May 25, 2006
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Paul Waldman Knows Progressives Can Win - and Here's How
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Sometimes it does seem like the Republicans have painted the Democrats into a box. Although Bush's poll numbers are terrible - let's not even talk about his and the Republican Congress' undeniable failure to govern - the Democratic would-be challengers are still seen as weak-kneed elitists without values. Voters are left wondering, can, or should, guys like that win elections?
Media analyst Paul Waldman provides some answers in his new book, Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. Waldman understands how the conservatives hog-tied the Democrats, and what it will take for them to break free and come out fighting. Don't wait. Send a copy of this interview, and maybe a copy of Waldman's book, to your favorite candidate today. Of course progressives can win - and we can try to help them do just that.
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BuzzFlash: Your book, Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success, raises a very basic question: What should progressives say? Even though we don’t agree with the right wing, can we learn something from them about organizing and messaging?
Paul Waldman: To start with, the progressive ideas are the ones that really have the majority of support in this country. Conservatives have understood this for a long time, and they have organized their political effort to overcome that disadvantage they have. As a result, they’ve gotten very, very good at politics.
Democrats didn’t really have to be that good at politics because people wanted universal health coverage, an increase in the minimum wage, environmental protections. Things that were part of the progressive agenda had a majority of support. I think that’s led to a certain amount of laziness.
What conservatives have done successfully involves a couple of things. First, they really built a movement, starting in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Progressives have not done that. What you have on the left is a series of movements that are allied in some ways - an environmental movement, a pro-choice movement, a labor movement. These share some things in common, but they’re not unified and working for one single goal. So that’s one very important thing.
The other extremely important thing that conservatives have understood and progressives haven’t is that politics is not necessarily about issues. It’s not about policy. It’s about identity. This is absolutely critical.
So what happens in every election campaign? The Democrat gets up and says: take a look at my ten-point plan. If you read my ten-point plan, I’m sure you will realize that my plan is superior to my opponent’s plan, and that’s why I want you to vote for me. There’s this belief that if the public can just focus on the issues, then the Democrat will win.
What does a Republican do in response? He doesn’t talk about his ten-point plan. He gets up and he points to the Democrat and says: that guy hates you and everything you stand for. He is a liberal Northeastern elitist. He’s alien from you. He doesn’t believe in God. He hates you and your values. And I am one of you.
The Republican makes the election about character, where the Democrat is trying to make it about issues. The fact is that the public doesn’t really respond to those kinds of issue-based appeals, because they don’t know the details of issues. They’re not going to read the ten-point plan. It doesn’t work that way. They’re not going to look at your health care plan and decide that they want to vote for you. They’re going to figure out whether or not they trust you, whether they believe you, whether you’re a person of integrity. After that, they may decide, I also like the health care plan. But most voters are never going to get around to reading the health care plan. That’s the most important thing progressives have to understand - that politics is about identity. It’s about who you are, not what you want to do.
BuzzFlash: In an article you have on Tom Paine, “The Progressive Identity Complex,” you respond to the suggestion that progressives should paint themselves as standing for the "common good." You point out it would be preferable to say progressives believe "we’re all in it together." In essence, you’re talking here about what Lakoff would call a framing issue.
Paul Waldman: To a certain extent, yes. I arrived at this by looking at what the conservatives did, and this is basically my theme in Being Right Is Not Enough. If you ask an ordinary person in the street, "What do conservatives believe in?" chances are, if they know anything about politics, they’re going to be able to give you some version of what I call the four pillars of conservatism - small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional values. The four pillars of conservatism form the basis of the conservative identity, the thing from which the rest of their ideas flow.
Now, why does everybody know that? It’s because every single Republican candidate repeats it. In the mission statements of groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, you’re going to find some version of the four pillars of conservatism. If you ask that same ordinary citizen what do liberals stand for, they’ll give you the conservative caricature of liberalism, which is the flip side of the four pillars - big government, high taxes, a weak defense, and moral relativism.
