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Is progressive messaging a massive botch?

By Joe Romm  

"Is progressive messaging a massive botch?"

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Part 3: How bad messaging creates a self-fulfillling failure of will.

Here’s an anonymous Senate staffer in an email published by TPM Josh Marshall:

The worst is that I can’t help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They’re afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That’s the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.

Nowhere could that be clearer than in climate and clean energy jobs bill.

The public support for action — including by a clear majority of independents and even many Republicans — could not be stronger as poll and poll makes clear.  And still we see the likes of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pointlessly back-pedaling on this straight-out political winner.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise from her — she clearly doesn’t get the paramount importance of averting catastrophic global warming (see “Sen. Feinstein’s scuttling of solar, wind projects a baffling mistake“).  But I don’t understand why some top climate scientists, a number of whom live and work in California, haven’t visited her to spell out what unrestricted emissions will do to that great state — see Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California,” Part 2.

If there is no comprehensive bill this year, and it was an iffy proposition before the Massachusetts Senate debacle, the main reasons will continue to be the polluter-backed disinformation campaign and anti-science ideologues.  But a related reason will be the “massive botch” of progressive messaging — see Part 1 and Part 2 (and yes, I will start laying out the positive message in the next week).

So here’s the whole email from the Senate staffer — and I welcome (anonymous) emails from any Hill staffers (current or former) who might take a different view:

I certainly wouldn’t want to indicate I have any unique insight on how everyone feels around this place but I thought you might be interested in how one Senate staffer is feeling.

My background is like probably the majority of staffers I know. I came to DC, from a far superior climate and quality of life, because I wanted to save the world. I arrived, and took a job in the House, at what I still view as the nadir of Congress – in 1996. Republicans had recently taken over Congress and had 230 seats in the House and 52 in the Senate. Democrats were in a state of shock and we watched (because that was essentially all we could do) in horror as they systematically went after nearly every institution of civil governance culminating in nearly removing the President from office via an entirely trumped-up charge. They had destroyed the Democrats in 1994 because they simply couldn’t deliver – the BTU tax went down, health care went down, and finally the Crime Bill failed because it had such laughably wacky ideas as “midnight basketball” as a crime prevention measure (something with is widely approved of today and is completely noncontroversial). As a young LA, it was amazingly dispiriting. Literally nothing we proposed could get passed – we couldn’t even get votes. Every bill came to the floor under a closed rule so we couldn’t propose amendments and our Senate colleagues faced a full amendment tree on every bill such that unless they had Republican patron they couldn’t get votes either. Kennedy fought like hell for things like minimum wage and sometimes could arm-wrestle a procedural vote win out of them but things would just die in the hands of the Hammer in the House. Eventually, my boss got fed up and retired and I went over to the Administration where I thought I might be able to get more accomplished.

Even there, in a Democratic Administration, we faced constant battles as anything remotely beneficial to the public or in keeping with our mission was forcibly outsourced by the Congress or investigated into near-paralysis. The Republican Majority in the House had steadily eroded so that by the end of the Clinton years they had only a 5 seat cushion (223) in the House, but their strong majority in the Senate (55) kept them firmly in control. Then, when Bush took over in the wake of the most disputable election imaginable, the political appointees flooded in and began reversing policies (including policies promulgated by previous Republican administrations) as if they were exercising the overwhelming mandate of the people. Republicans barely kept the House with 221 seats and only held on to the Senate via Cheney’s tie breaking vote on the organizing resolution. I left to start a family.

