A reporter from the Tampa Bay Times asked me recently what I thought Florida Democrats’ message was. Off the top of my head I said, “We stand for values that promote a stronger Florida, like a healthy environment, economically secure families and a brighter future.” Later I added another thought in an email: “Our measure of success is when everyone succeeds.”
In the final published piece titled “Florida Democrats plot a road to relevance,” I was a bit taken aback that some of our party leaders, when asked the same question, couldn’t quite spit out an answer.
Alan Clendenin, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told the reporter, “Our brand is sound,” adding, “Our problem is being able to boil it down into something people can buy into in a guttural way.” I assume he misspoke, but the malapropism gave me pause. “Guttural” refers to a strange, unpleasant, or disagreeable noise made in the throat; an inarticulate growl of sorts.
“An inarticulate growl” is where Democratic messaging stands in Florida right now. I believe this isn’t for lack of talent, even though FDP Communications Director Joshua Karp has departed to the Patrick Murphy campaign. There’s plenty of great communications professionals in the Democratic family, and stacks of research to apply to our project.
The fact is, we can’t have a clear message until we resolve the tension between voter and donor interests. And, there’s no better place to observe this conflict than in the Democratic Presidential primary.
It’s clear that the brand of the Democratic Party is contested territory right now. You’ve got the Bernie Sanders vision, arguing forcefully that Democrats represent average Americans who need leaders to fight for us against Wall Street and other forces economic predation. Great. We can run with that.
But then there’s Hillary Clinton, surrounded by Wall Street insiders, lying low, seemingly focused on not being quoted on anything whatsoever.
Sanders is the rock-star of the two at the moment, rallying stadiums wall-to-wall with cheering fans. That’s no accident. He has the freedom and the courage to lay out specific policies addressing the realities of American households, whose median net worth plummeted by an average of 36 percent, thanks to Wall Street’s pump and dump schemes.
Meanwhile, Clinton is playing defense; keeping it tight; doing roundtables with hand-picked small business owners, trying her best not to outline specific policy positions. A new tactic, perhaps understandably, is to make the claim that she’s the “most progressive” candidate, largely based on her support of gun control. It’s one of the few areas Sanders is weak on, so it makes sense to try and make the most of it. Predictably it’s not catching fire.
For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded with passion and momentum, while Clinton’s campaign seems increasingly cautious — literally roping off reporters; issuing press releases about how she’ll start doing interviews…”soon.”
We’d be blind not to see this same tension in the Democratic brand — between the energetically aspirational and the cautiously generic — reflected in our state party. Our leaders are vapor-locked, saying little, watching and waiting to see what the Clinton campaign does. Her triangulation is their triangulation.
But why? Why is our old, powerful moral narrative — the one catching the country on fire through Bernie Sanders’ Lollapalooza-like rallies — somehow considered too dangerous by our own leaders? Do they not understand that the message works? Or is it more a problem of not offending the donor class standing in the shadows?
The Messaging section of the LEAD Task Force Report actually recommends a significant pivot in framing. The report suggests that we appeal to an upscale “middle class” mentality, which leaves out low-income and working families who are struggling to make ends meet. This new, wealth-friendly language was in such heavy rotation at the Leadership Blue Dinner that it harkened to the absurd overuse of “September 11,” by Republicans in the 2004 election cycle.
“Middle class” is a poor a place-holder to represent the Democratic base. It’s boilerplate New Democrat Coalition (Wall Street-friendly) messaging that expressly excludes low-income and working-class people, and so implies that Democrats will leave those who can’t make ends meet in the dust when it comes to crafting policy. This is not a message that will fill stadiums — or voting booths.
As a matter of fact, in terms of neutralizing the opposition and energizing our base, research by the Center for Community Change shows that one of our strongest messages is “America has swung out of balance, because economic rules unfairly favor the rich.” According to a recent report, this message, and a handful of others like it that confront economic predation, beat leading opposition arguments by at least 10 points.
What the faux middle class messaging communicates to working families is that if they can’t make ends meet, they don’t matter to Democrats. And worse, it makes it sound like middle class people are somehow turned off by issues pertaining to working class people. These ill-advised assumptions remind us of Bill Clinton’s DLC-inspired policy campaigns of the ’90s, like “ending welfare as we know it.”
That’s the messaging of the past, and Sanders is broadcasting the message of the future. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Bill Clinton’s time in office. Those, like myself, who were able to reach middle class status during the dot-com boom, have since lost jobs, houses and retirement savings in the Great Recession. Those who returned to jobs or remained employed have seen wages stagnate while productivity breaks records. We’re still scarred by the economic predation, because nothing was done to ensure that it won’t happen again.
This means we all identify with the economic justice message. Fewer people are drowning, but the trauma of The Great Recession still haunts us. And that terrifies Wall Street, as well as other big corporate interests who’d rather not be asked to raise wages or pay their fair share of taxes.
In terms of economic security, Americans are not okay. Not by a long shot. Young people coming out of school face an uncertain future with more debt than we’ve ever seen in the history of, well, debt. Seniors have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on The Grand Bargain to gut Social Security in the form of raising the retirement age, and cutting benefits. Families with children can’t afford day care to keep two incomes, and their public schools are being sold off to private companies.
The next election, and every election after, must address this, and Wall Street lobbyists know it. They’re willing to spend whatever it takes to stop that before it happens.
In the TBT article, 2010 Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Dan Gelber comes the closest to putting his finger on a message: “We’re looking out for you. We’re the ones who have your back.” Much better. Now let’s actually have our voter’s back on issues that matter.
And, let’s not double-down against having any message at all. One political insider shared this thought on Facebook recently: “I am sick unto death with ISSUES…How are we supposed to organize if we spend all our time talking about issues”? He suggests that we instead knock on doors and, I suppose, shame our neighbors into voting.
Please, don’t take this advice. Talking about issues is how we connect with voters. Shame is not who we are. Economic security, racial justice, a cleaner environment, healthy families and marriage equality — this is who we are. If the closest thing we have to a message is, as the joke goes, “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” then we’ve lost before we started.
When our party stops having the voters’ backs on the issues that matter to them, we matter less to voters, and rightfully so. We succeed when we’re working to ensure that everyone succeeds. If our leaders are frightened by this message, and the actions demanded by it, then it’s time to find new leaders.