What do you think the essence of your political beliefs are? What does it all come down to for you? I got a lot of different answers, but most of them contained some version of the idea of common responsibility, and the fact that our fates are tied together. The way that I decided to articulate that is to say that "we’re all in it together."
One of the important elements of that is that it implies its opposite. Conservatives have always been very good at building contrasts, and that’s another thing that progressives have to start doing. We need to say that we’re all in it together – that’s what progressives believe. And what do conservatives believe? Well, they believe that we’re all on our own, and we’re all out for ourselves.
Then I take this fundamental idea and I say, okay – where do we go from this basic idea that we’re all in it together? I build out five fundamental principles – government that works for everyone, opportunity, security, individual freedom, and progress. From those five ideas that grow out of the idea that we’re all in it together, you can go on to discuss almost any policy issue. Why do we believe in Social Security? Well, it’s because we believe in security. Why do progressives support education? Because they believe in opportunity. This whole pyramid that I construct is not going to be a bumper sticker, but it provides a way of thinking and talking about progressive ideas that people can use and repeat, and use to contrast. That’s critically important.
In that Tom Paine article, I talk about something that happened recently when Mark Warner was giving a speech at Harvard. In the Q and A afterwards, somebody asked, “Why are you a Democrat?” According to the news report, he didn’t give a coherent answer. He rambled on for about five minutes and even said at one point, we’re not going to come up with three or four magic phrases that will define us. When I see a Democrat who can’t answer in one sentence the question “Why are you a Democrat?” – I think it’s appalling. If you ask any Republican that question, they’re going to say I’m a Republican because I believe in small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional values.
My hope is that the next time somebody asks a Democrat, “Why are you a Democrat?” they would say, "I’m a Democrat because I believe we’re all in it together. I’m not a Republican or a conservative because they think we’re all on our own, and we’re in it for ourselves." This is what progressives really have been missing.
If you listen to the media, you’d think that conservatives have values and progressives have positions. We have to start talking about our values, and use that as the entry point for talking about positions. When somebody asks a Democrat or a progressive, what do you want to do about health care, the first thing out of their mouth shouldn’t be, "Let me elucidate all the details of my ten-point plan." The first thing out of their mouth should be, "I’m a progressive, and I think that all Americans deserve health care. Conservatives don’t think that." That’s the starting point. It has to begin from values so that people will understand where you’re coming from and trust you.
Let’s take the example of Tim Kaine's campaign in Virginia. He used his religion as a kind of shorthand to establish his values. The campaign knew, going into that election, that he had a problem on the death penalty. He’s opposed to it, and most of the people in Virginia are in favor of it. They were able to show the voters that his position on that wasn’t just a random position, but something that grew out of his fundamental values. Then people could accept it, even if they disagreed with him. It wasn't that he was making a religious appeal because they felt you have to make a religious appeal. The religious aspect explained to the voters why he held that position and that it wasn’t transitory, it came from a firm place of belief. Once they had established that, people weren’t going to punish him for it, even if they disagreed with him.
Successful progressive politicians like Paul Wellstone have done the same thing in the past. In one of Wellstone’s campaigns, he had opposed welfare reform, and that position wasn’t very popular in Minnesota. His opponent was calling him Senator Welfare. Wellstone put up an ad in which he said, listen, my parents taught me to always stand up for what you believe in. I knew this vote was going to be politically problematic for me, but I felt it was the right thing to do. He convinced people that, even if they disagreed with him on the issue of welfare reform, it came from a place of firm belief for him. That’s why he kept winning. I think that’s an answer that progressives have to look to.
BuzzFlash: Would you agree that the right wing goes beyond just contrast, which can be a very good device to help voters decide who they want to vote for, but they also have worked to create wedge issues and divisiveness, scapegoating, and mischaracterizing? They created caricatures of Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004, and employed character assassination. It’s not just contrast.