Despite Jeffords’ flip, and the razor-thin majority in the House, the Democrats dealt no significant losses to President Bush and his agenda went essentially unchecked, and nominations were processed efficiently and quickly (after all, the people had spoken!). The only arguable exception I can think of right now is that the Administration was unable to push through drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but they actually did put it on reconciliation, they just lost too many Republicans to win. I returned to being in the Minority on the Hill, on the Senate side this time and as staff to an important Committee, and Republicans now had a 51-seat Majority in the Senate and had strengthened in the House to a mighty 229 seats. We fought valiantly to slow them down but were unsuccessful in stopping a one-sided energy bill, escalation of a needless war in Iraq, and continued erosion of the social safety net and de-funding of civil institutions through tax cuts for the well-off. We got occasional fig leaves, and maybe could get a witness or two included in a hearing, but were essentially not a part of the final discussions to put together bills. I dreamed that if only we could get two Senate seat takeaways, then we could finally take the reigns back – after all, poll after poll showed the American people agreed with us on nearly every issue. In 2004 we would surely break through to the public – we had neutralized them on their central issue by nominating a war hero and people were desperate for health care and education reforms. We had moved away from that scary Howard Dean fellow and were now proposing only modest reforms to health care, more tax cuts, and deficit reduction (don’t worry, never at the expense of the Pentagon!). How could we lose? Republicans strengthened their majorities to 55 Senators and 232 House Members and I almost lost my job as the now-overwhelming Republican Majority in the Senate increased their allocation of the office space and staff salaries. Now a majority was a faraway dream and the best we could hope for was a few sympathetic Republicans on a few issues that might help us at least expose what they were doing (and we did manage to beat back drilling in Arctic again).

Unexpectedly, public mood did finally begin to sour on the wars and deficits agenda in 2006 and we were able to eek out victories in MT and VA so that we could take a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate (including a dicey vote from Lieberman) and a massive 233-202 Majority in the House. Of course, we’d have to cautious and trim our sails a bit since Bush still was President and we had several skittish votes in the Caucus, but the American People were giving us a shot. We suffered some disappointments but we did about as well as could be expected in the Senate, but at least we were making progress and, though I had to trim my ambitions a bit, I was finally writing provisions that were becoming law. On balance, it was a good Congress, but I dreamed of having big majorities like 55 Senators so that we could really do the stuff we’ve all been waiting for.

A wave election hit us in 2008 where we not only had overwhelming majorities of 59 seats in the Senate (once Republicans finally got around to letting us seat Franken) and 257 seats in the House (returning us to the same power level as when we ruled the House with inpugnity in 1992-3) but, most importantly, a President who was explicitly elected on an agenda of “change.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wrench the wheel away from the abyss and really deliver on our promises. It was disheartening when it seemed that Reid was allowing McConnell’s disingenuous narrative of “it’s always taken 60 votes to get anything done” to take hold, but we were later even saved from that when Specter switched. But it seems we’ve spent the entire year moving our own goalposts farther away. Things have gotten so bad that in roaming the halls today it feels exactly as if we lost the Majority last night.

The worst is that I can’t help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They’re afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That’s the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.

I believe President Clinton provided some crucial insight when he said, “people would rather be with someone who is strong and wrong than weak and right.” It’s not that people are uninterested in who’s right or wrong, it’s that people will only follow leaders who seem to actually believe in what they are doing. Democrats have missed this essential fact.

The stimulus bill in the spring showed us what was coming. In the face of a historic economic crisis, Democrats negotiated against themselves at the outset and subsequently yielded to absurd demands from self-described “moderates” to trim the package to a clearly inadequate level. No one made any rational argument about why a lower level was better. It would have been trivial to write “claw-back” provisions if the stimulus turned out to be too much or we could have done a rescission this year to give these moderates their victory, but none of this was on the table. We essentially looked like we didn’t know what the right answer was so we just kinda went for what we could get. This formula was repeated in spades in both the Climate and Health Care debacles.

This is my life and I simply can’t answer the fundamental question: “what do Democrats stand for?” Voters don’t know, and we can’t make the case, so they’re reacting exactly as you’d expect (just as they did in 1994, 2000, and 2004). We either find the voice to answer that question and exercise the strongest majority and voter mandate we’ve had since Watergate, or we suffer a bloodbath in November. History shows we’re likely to choose the latter.

Although I realize this is far too long to publish, if you do decide to use any of it, please keep my anonymity. Just in case I’m wrong and there is more good to do yet.

Let’s hope the staffer is wrong.  Comments?

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‹ GOP, Dem polls show climate and clean energy jobs legislation has strong bipartisan support

Ben Nelson Joins The Global Warming Denial Caucus ›

9 Responses to Is progressive messaging a massive botch?

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    IF

    No, I’m not going to recite the Kipling poem, but it’s a great one, and the Democrats in Washington should read it often, to gain some courage and wisdom.

