennis is the one that hits on all the points that are important to Americans that are not plutocrats.

September 6, 2007 at 6:23 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Mike: I agree with Kucinich but I don't think he has a chance. He's too far to the left even for a lot of Democrats, and he has that dry cerebral approach that turns off so many voters. Now if he could hire an image consultant to help him with his body language, tone of voice and phrasing...

September 6, 2007 at 8:02 PM  
Blogger Mauigirl said...

Excellent points. In fact, when you mentioned Dukakis, Gore and Kerry in one sentence I saw exactly what you're talking about. And in comparison, Bill Clinton, who truly could "feel your pain" and make you believe it. He had that bit of "Elvis" that Molly was talking about. Sadly, I don't think anyone has it now - except maybe Elizabeth Edwards, and unfortunately, she's not the one who's running.

September 9, 2007 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Mauigirl: Unfortunately I think Fred Thompson might be the only "Elvis" candidate out there. But at some point he's gonna have to actually say something instead of just standing there and preening.

Obama has that "Elvis" quality too, but can a Black man with a Moslem name get elected?

September 9, 2007 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger Mauigirl said...

Sadly, I agree that Obama has an uphill battle to get elected. Even among the people I know who are very positive to him, there are doubts that he is expererienced enough. An Obama-Clinton ticket might be interesting but very polarizing.

I'm hoping Fred Thompson will fade now that he's finally announced his candidacy. There's nothing more appealing than the blank slate, especially when the slate is a known TV actor. But if his positions aren't unique or ownable, I'm hoping he goes away.

Regarding the previous comments about the 2000 and 2004 elections being stolen, yes, I agree. But 2000 shouldn't have even been CLOSE. Gore should have blown away W, who was so inexperienced and inarticulate. Gore was part of an administration that had presided over peace, prosperity and budget surpluses. He should have been able to walk all over George W. Bush. But he didn't. He even lost his HOME STATE. He made bad decisions, such as not letting Bill Clinton campaign for him. By distancing himself from Clinton he lost the credit for the prosperity. And on top of that didn't have the charisma to make people comfortable.

I am extremely concerned about the movement being propagated in California to divide the delegates. This would be a death knell for any hope of a Democratic victory.

September 10, 2007 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Mauigirl: I think Fred Thompson will fade away after he has to start taking stands and answering questions. Reagan had that "Elvis" charisma, but he also stood for certain principles (which I didn't agree with).

I agree, Gore really blew it in 2000. Between all his flipflops, his wooden personality and refusing to let Clinton help him -- like they say, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

I don't think that California initiative will be a threat. It has to be passed by the voters, and from what I've read, even Schwarzenegger is against it.

September 10, 2007 at 4:22 PM  

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