Paul Waldman: They absolutely do, and that’s something the Democrats have been naively unprepared for. Let’s look back at 2004. Why did John Kerry get the Democratic nomination? It was because the primary voters decided that he was the person who was electable. What was the content of that electability? More than anything else, it was that he was a Vietnam war veteran with three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, and those two draft dodgers, Bush and Cheney, would never attack his patriotism. They would never do such a thing, right? The Democrats decided that he was the guy because he was going to be immune to that kind of patriotism attack.
Part of the lesson is that, of course, they were going to attack his patriotism. That’s what they do. They attack Democrats’ patriotism. So Kerry kind of shared that naïve belief that he was immune, and when those attacks came, he wasn’t ready for them. He let them hammer him for a month or so before he got up and said something about it. I think you have to be ready for character attacks and understand that character assassination is what Republicans are going to use against you.
That means you have to be ready to make the election about their character, too. You don't have to be dishonest or go looking around in their garbage for something you can use against them. But Democrats have to understand from the get-go that the election is going to be about character.
BuzzFlash: Returning to Lakoff’s paradigm, isn’t one of the problems that the right wing and the Republican Party tend to adopt a paternalistic hierarchical structure, which is that the father is right? We go along with his decision-making, we are loyal, we don’t challenge. Authority comes from the top down. The progressive movement, particularly on the Net, comes from the bottom up. It’s grassroots oriented and diverse. People fight about subtle differences in policy. Your idea of unifying us is fantastic, but progressives never seem to be able to do it, because by their very nature, they’re not hierarchical. They like arguing. And they may hold people up to a litmus test.
Paul Waldman: There are two issues here. One is about the activists, and the other is about appealing to the broad mass of people. Let me take the activists first.
Progressives can work on changing their attitude toward power. The right has a different attitude toward power than the left does – they know what power is, they know they want to get it, and they know they want to keep it. The left are much more suspicious of power. Their heroes are the outsiders. The civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement - all were cases of people starting from the grassroots and putting pressure on those who hold power to ultimately change policies. That’s the paradigm that progressives tend to come from. They don’t really see seizing and using power as something they want to do. They want to influence those who have power.
I think they have to change that, because the fact is that a few thousand people in the Executive Branch, along with many in Congress and the courts, are working every single day to subvert and undermine liberal values. They are controlling things. If you don’t take that power, you'll always be fighting rear-guard actions. You’re always going to be trying to stop something terrible from happening, instead of trying to institute the really transformative things that you’d like to do.
So the progressives have to change their mindset and say we want that power. We want to get that so we can begin to implement our agenda. Instead of stopping Social Security from being privatized, trying not to lose what we already have, we can really get to work on some new goals. So that’s the first one.
The other side is influencing public opinion. You’re right that a lot of conservatives do have respect for authority, and that’s part of why their movement is able to put aside differences. Individual activists are willing to submit to somebody like Grover Norquist who says, I don’t care what you think, this is the message of the week.
But that mindset is not impenetrable, and it isn't shared by a majority of the population. You can build majorities really without those people. The issues is not just that progressives have a nurturant parent world view, but it’s that they also end up allowing themselves to be portrayed as weak. While the DLC types see that Republicans have successfully painted Democrats as weak, they misunderstand the solution. They think that if you just go along with a more bellicose foreign policy, then that means people won’t consider you weak. That seems to be what John Kerry thought when he voted for the war. I can’t read his mind, but I’m convinced that he understood that it was a bad idea. But he and many other Democrats thought, if we don’t vote for this war, they’re going to call us weak.
Well, they called them weak anyway. What they didn’t understand is that the Democrats’ perceived weakness about national security is not really about national security. It’s about a more generalized weakness. And you can show that you’re strong without advocating war. There are lot of tough progressives through history who didn’t advocate war to show that they were strong. Nobody ever called Martin Luther King a weakling. He was perceived as incredibly strong, despite being a pacifist. What that shows is, if you have moral strength, if you have courage, if you are willing to stand up and be true to your beliefs, then people will come to believe that you’re strong. It’s not about whether you sign on to a Republican war.
