September 11, 2003
The Democratic Message in 2004: Looking Back to Find the Future
MEDIA WATCH SPECIAL REPORT
On August 11, 2003, Former Texas Governor Ann Richards paid a visit to Larry King; a caller asked the following question:
* * *
Here's my take on the situation, Ann.
Think back and remember that by 1992 we had endured 12 years of
Republican rule. Reagan had drained the economy and our spirits.
The constant hammering on women's rights, welfare mothers, basically
anyone and anything that wasn't with the right wing program, left
many feeling as if they weren't welcome in their own country. The
Right-to-Lifers were unleashed, unions were slammed, and David
Stockman told us of the plan to spend like crazy on defense and
destroy the safety net. Lebanon was disaster. Then the out-of-touch
Poppy Bush came along and dragged us into the 90's but not before
leaving us with the first TV war in Iraq.
But let's not kid ourselves -- the Reagan/Bush 1 years were just as stressful and enervating. By 1992 Democrats and Independents were desperate for air, sick of feeling stifled and worn down.
Then, out of the blue came Bill Clinton. A teacher friend and I took notice. As the primary season unwound, we discovered that not only did we want change . . . we were hungry for it. A testament to this deep and desperate longing to get rid of the repressive Reagan/Bush 1 years is the fact that I have stored away video cassettes full of Clinton rallies, speeches, and sax playing during the primary and general election campaign. I just taped and taped, hanging on everything Clinton-Gore and saving it just in case we didn't win the election and I would need some good memories to get through another four years.
The media had not become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party just yet. Clinton/Gore barnstormed on a bus and the debates were incredible (Perot was too short for his stool and Bush helped by looking at his watch as Clinton prowled the platform.) My friend and I found the energy electric. We went to see Hillary at a campaign stop at Rutgers and we worked the phone banks. Election night we got together at her house, had a pizza, and counted the electoral votes. When it was all over we cried tears of relief. We felt a huge weight lift . . . after 12 years of tension and frustration, we felt free!
Aside from that memorable election night, the high point of the whole election cycle for us occurred the night before on November 1, 1992 when we went to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ for the final Clinton/Gore campaign rally. The place was packed to the rafters with supporters and volunteers. The music was loud, the 20,000 hungry could almost taste victory as the candidates appeared and wound up their campaign. It was probably one of the biggest adrenalin rushes of my life.
Of course, in hindsight, we didn't have much time to enjoy victory because the "hunting of the President" started almost as soon as Clinton was elected. But for a while in 1992, things couldn't have been better . . . we were reinvigorated and full of hope as we looked forward.
Because of that campaign, I don't think Ann Richards' worries
about the Democrats' ability to get out a simple and clear message
have to become the reality. If Democrats rummage around their campaign
memorabilia and think back, they may find they don't have to reinvent
"It's time to PUT PEOPLE FIRST . . . FOR A CHANGE!"
It's not my goal to rehash all the destructive policies of the Bush Administration which have worked against the citizens of this country while smoothing the way for business interests. One outrageous rule change follows another. It's almost impossible to think of even one action that this gang has done for the people of this country. Even on the vital question of security for America, the Bush Administration is coming up short. ("Government's Hobbled Giant – Homeland Security Is Struggling," Sunday, September 7, 2003 [LINK]).
Meanwhile, the campaign promises of a "compassionate conservative" approach to governance have disappeared. In terms of economic policy, large tax cuts to the highest income Americans have resulted in slashes in needed services at the state level and local levels of government. The ranks of the poor are growing. Clean air and water and the condition of the national parks have become low priorities, while the opening of public lands to drilling is proceeding. The EPA has even lied about the air quality following the attack on the World Trade Center. Workers face the loss of overtime pay. If they have their way, hospitals will have the legal right to turn you away from the emergency room if you don't have insurance. The proposed Medicare drug plan serves the pharmaceutical companies better than recipients. No-bid contractors such as Halliburton exploit close ties to the Administration and profit in Iraq, while our soldiers have to get by on a couple liters of water a day for drinking and hygiene.
Even Bush supporters supporters are restive as indicated by comments reported in an August 26, 2003 recent article in The New York Times entitled "Compassion' Agenda: A Liability in '04?" by Elisabeth Bumiller [LINK]:
"After three years, he's failed the test," said one prominent early supporter, the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fights poverty.
Mr. Wallis said Mr. Bush had told him as president-elect that "I don't understand how poor people think," and appealed to him for help by calling himself "a white Republican guy who doesn't get it, but I'd like to." Now, Mr. Wallis said, "his policy has not come even close to matching his words."
In his NYU/MoveOn.org speech on August 7, 2003, which Ann Richards believes Democratic candidates "will read and crib from," Al Gore touched on the subject of Bush's "compassionate" agenda, stating that "they [the Bush Administration] also promote the myth that there really is no such thing as the public interest . . . The test of compassion is action. What the administration offers with one hand is the rhetoric of compassion; what it takes away with the other hand are the financial resources necessary to make compassion something more than an empty and fading impression."
For Americans who swallowed the bitter pill of the 2000 "selection" and have had their worst fears about how the Bush agenda would unfold come true, there's never been any question that Bush must go in 2004. And the hunger for "regime change at home" will reach a crescendo as the election campaign year goes into full swing.
