The Democrats: When Will They Ever Learn?
By Ernest Partridge
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers
December 2, 2003
Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put
them on the defensive. And don’t ever apologize for anything.
Harry S Truman
Early in the 2000 Presidential campaign I wrote to the Democratic National
Committee, and to the few individuals who read my website, and argued that if
the Gore-Lieberman ticket were to win, the Democrats must study the successful
tactics of their opponents and also the failed tactics of their predecessor
candidates – in particular, the Dukakis campaign of 1988.
Unfortunately, 2000 turned out to be, in several significant aspects, a re-run
of 1988 – so too, 2002. The early stages of the 2004 campaign suggest that the
Democrats are about to make the same mistakes all over again. In many
readily identifiable respects, they already have.
The Republican know this, and are no doubt thoroughly delighted.
As for the Democrats, when will they ever learn?
Among the supporters and advisors to the Democratic Party are some very bright
people: notably, lawyers and academics. Thus it is a mystery how these
brilliant people can be so practically stupid, failing to learn from their
And so, one more time, here are a few campaign rules which, I am confident,
would significantly improve the chances of a Democratic victory in November,
Do not allow the opposition to define your candidate. It is much
easier to defeat a distorted caricature than the authentic honorable and
capable candidate. And so, the GOP successfully portrayed Al Gore as
humorless, stiff, “unlikeable,” self-promoting, and above all, dishonest. They
said that he claimed to have invented the internet (he never made the claim)
and that he claimed to have “discovered” Love Canal (false again). These and
numerous additional false accusations were made time and again, with feeble
denials at best, until they came to be accepted as “conventional wisdom.”
In fact, the caricatured Gore (humorless, stiff, aloof, etc.) was a far cry
from the witty, charming and personable individual known to his friends and
And now it begins again. How often have we heard that the apparent Democratic
front-runner, Howard Dean, is “another George McGovern” – i.e., an unelectable
“wacko” fringe liberal. Worse still, Dean’s fellow Democrats – his
pre-nomination rivals – are piling on with these labels and thus doing the
GOP’s dirty work.
In point of fact, Howard Dean is arguably the most mainstream, even
“conservative,” of the Democratic candidates, as his record of Vermont
governor testifies. (See
Wesley Clark has also been the subject of “redefinition,” as
dishonest, wily and unscrupulously ambitious. Interestingly, among the
Democratic contenders, Dean and Clark seem to be the targets of the most
determined efforts of redefinition by the GOP. Presumably because these two
are the most formidable potential opponents of Bush.
If ever there were a politician vulnerable to negative characterization, it is
George Bush. So why aren’t the Democrats hard at work defining him?
Hell, there isn’t even a need to concoct a list of disagreeable and
disqualifying personal qualities (as the GOP did with Gore) – the authentic
qualities of the man are more than enough.
The prime rule of candidate definition is “get to it as early as possible and
hammer it in” – as once again, the Republicans are doing and the Democrats
Disband the circular firing squad and keep your eyes on the prize. It’s
happened before, and now it’s happening again: the rivals for the nomination
are beating each other up so mercilessly that the nomination may, at length,
not be worth the winning.
Instead of trying to convince us that “my rivals can’t beat Bush,” much better
to say “I have the stuff to beat Bush and furthermore will better serve the
American people, and this is why,” and then the focus
should be relentlessly on Bush’s personal disqualifications and his failed
Before the nomination is settled in the primaries, the Democrats have a golden
opportunity to use the “free media” of primary and debate coverage to make
their case against Bush and the GOP. If they are so foolish as to use that
time to diminish each other and the eventual candidate, then perhaps they
deserve to lose in November -- except that the alternative is far more
Hit early and hit hard – and with a simple and direct message. Right
after the recent despicable GOP ad was aired, suggesting that the Democrats were
undermining Bush’s “war against terra,” Wesley Clark shot back: “I’m not
critical of President Bush because he’s attacking terrorists; I’m critical of
the president because his is not attacking terrorists.” Excellent!
Simple, compelling, and aimed directly at the nerve of Bush’s accusation.
And it was delivered by a soldier whose patriotism could not plausibly be
Employ tactical judo – use the enemy's strength to your advantage.
Here’s an example: the “mighty media Wurlitzer” has been blasting a message of
“fear and trembling” ever since 9/11, with the implied message that the
Flyboy-in-Chief is best qualified to protect us from “the evildoers.” So now
the Democrats should repeat, over-and-over-and-over: “do you feel safer than you
did four years ago?” (Yeah, I know, in 1984 Reagan said similarly, "are you
better off than you were four years ago?" All the better).