    But I will say this …

    The Republican thinking these days is so wrongheaded, irrational, and dumb on most KEY issues (except apparently that they seem to stumble upon how to win elections, with their ability to do so based on the fact that Independents and even many Democrats are frustrated with the ineffectiveness in Washington and the fact that the leading Democrats in DC don’t seem to even “get it”) … that IF our Democrat leadership in the Administration, Senate, and House can’t point that out clearly to the public, and make their own case strongly, and actually GET GOOD STUFF DONE!, then they deserve to lose.

    When the other team can’t even think straight (and that is apparent to plenty of people), you’re in trouble if you can’t even point that out and make your own better case, clearly.

    When the other team fumbles (in terms of thinking and lack of policy, and “just saying no”), then you’re in trouble if your own team can’t grab the ball and do something positive with it.

    It seems to me that we are shooting ourselves in the feet.

    The problem is NOT that Democrats are trying to change (improve) too much. Instead, it’s that they water-down the improvements so much that it’s hard to tell if they are really improvements, and they also ignore their own base, and they can’t get anything done, and they treat some of the largest culprits with “kid gloves”. Give me a break. I don’t want leaders who are content to have sand kicked in their faces. That’s not what I voted for, and that’s not what was promised.

    I don’t want to hear, anymore, that “all is well” and that this is all part of a well-thought-out strategy. I want effective action and substantial change.

    I’d rather see people TRY HARD for THAT — and push for it, and be super-smart about it — and then, if the effort fails somehow, so be it. At least we’ll know who TRIED and who we should vote for in order to try again, harder. But, on the other hand, if our elected leaders compromise and compromise and wimp out and ultimately give us MUSH, then forget it: I don’t want MUSH passed. I want positive, clear, improvement. MUSH won’t address the health care problem, nor will MUSH address climate change or even “set the positive stage” for addressing climate change. I’ve never seen MUSH set a positive and firm foundation for anything. Usually, stuff SINKS in MUSH.

    I hope this is clear. I’m usually not this “critical” when it comes to people I voted for, but it’s time to be critical. And — they should realize this — if they don’t do MUCH better, and give us something better than MUSH, they won’t get my vote next time. I’d rather stay home.

    Sigh.

    Jeff

  2. WAG says:

    In the past, I’ve written a couple posts on Calvin & Hobbes. I think this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon pretty much sums up how I will feel if we can put this many Democrats together and still fail on health care, climate, and clean energy:

    http://akwag.blogspot.com/2010/01/calvin-hobbes-and-democratic-proposals.html

  3. Mark says:

    Hope this makes sense and that I’m not making a fool of myself from faraway South Africa: messaging (botched or not) only works (or doesn’t) in certain circumstances and for certain objectives. It matters less when communication and messaging is botched when a friendly audience has a point of view – they’ll probably still get it. When an audience is hostile, it matters more to get messaging “on”. It also matters when there is a grey group who aren’t sure.

    From our vantage point, the problem is with that fiendly crown who today are so, but tomorrow are hostile. It’s fascinating how fickle your public servants are. Today for, tomorrow against. Presumably to hold a seat?

    Is that how a country speaks with itself about critical issues, how Government makes the best determination it can and then moves on? It would seem to me that no one knows what anyone believes, and so no one is on solid ground and everything keeps shifting and changing so that nothing, eventually, gets done.

    Last observation: the rest of the world so wants the US to lead, but constantly it shows it cannot. There is simply no sense of patriotism, of working together to get things done; there is a vast deficit in values and a sense of cooperation. When I say it saddens us, I mean that truly. If you were to step outside yoursleves and see the truism that is an observation I read a year ago about the Demcrats, you would be similarly saddened: :”The Democrats on any issue will stand around in a circle and fire at each other.”

    The Republicans are being reviled for doing nothing. I say that’s their brainwave: Do nothing, the Democrats will do it all for them.

    The rest of the world is waiting for those souls who took charge in November to take charge again. Make your voices loud and break out of the circle.