And now as we enter the election campaign season in earnest, the question on my mind is, who will have the ability to deliver the "single message" that Ann Richards sees as being the key to victory in 2004 and will it harken back to 1992's theme of making the needs of people a priority?
All the candidates, of course, have their websites up and and running. A quick visit to each reveals that all the Democrats have attractive, serviceable sites with the usual pages dedicated to issues, news, schedules, volunteering, and contributing. Taking a page from Clinton/Gore, John Edwards has written a campaign book (downloadable from his website) which outlines his take on the issues facing the country. But its title, "Real Solutions for America," doesn't pack the punch of Clinton's book titled "Putting People First," which directly reinforced his campaign's theme and which "was a useful blueprint that offered a sense of where Clinton was headed." (Business Week, 9/2/1996, [LINK]). (Clinton himself regards this campaign book as a vital part of his 1992 campaign's success.)
Among the other candidates' sites, Bob Graham's site with it's masthead message "Working for America' evokes some sort of vague connection to the American people.
The Dean For America website title is also fairly general, but a closer look reveals a theme that is a bit more focused. Under the section for contributions, Dean connects with the visitor by asking him or her to "Help Take Our Country Back." Even more telling is the fact that of all the nine websites that are up and running, only Dean's uses the word PEOPLE as a prominent part of his presentation. For example, Dean has been using the term "People-Powered" in his fundraising report announcements (June 30 and July 15, 2003 press releases). And, to top it off, Dean has a logo with a Trumanesque "Give ‘Em Hell Howard" message coupled with the "People-Powered" phrase used to describe his "debate rallies."
A recent Washington Post article titled "Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush" by Evelyn Nieves (July 6, 2003) depicts Dean " . . . the Democrats' angry Everyman . . . " even though "Most Vermonters would say that Dean the Passionate Populist who extols health care and equal rights for all is a Different Dean from the one they know . . . . Whether it's his message ("You have the power to change this country" is a campaign mantra) or his method, or both, Dean's passionate, bare-fisted pounding at the Washington power structure is obviously working, at least for now" [LINK].
It seems to me that Dean's whole campaign effort has been very strong on "connecting" with people so far, particularly in his brilliant use of the Internet. But will Dean develop his "People/Powered"/You have the power to change this country" references into a powerful overarching campaign theme that can be as effective as 1992's "Putting People First -- For a Change"?
That bit of musing might have been the final thought in this essay, until I happened across some words of wisdom by none other than Clinton's 1992 mastermind, James Carville.
In the March 11, 2002 Salon Interview with Joan Walsh, Carville was already commenting on what he saw as strong currents in the Democratic party and the nation and the type of candidate he favored:
Within the last few months Carville has talked in more specific terms about the message such a candidate should deliver. In a July 23, 2003 interview with TomPaine.com, Carville argues that Democrats need a "big issue" in 2004:
In 1992, "Putting People First" carried with it the idea of reversing years of "losing ground" that many Americans had experienced under Reagan/Bush; Carville's new twist on "generations" takes the 1992 mantra and connects it to the theme of what the people of this country can expect to leave for their children's futures. (In my view, Clinton's signature theme song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" by Fleetwood Mac was used to rev up anticipation for a Clinton presidency rather than the idea of "generations.") A message of "the generational promise" seeks to reconnect Americans to a sense of "the greater good" and a positive sense of unity as a nation; it takes the "Putting People First" mantra to a higher level and gives Americans the opportunity to consider a broader purpose when they vote.
At the moment, all of the Democratic candidates are speaking out in mundane terms about working families and ways to address the problems they face. For example, during his September 7th appearance in San Francisco, Dean took on Arnold Schwarzenegger's statement that he (Schwarzenegger) would not be taking any money from unions because he considers them a ''special interest" group.
Dean looked at the women surrounding him at the podium, and recited their occupations: nurses' aides, food service workers, and physical therapists. "Not exactly special interests," Dean said wryly. "I call them hard working Americans. ("Presidential Hopeful Howard Dean Gets a Big Show of Support in S.F.," Carla Marinucci, San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 2003 [LINK]).
BUT . . . are ANY of the candidates moving beyond this sort of "sub-issue" and broadening the message that can form the "big issue" and inspiration for the 2004 campaign?
Well, yes, but it isn't one of the front-runner's. At the end of the September 4, 2003 Democratic presidential debate in Albuquerque, Univision's Maria Elena Salinas queried the candidates on the subject of immigration and amnesty for illegal workers in the U.S. In the last minutes of the discussion, Carol Mosely Braun remarked:
There it is, the "big issue." Hats off to Carol Mosely Braun for putting this idea out there! But, now we'll have to wait to see if the message gets picked up by any of the other candidates any time soon. And, of course, we'll have to see if this concept becomes the core of the Democratic national campaign in 2004.
I fervently hope that the Democratic candidate who goes head to head with Bush doesn't waste valuable time, effort, and money searching for a new playbook when it's obvious that building on the message of 1992 is the key. I implore the candidates -– listen to Carville and, if Braun isn't the candidate, listen to her!
heck, while they're at it, why shouldn't they listen to me!
"PUT PEOPLE FIRST, NOW . . . AND FOR THE FUTURE!" –-
it's a start and it could be a winner. For, I think most folks
believe, just as
in 1992, that people have to count in this country -– now, in 2004,
and for always.
otherwise noted, all original