A winning frame for Democrats in 2012

Last December, I wrote about how Republicans politically manipulate us. Political manipulation, of course, is hardly new. It is certainly not illegal, although the egregiousness of it lately from the Right, not to mention the many boldfaced lies by politicians and their surrogates like Fox News often makes it infuriating. I promised back then that I would offer my suggestions on how Democrats can change this dynamic. Here, at last, are my thoughts.

It is important for Democrats and Progressives to understand the dynamics of political campaigns and how it varies from governing. Campaigns are designed to win power. Governing is the wise execution of power, to the extent you can execute it within the political context. When voters elect large majorities favoring Republicans, such as occurred in the 2010 election, this happen for a variety of reasons. Issues certainly are a factor in votes and when the economy is doing badly and jobs are hard to get those in power can expect to get hammered. The Karl Roves though understand that election outcomes are a result of three primary factors: firing up the bases so they vote en masse, depressing the opposition’s base if possible (in some cases this results in electoral fraud, like making it difficult for minorities to vote) and finally swinging as many independents your way as possible. The one that matters the most is firing up your own base.

Independents being independent will tend to swing with the issues of the day. If you can’t get a job you will blame it on the bums in charge and vote for the opposition party. Republicans and Democrats will largely vote the party line. To win independents, framing the issue is important. Republicans are excellent at framing issues. “Obamacare”, a term they made up, is a one-word frame. When they mention “Obamacare”, in the same sentence they also mention the one thing about the law that raises the most dander: the requirement in the law to purchase health insurance. The idea is to focus one fact to the exclusion of everything else and blow it up disproportionately. It works. So to compete, Democrats need to find their own frame. I will have more on that in a bit.

Most elections will swing toward voter apathy, but Americans tend to vote more in presidential election years than in other election years. Regardless, our recent voting history is pretty dismal. Even in a presidential election year, roughly only half of eligible voters will vote. So those who win, as Republicans proved in the 2010 election, disproportionately vote in higher numbers than others. They are “fired up” about something. The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world play the role of evangelists to the faithful. Money flows, and in a typical year Republicans, having deeper pockets, will outspend Democrats.

Polarization thus fires up political bases. One of the reasons moderates have become so rare is that no one gets excited over a moderate. It is easier for a party to nominate a moderate if the opposition can be painted as extreme. These days though a party will prefer to choose someone from the extreme ends, if possible, in order to fire up the base.

In the 2008 election, Democrats were genuinely fired up principally between two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The energy was with the Obama campaign because it excited the imagination of more Democrats. Plus, Obama was framed (truly or not) as a “transformational figure”. In 2008, voters had eight years of Bush-Cheney and found it very disagreeable. They wanted change. “Change” became Obama’s frame and it worked successfully not only energizing Democrats but also many Independents.

Picking the right candidate thus becomes crucial. Ideally it should be someone who will fire up the base but when election time rolls around can pivot toward the center and be seen as “sensible” by moderates and independents. Among potential Republican candidates in 2012, there are not many that fall into this category. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are the only two that I see that could realistically compete against Obama in 2012. There must be a compelling reason to oust an incumbent president. Polling suggests without some much worse economic news there likely will not be this animus. Romney and Pawlenty though just might have a chance.

Winning an election and governing are two completely different experiences, as Obama is finding out. This is where you need someone who can pivot toward the center and pull his party with him. It annoys progressives like me when this means we get a less than perfect health care bill like the Affordable Care Act. However, unless a party has overwhelming majorities in Congress you will never get the “ideal” solution implemented into law. House Republicans are going to discover this unfortunate reality in March when the current continuing resolution funding the federal government expires. A federal government shutdown in March, likely lasting some weeks, is very likely if not inevitable. It will probably take senior citizens not getting their social security checks to prod these Republican purists toward some pragmatism and middle ground. The longer Republicans obstruct, the greater the political price they will pay. At the moment, they do not understand this, and that includes Newt Gingrich who should know better. Democrats can use this blindness to their advantage.

Political success thus comes from firing up the base for the elections to win more political power, then convincing the base to accept half a loaf when governing actually starts. Whichever political party does this best ultimately has the most political clout. With a few exceptions, like Franklin Roosevelt’s overwhelmingly Democratic congress, political compromise is necessary and must happen. Even in Roosevelt’s case, while Congress was aligned with him, the Supreme Court was not. There will always be opposition.

What is remarkable about Obama’s first two years in office was how much he and the Democratic congress actually accomplished. This was a feat not seen for decades. It drew the expected political opposition, and drove much of the animus that occurred in the last election. In 2008, voters wanted change. Obama and the Democrats largely delivered and in the process paid a price.

What frame or frames should Democrats use in 2012? Republicans know the secret: it must be a KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) frame. Here is the frame that I would use: Republican Recklessness. Republicans want radical and reckless changes to our system of government. America, however, is a moderate country. So vote Democratic to protect our safety net and to keep reasonable people in charge.

Democrats can point to successes, and there have been many. The Affordable Care Act is noteworthy, but probably not something to highlight right now. One can point to the way the Obama Administration is winding down costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how Democrats kept the economy from collapsing (bailing out GM, Ford and other major companies were successes, saving thousands of jobs), ensured that the jobless received benefits during a dramatic economic downturn, and kept a basic floor under the people of this country during a very rough time. It should not be much harder than that. There are so many examples of reckless policies from the Republicans it is hard to know where to begin, but obviously highlighting their proposed cuts to Social Security are on the table. Democrats should be a little fearless for a change and say Republicans plan to decimate Social Security and Medicare. The evidence is all around. Americans won’t need much convincing.

That’s how to win in 2012 or at least break Republican gains. Democrats should be able to pick up seats in the House, but holding on to the Senate will still be tough. But it’s a frame that can win, and the underlying truth of it will be hard for any sober person to disagree with.

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