  4. Peter Sergienko says:

    Bill Clinton’s observation sums it up pretty well–the public prefers to follow strong and effective leaders. Good policy helps and I suspect good policy is far more important to Democratic success than Republican success, but it’s not necessary.

    Recalling the presidential primary debates, compare the seemingly endless debate on the nuances of health care mandates and other details among the Democratic candidates with the Republican candidates discussing their response to terrorism. The Republican candidates one-upped each other on how tough they’d be until John McCain finally declared he’d pursue Bin Laden to the depths of hell. I certainly didn’t agree with McCain’s approach to terrorism, and frankly thought the entire discussion silly, but you knew where these candidates stood on this issue. The Democrats’ discussion was so far over the head of the average voter that I cannot imagine anyone other than a committed Democrat bothering to try to follow it.

    In addition to coherent and strong messaging, the Democrats’ big tent and their approach to power are obstacles to effective leadership. Thinking about recent politcal history, conservatives may not believe in government, but they sure believe in power. Whether executive, legislative, judicial or corporate, conservatives that hold power don’t hesitate to use it as aggressively and effectively as they can imagine. By nature and belief, most progressives are far more cautious and nuanced in their approach to power and its use. When this reticence to wield power is coupled with uniform Republican obstinance and the big tent of the Democratic Party, we end up with the health care legislation debacle, which looks like Democratic in-fighting and weakness to the public.

    So, the current dynamic appears to be this: a disciplined minority Republican party with clear (not correct or consistent) messaging, with a Supreme Court majority and its corporate allies, exercising all the power it can muster, can stymie a Democratic president with significant Democratic majorities in the house and senate. Altering this dynamic to produce effective climate change legislation will require good messaging, effective leadership, Democratic party discipline, and Democratic willingness to exercise power. If the Democrats don’t do all of these things well, I fear that the poll numbers showing strong public support for good climate change and energy legislation will start to slide, just like they did on health care, and we’ll end up with a weak bill or nothing. Since humanity needs a good bill, I’m looking forward to Joe’s upcoming posts on positive messaging so we can start working on our senators and representatives.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    “Good Poll Numbers”

    I agree with much of what has been said above, in the comments, but I’d like to point out one thing in particular: I agree with Peter (Comment 4) regarding the good poll numbers.

    Although I think it helps (to an extent) to ensure that politicians know of the public support for addressing climate change, where and to what extent it exists, polls are inherently problematic — and deep, vigorous, persistent, insistent public support is not the same as the sometimes ambiguous (and often fickle) sorts of support that can be learned about from poll questions. Polls are often superficial and fickle.

    And besides, our leaders are supposed to do what is smart and right and in the best interests of society, based on excellent judgment and expert information (i.e., from scientists).

    In any case, one can’t “count on” good polling to actually be the main ingredient in efforts to get wise and necessary things ACCOMPLISHED EFFECTIVELY. Leadership, excellent communication, effectiveness, progress, wise thinking and action, and so forth — on the part of leaders — are KEY. Leaders shouldn’t rely on good “poll numbers” for their wisdom and courage, or for their expertise. I’m not saying, of course, that leaders shouldn’t “listen”, but listening to input (from all sorts of sources) and weighing it — keeping in mind that scientists know much more about climate change than your average person in a public poll — is not the same as relying on, or deferring to, polls in order to make critical decisions about what actually should be done in the best long-term interests of society.

    Task One: Make excellent policy. Get it done. Use the best possible available information — and get it done. Educate the public. Don’t look over your shoulders at the daily polling to decide what is best to do for society and for the world — on such an issue as climate change, anyhow.

    Be Well,

    Jeff

  6. It’s sad to see Obama pretty much exactly repeat the mistakes of the Clinton years and predictably face the same consequences: dissapointed and apathetic progressives and emboldened rightwingwers. I wrote a book about this topic, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party. It would be a good lesson for the dems who haven’t learned yet.

  7. kenshin says:

    can someone, anyone, please talk about the progressives being split off to not vote/disenfranchise their votes?

    i mean, most of the time we think of disenfranchised voters being poor, abused people who feel like they have no voice. progressives know we have our voices, but we’re using it in stupid ways.

    instead, we’re disenfranchising ourselves…and we call it a political strategy. W. T. F.?