BuzzFlash: Fighting is extremely important, as Paul Wellstone showed us. Thom Hartmann agrees with you on this and says that the Democrats just miscalculate. They don’t understand that if you fight and lose, you still gain power. The Democrats assume that, to put up a fight and not win, particularly since they’re in the minority, is just a waste of time. But Hartmann is basically saying Americans vote for fighters, and unless they see you fighting, they believe you’re weak. If you don’t fight for anything, then why should they vote for you? Particularly in a time when there are fears about national security, if you’re not a person who puts up your fist, even if you lose, then the very character issue of not fighting becomes more important than policies.
Paul Waldman: Absolutely. And Republicans are constantly laying traps for Democrats that end up being tests of strength that the Democrats fail. They pick fights all the time. What the Democrats don’t understand is that you can lose and still show people that you are a fighter and that you are strong. It’s about standing up for what you believe. These things happen all the time. For instance, whenever Democrats get criticized for being too harsh on Republicans, they come out and apologize immediately afterward. Howard Dean will say something really harsh about Republicans, and Republicans will object, and then a parade of Democrats will go before the cameras and say: "Oh, no, he doesn’t speak for me. We really didn’t mean that. That’s not what we stand for." In the end, they look apologetic and weak.
It’s not about that everybody has to 100% agree with what Howard Dean or any other particular person will say. But if you notice, the Republicans never apologize for anything. No matter how despicable the attack, and no matter how awful the things said by one of their allies, they never apologize for anything. The result is that the Republicans look strong and the Democrats look weak.
BuzzFlash: Brand Bush presents this guy who doesn’t care what people think. He’s going to be strong and go up against the terrorists. The Democrats want to look strong, too, so they go along with him. Bush actually has an abysmal record of failure in fighting wars, and particularly in Iraq, so it’s a tragic farce. Bush is put out there as the Commander in Chief, looking strong in pictures with Marines. And Kerry, who was a real war veteran, who put his life on the line, looked weak because he was always forced to explain why he voted the way he did. As you say, Democrats are always apologizing and explaining, and Republicans are forging ahead, looking active and confident. People will say, I don’t care if a person’s an SOB. Maybe that's what we need to fight off the terrorists. Those Democrats just look like wimps.
Paul Waldman: Exactly. It wasn’t just over the big things that Kerry ended up looking weak. It was over the small things, too. One of the things Bush liked to do on the campaign trail was make fun of Massachusetts. The fact that it’s okay to make fun of a liberal state but not of a conservative state is a whole other issue that I talked about in the book. But I suggest something that Kerry could have done, just to sort of pick a fight. Can you imagine what the response would have been if Kerry had gone around criticizing Texas and making fun of it? It would never have been allowed. But what if, one day, after Bush made fun of Massachusetts, Kerry had gotten up and said, "Mr. Bush, I’m sick and tired of you poking fun at my state and the fine Americans who live there. Next time, you say it to my face, and then we’ll see how funny you think it is when I knock you on your phony Texas ass!"? Think about if Kerry had actually said that one day. It would have been a huge uproar. He would have gotten all kinds of criticism for trying to act like he was going to really pick a fight with Bush. But what would have been the story at the end of the day that people would remember? It would have been that Kerry was tough and was willing to stand up to him. But he didn’t do that sort of thing.
Here's another example. What was the ad that was aired more than any other in the 2004 campaign? It was aired by a group called Progress for America, a Republican 527, and it was called “Ashley’s Story.” It wasn’t an argument about policy. It was an argument to show that Bush is the strong father. It was the story about a girl who lost her mother on September 11th and supposedly closed up emotionally afterward, until George W. Bush came to town. She met him at a rally, and he gave her a big hug, and that just changed her life and she knew, as Ashley says in the ad, that he’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make me feel safe.
