Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”?

Part 1: Duh!

Here’s your opportunity to vent about the Massachusetts Senate race. It should have been an easy progressive win to replace Ted Kennedy, on the eve of passing health care reform — the cause he worked so hard for. But the anti-progresssive won, and, sadly, he seems unlikely to support climate action, as he once did (see “MA Senate candidate Scott Brown pushes anti-science nonsense, flip-flops on clean energy action”).

I was talking to a highly respected newsman last week, and he just lit into what he saw as the dreadful messaging of progressives on the climate and clean energy jobs bill. “Massive botch” was his phrase. In particular, he was baffled about why we don’t talk about the clean air benefits of reducing pollution or focus on the benefits for real people (and yes, I know we do the latter I bit).

Readers know that I am baffled about much of progressive messaging (see “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?”).

Those in power right now do messaging poorly — and that certainly extends to most of team Obama. The President is an exception, but since the administration as a whole lacks a compelling and consistent narrative, his great speeches mostly become unechoed one-0ffs without an enduring power to move the nation. That is doubly the case because many progressives out of government seem hell-bent on beating up the President and progressives in Congress for trying to achieve the achievable. Ironically, in so doing, they actually shrink the political space of what can be done.


I’m starting on a multipart messaging series that will focus on the bipartisan clean air, clean water, clean energy jobs bill. But first I wanted to stir things up with extended excerpts from two recent pieces that go to the heart of these two great failings. Let’s start with one of the best-known progressive columnists, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, from his Monday column, “Mass. Senate race’s lesson for Obama,” on the flawed messaging of the insiders:

Underlying so much of the political analysis pouring forth over the Massachusetts showdown is a debate about the reasons for the decline of Obama’s popularity from the heights of last spring.

Conservatives blame “liberalism” — big government, big deficits, an overly ambitious health-care plan, a stimulus that spent too much and other supposedly left-leaning sins of the Obama regime.

The right is especially taken with the movement of political independents from guarded sympathy for the Democrats to outright opposition. Much of the analysis of Scott Brown’s unexpectedly strong run for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat focuses on the Republican’s strength among independent voters said to be alarmed over the ambition and reach of Obamaism.

Obama sympathizers counter that the president’s approval ratings are quite healthy in light of an unemployment rate over 10 percent and a nearly unprecedented destruction of personal wealth.

The conservatives’ focus on ideology, they say, is an opportunistic way of distracting attention from the mistakes of the Bush years and the role conservative policies played in bringing us to this point. To cite ideology rather than the economy in explaining the poll numbers is like analyzing the causes of Civil War without any reference to slavery or the rise of the New Deal without mention of the Great Depression.

It’s not surprising that I lean toward the second set of explanations, and I wish my conservative friends would be as honest as the Republican investor was in acknowledging that presiding over bad times always hurts the party stuck with the job.

But the success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to “own” the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped….

Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.


I discuss this issue of narrative here, and I’ll update the analysis in this series. But to make a long narrative short, you can’t beat a horse with no horse. You can’t overcome the conservatives’ dangerously flawed narrative (aka frame aka extended metaphor) unless you can offer a more compelling worldview. Progressives leaders haven’t. Yes, I know, Obama was elected to end the partisan divide in DC. That was always about as likely as my winning American Idol.


Now to the second, more controversial piece, on the flawed messaging of the outsiders. Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo highlights this Bernard Avishai piece at TPMCafe, on “Who’s To Blame”:

I am mostly living far from Massachusetts these days, but I’ve marinated in its politics for 25 years, and seen my share of reactionaries voted into office. The idea that the state’s undecideds are breaking for Brown because of some generalized economic anger that Obama failed to tap is ridiculous. Think Sean Hannity, not Sacco and Vanzetti.

The “undecideds” in South Boston and working class suburbs like Lynn don’t like Cambridge and Back Bay, but they respect its winners, when they act like winners. They watch hockey for the fights. Like most of us, they have a certain humility and expect famous people and experts to tell them what to think. But they haven’t heard of Uwe Reinhardt; and they smell insincerity a mile away. I wish I had a bluefish dinner for every time Coakley referred to the health package as “not perfect.” It all came out so forced and fake.

The real question Democrats have to ask themselves is: how come the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare is something a progressive Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy’s seat has to speak so defensively about?

And we can look no further than Howard Dean, and MSNBC, and Arianna Huffington, and, yes, some columnists at the Times and bloggers here at TPM — you know, real progressives — who have lambasted Obama again and again since last March over arguable need-to-haves like the “public option,” as if nobody else was listening. They’ve been thinking: “Oh, if only we ran things, how much more subtle would the legislation be,” as if 41 senators add up to subtle. Meanwhile the undecideds are thinking: “Hell, if his own people think he’s a sell-out and jerk, why should we support this?”

And don’t think this couldn’t happen to the bipartisan clean air, clean water, clean energy jobs bill. It already has, to some extent (see “The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill”).


Obviously health care reform isn’t a slam-dunk political winner — if it were, it would’ve happened a long time ago. It’s doubly problematic if you can’t even explain simply and repeatedly why the public should support it, which progressives never did, especially Coakley (who ran a dreadful campaign). [And yes, the White House and Congressional leaders were told a year ago that the “public option” was about as compelling a soundbite as “cap-and-trade.”]

Ironically, creating clean energy jobs, cutting pollution, and reducing dependence on oil are huge political winners in every recent poll. If only we had people who would tell the story, the whole story….