    NOW for instance slammed the democrats for Mass. election, over the abortion amend to health care. seriously, but how does it help when a conservative is elected instead?

    i understand perhaps, not sending in money to a campaign, but not showing up to vote altogether??

    DIVIDE AND CONQUER. that is always, always the strategy that republicans have with democrats–b/c we’re diverse. we are. it’s actually kinda cool. look at the teabaggers, see a person of color yet? no? me neither.

    i still have no answer to what happened recently in Australia, with their climate change bill. it seemed both the right, as well as the progressive left, did not vote for it b/c it was a cap & trade bill. the left? they wanted a carbon tax.

    so does Exxon, who lobbies for a carbon tax. i’ve seen greenpeace, FOE etc lobby for a carbon tax/fee rename it however u want, but while u’re disagreeing on mechanism, we’re losing the battle of support for legislation in general.

    while we talk about how important it is for legislation to be passed, we’re spending too much time dissing the legislation for how it was compromised.

    and the politicians who compromise the bill? what happens to them? hmm? boucher in VA, who sold out the bill in the House to big coal? he votes for the bill he worked so hard to compromise, only to be hit with a $1 million dollar ad camapign from the GOP and conservatives, for “voting against American jobs”. in reality, he’s a democrat in Red State America, and he’s a target.

    and the SCOTUS just gave big coal & oil more money to attack politicians, just like him. AAAAAH!

    messaging is important, it really really is. but if u ask me why confidence is so low right now, maybe it’s just us. maybe it’s just us.

    i’ve no problem with folks wary of carbon trading, setting up camps to watch for abuses. personally i have faith in our trading system, but i’d totally support this sort of thing…

    i’ve also no problem with focusing a “carbon tax” at the local level, where it can help localities focus on “hot spots” and make cap & trade more effective…

    it i have a SERIOUS problem with carbon tax “lobbyists”, who say they are PROGRESSIVE and independent, but openly admit attending meetings with Exxon. which someone i know has. and they are fighting with every dollar, fundraised from real, PROGRESSIVE activists, to fight for, as far as i can tell, Exxon as opposed to Massey.

    their goal is to destroy any cap & trade bill proposed. and they call themselves Progressive. i call it sad. they are genuinely happy that the bill is stalled in the Senate. i don’t understand what their thinking is.

    and our politicians are hearing it, this dissonance, and wondering how many of us will hold them accountable for this vote.

    vote for compromise, people don’t like it. take a ideological stand, and nothing gets passed, and people don’t like it. now for the song and dance.

    WHAT HAPPENED IN AUSTRALIA??? WHAT LOOPHOLE HAS EXXON FOUND IN CARBON TAX? WHERE IS MY CAPSLOCK KEY….can we please discuss this stuff?? what Exxon is doing is not just politics, they found something useful. TALK. at the end of the day, progressives are still our family. if family can’t talk to each other and get things worked out, how can we talk to others?

  8. espiritwater says:

    Jeff, for once I disagree with you. No, I don’t think democrats deserve to loose, no matter how bad they are at messaging or whatever. And the reason is, IMO, if Republicans win next time, our country is done for. Bush and company almost destroyed our country. If the Neo cons get their man in office again, America– the one we used to know before bush used 9-11 to usurp our civil rights and lead our country down the dark road of fascism– will be gone.

  9. Tom Harrison says:

    Just one point:

    “Progressive” and “Democrat” are not the same thing. Democrats are just trying to be progressive, but doing it in their remarkable self-defeating way, as you note in numerous places in quotes from the Democratic leadership. I find it stunning, sometimes, how Democrats are still playing defense. Why is a Senate super-majority needed to pass a bill? It’s because the Democrats haven’t figured out how to fight a party that will do and say anything to undermine anything the Democrats do, regardless of how much they are or are not in favor of it.

    I recently watched Bill Moyers interview Thomas Franks (1/15). Franks’ point was that the Republicans has managed to systematically destroy the foundations that make it possible for us just to return to progressive, humanistic principles. For all readers having the courage, I highly recommend watching this interview. It put things into perspective for me. On the other hand, it made me feel a certain kind of despair, so, brace yourself :-)

    Tom