So what do we have there? We have President Bush acting the strong father. We have the reminder of September 11th. We have this very emotionally fraught story – all in sixty seconds. They aired that ad again and again and again and again. It contained zero information about policy. It was all about Bush being the strong father figure. It was extraordinarily effective.
BuzzFlash: It also has an overtone of the religious faith-healer in there – the hands-on healer. He touched me, and I was fine again.
Paul Waldman: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Let's go back to the ’94 Congressional races, when Newt Gingrich was at the zenith of his power. They campaigned against the "corrupt Democratic Congress." They set up traps for Jim Wright and Tip O’Neill. But they also set up something brilliant – the "Contract with America." It was specific. They posted it in the newspapers, paid for advertisements. They said this is our contract, we’re going to deliver. You buy a car, you get a contract. Well, you elect us to the Congress, toss the Democrats out, then we promise to do these things.
Of course it was a bunch of b.s., but it was very specific. Is that sort of thing of value? A lot of things were going on that year, and there are a lot of reasons the Republicans swept the election. But the Contract with America seemed to be a success. It seemed to resonate.
Paul Waldman: They were smart enough to say that they would hold votes on everything, not that they would necessarily pass them. They were also smart enough to make a lot of those things sort of small bore, not major, transformative things, most of them. The Contract with America was more symbolic than anything else. The point was showing Americans that they were going to bring reform. The focus wasn’t necessarily on the specific items like a Constitutional amendment on term limits. It was something symbolic.
I think that’s what Democrats are trying to do right now. They keep talking about the culture of corruption – offering a single idea that expresses that if you vote Democrats in, there’s going to be change, and all the terrible things that have been happening up until now will be gone, and it’ll be a new day.
BuzzFlash: In an unscripted moment a couple years ago, Bush said, my job is to keep repeating things, because that’s what you have to do in messaging, to catapult the propaganda. They’re masters at this and very disciplined. They were brilliant at lying us into Iraq because they kept associating Saddam with 9/11 without saying he was responsible for it, but always including Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in the same sentence. The Democrats don’t seem to do this. They don’t stay on message.
Paul Waldman: That kind of repetition is essential to persuasion, but it's a principle that can be used for good or for evil. It can mean lying to people over and over, or it can be telling the truth over and over. But one of the things you will notice, if you are following the arc of a particular set of talking points, they will emerge one day from the White House or from the RNC, and then you’ll see them permeate through the entire political universe almost immediately. Part of that is a practical thing with the talking points being faxed out. But part of it is that conservatives just figure out what the talking points are, and then they repeat them.
The Democrats may be distributing their own talking points, but then they’re not followed. The Democrats are just unwilling to accept that that kind of repetition is necessary to a project of political persuasion. The congressman who’s going on "Hardball" that night has to look at those talking points, and decide they’ll resonate with him, and be convinced that using them is a way for him to advance his agenda.
It’s not so much that conservatives are inherently more simplistic. But they understand that when they go on television or on the radio, their job is not to elucidate every last detail of everything that they believe on a topic. Their job is to persuade. You need to boil things down and repeat yourself to do that.
BuzzFlash: Being Right Is Not Enough is a very helpful guide on messaging and positioning and reaching a broad voter group through shared values. Your book does a great service in showing us how to include more people in the shared values of the progressive community. As you say, "We’re all in this together."But as a senior person at Media Matters, you’re as well aware as anyone of the bias of the corporate media. So even if one follows all the great advice, and we do learn from the conservatives' success, how in the world do we break through that filter of the mainstream media which has a pro-Republican, pro-Bush bias?
Paul Waldman: For decades, journalists have been under constant pressure from Republicans telling them that they had a liberal bias. We’ve all heard the phrase, "working the ref" – the conservatives were putting that pressure on so that they could get better calls in the future, so they could make journalists afraid of being charged with having a liberal bias. Well, now they’re being met with equal and opposite pressure in the other direction, which is really important.
The second thing progressives need to do is to have a critique of the media that they understand, and that they incorporate into their political world view. What happens on the conservative side is that on any issue, they will bring up the fact that the media are biased against them, as far as they’re concerned. It’s part of how they look at politics, and it’s part of how they look at everything.
BuzzFlash: It’s also part of their tactic to always put whoever is their opposition on the defensive and to jawbone the media.
Paul Waldman: They all understand and believe that the media have a liberal bias, from the President of the United States all the way down to just some guy who listens to Rush Limbaugh in his cubicle. They all believe it. But if you ask ten progressives what the problem with the media is, they’ll give you ten different answers. Progressives need to begin to formulate their own critique of the media.
What’s the problem that progressives have with the media? Part of it is that the media frankly are cowardly, as you say – they’re not willing to stand up to the powerful, whether it’s the powerful who own the media organizations, the powerful corporations who provide the advertising, the powerful people who right now run the White House and Congress – they don’t have the guts to do that. Consequently, they’re not being true to their mandate as journalists, which is to serve the public. So that’s part of the answer. But progressives need to start thinking about the media as part of how they look at politics. That’s happening more and more, with the blogosphere doing constant critiquing of the media. We’re beginning to put that pressure on from the left as well as from the right. So I’m optimistic about that. I think it’s beginning to happen and it’s going to improve in the future.
BuzzFlash: If we look back at the nineties, The New York Times and Washington Post were not sheepish at all about pursuing Whitewater. The Post, in particular, was a major conduit for Ken Starr’s leaking. My point is that they had no compunction then about pursuing Clinton. And yet here you have stories of Bush defying 750 laws, and openly doing it, and NSA spying. They are in no way pursuing it the way they pursued the Starr investigation and Whitewater. They seem very biased toward the corporate Republican Party relationship.
Paul Waldman: That’s why they have to be kept under a watchful eye and under constant pressure, so that they begin to be afraid of the reaction they may get from the left in the same way that they’re afraid of the reaction they get from the right. This is about them doing their jobs. They can’t be relied upon to do it by themselves.
BuzzFlash: We agree with your thesis that most Americans share the progressive agenda, that America is a community, and that we’re all in this together. America is a success story. But, Sumner Redstone, who heads Viacom and CBS, was asked before the 2004 election who he would rather see win. He essentially that, even though he probably agrees a lot with Kerry, he would support Bush because it was good for Viacom. Shortly thereafter came the big frame-up of Dan Rather on the Bush National Guard story. So what does Sumner Redstone care if some people complain about his news coverage? He’s there to ensure that the value of their shares increase. Unless the news consumer can somehow do damage to that profitability, Sumner Redstone isn’t going to care.
Paul Waldman: That’s certainly true. But it’s going to be very difficult to convince a company like Viacom that they should alter their coverage or that some kind of boycott will dramatically reduce their audience. That’s not the place where I think you can successfully apply pressure. You have to apply it on the journalist, and make it clear to them that they’re not living up to their professional responsibilities. Part of the bias attack that the right uses is an attack on their professionalism, and that really stings and hits home. Progressives have to attack them in the same way when they’re not being professional.
BuzzFlash: They need to challenge journalists.
Paul Waldman: I think that’s where the rubber hits the road. Sumner Redstone doesn’t pick up the phone and call a reporter at CBS and say don’t air this story, or make sure you’re nice to Bush today. You have to start by challenging those reporters when they don’t do the right thing.
BuzzFlash: I'd like to ask you about the DLC/progressive split and another split among progressives – your Net roots people are not your blue collar people, for the most part. How do the themes in your book, like we’re all in this together, win over the Kansas red state mentality where people are voting against their self-interest and voting for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations? What wins over those people for the Democrats instead of them associating themselves with George Bush who's portrayed as a white Christian male who is patriotic?
Paul Waldman: All those things are shorthand for that kind of personal feeling of trust and affinity. Democrats have left the field when it comes to those kinds of character questions. That’s why it has been possible for Republicans to basically argue, "Don’t worry about economics. Don’t worry about health care. Just remember that the Democrat hates you and he’s a liberal Northeastern elitist, and his values are different from yours."
The Democrats haven’t even made an argument about identity and character. Those people whose economic interests are more in line with the interests of the Democratic Party can be brought back in, not by saying to them let’s talking about economics, but by talking instead about character and identity. They can be brought back by making an argument that shows them that Democrats are people who share values with them, who are strong, and whom they can trust. It’s not to shift the argument away from values, but to talk about values in a way that’s going to appeal to those people.
Once you do that, the Republicans have no leg to stand on. They can’t make an economic argument. And if they can’t make the values argument either, then they’ve got nothing.
BuzzFlash: Bush’s 2000 campaign was run on the character issue, which I would sum up as simply three words – "He’s like me." For the red state voters, he’s white, he’s Christian, he’s male. He’s like me. He's the guy on the ranch, cutting his own mesquite, and Gore is not. That was basically the campaign. Slander Gore, slander Kerry. Bush is like me. In 2004, it was little more complicated. "He’s like me. He’ll protect me." And we went through the whole fear thing.
In The New York Times the other day, there was a commentary in which someone proposed that the Democrats just say in the 2006 campaign that we've "had enough." That’s not really a character issue. That’s about the ruinous effects and the chaos and corruption of the Bush Administration. Can that work? Can a challenge of their record with "had enough" trump the character issue?
Paul Waldman: Well, Congressional elections are a little different. You have to make a more abstract argument. I think that idea of had enough can work in the Congressional elections because people are very dissatisfied with what’s going on. And Bush has already lost all that he had on character. People don’t think he’s honest anymore, and they once did.
But part of the Democrats’ problem is that they never really made an argument about character. For instance, the Democrats would come out and say that Bush’s tax plan gives most of its benefits to the top 1%. Now that was true, but it was an argument about his tax plan, not about him. It wasn’t an argument that Bush is a member of the elite. It was an argument that Bush favors the elite. I think you have to make the argument more personal.
The other part is that Democrats have to start nominating people who can relate to people. There’s nothing wrong with nominating someone who people would like to have a beer with. With all due respect to two fine patriotic Americans who gave their life to public service – it’s not necessary to nominate people like Al Gore and John Kerry, who for all of their intelligence and experience and wisdom, have trouble relating and are not good campaigners. There are other people. There are people like Bill Clinton – candidates who are smart and have ideas, and who can be good at governing, and also are good at campaigning. They do exist. When you find those people, then you’re successful. But as Democratic primary voters start thinking about 2008, that’s something they should think about - not just someone whose ideas I agree with, but also someone who is going to be appealing to people.
BuzzFlash: The personality factor. You said the Democrats don’t like to talk about character. Liberals want to talk about public policy, not character. But in an age of branding and television, an age of selling personality, an age of reality TV shows and American Idol, liberals are still uncomfortable talking about character or going negative - it’s sort of ungentlemanly. They want to run on what is for the common good.
Paul Waldman: They need to get over it, because this is the way politics is played. Politics is about character. They can do it honestly, and in a way that maintains their integrity. But they have to talk about character, and they have to be willing to fight hard.
Karl Rove doesn’t sit up at night wondering if he’s running ethical campaigns. And you can’t bring a knife to a gunfight, as I say in the book. You have to be willing to fight. You don't have to be unethical, but you have to be willing to hit your opponents and hit them hard. Otherwise, you ’re just going to keep losing.
BuzzFlash: Paul, thank you very much. Great book, and we wish you the best of luck. Keep up the good work at Media Matters.
Paul Waldman: Thanks.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success (Hardcover) by Paul Waldman, A BuzzFlash Premium
"The Progressive Identity Complex" (Tom Paine)