If that question, "do you feel safer?" gets lodged in the collective electorate cranium, then every
time the GOP tries to put the fear of Osama into us, it will backfire, as Joe Nascar
and Sally Soccermom reflect, “yeah, I’m still scared – so why hasn’t
the Prez done something these past four years to protect us?”
Another case of media bombast turned sour: somehow (no thanks to the Dems PR
genius), Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” landing on the Abe Lincoln has morphed
from a moment of triumph to a GOP embarrassment and a national joke. It is
also a golden opportunity for the Democrats to remind the public of Dubya’s
“flight” from his military obligation. Don’t expect to see those flight-deck
photos in the GOP campaign ads. Maybe the Dems will use it to advantage. Ditto
the “turkey flight” to Baghdad, if the Democratic campaign honchos are
sufficiently clever and resourceful.
Finally, the Democrats should pound on the message that,
lacking substantive and compelling issues, the GOP must turn to personal
smears. If the Republicans are successfully defined as vicious character
assassins, then all the millions that they pour into attack ads will turn back
on the attackers. "Tactical judo." We've all seen this happen, and
spectacularly so. The millions of dollars of public money spent on Ken Starr's
"Bubba hunt," scarcely dented Clinton, and instead led to the downfall of Newt
Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and to Democratic gains in Congress.
In general, in the face of both the media’s subservience and Bush’s
accumulating quarter-billion dollar war chest, the Democrats might look for
solace to the Russians. For seventy years, the Soviet government had total
control of the press and the airwaves, and yet for the most part, the Soviet
people came to believe none of it. Instead, they listened to and read foreign
sources – at times, at great personal peril. In addition, having been denied
access to the airwaves, presses, or even copy machines, the dissidents
circulated their news and opinions by samizdat -- typed and handwritten manuscripts. The
opposition today is far better off with the internet and computer media – and
it appears that we will, at last, soon have some progressive radio and cable
The public is beginning to wise-up to the propaganda mills that were once the
diverse and free media envied the world over. The compelling strategy of the
Democrats, then, is to poison the well of GOP propaganda by discrediting the captive media. The public has been fed a stream of
confirmable lies by that media (e.g., Iraqi WMDs, the Saddam/Osama connection,
etc.). Time to remind the public of what they were told “before” and how
subsequent events have revealed the lies. Direct quotes from the Bushistas are
Most people hate to be suckered and lied to, and they can’t abide hypocrisy.
The Bush Administration is the captive of con-men, liars and hypocrites – all
of whom are in deadly fear of being found out. To avoid which, they turn up
the volume of The Mighty Wurlitzer, and look to the likes of FOX, O’Reilly and
Rush to implore the public to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
However impressive in its scope and audacity, the GOP facade rests upon a
shaky edifice at best. The evidence of the Bush gang’s avarice, deception,
mendacity and hypocrisy is in plain sight for all to see. Yet half the
population refuses to believe what they see. The essential question before us is whether or not
the opposition has the insight, craft and determination to direct the public’s
attention to the rot and corruption at the base of the Bush regime.
Making the Case vs. Selling the Product. As noted earlier, the
Democrats’ brain-trust is heavily populated with lawyers and professors, while
the GOP draws its talent from the marketplace – from commerce and advertising. Thus
the Democrats are inclined to approach the electorate as if they were in a
courtroom or a seminar room. The Republicans treat the voter as if s/he were
walking on to a used car lot. The result? The Democrats win the arguments, and
the Republicans win the elections.
As much as it distresses this old professor to say so, the public at large is
much more susceptible to sales pitches than it is to arguments. Even so, there are a
lot of good PR experts, sales persons, and motivational psychologists in
the Democrats’ camp. They should be utilized, but not without moral restraint.
The unscrupulousness of GOP campaign tactics can be used against them. Their
basic strategy is one of distraction and misdirection: images in place of
issues, trivia in place of substance, and the distortion and manipulation of
language. Thus their message focuses on gay
marriage, flag burning, tax relief, the display of the Ten Commandments,
rather than economic and social justice, war and peace, education, fiscal
responsibility, equal opportunity.
It is thus the task of the Democrats’ “sales force” to honorably “sell” a
message which is ultimately founded on scientific facts, on common-sense, on
conventional morality, on justice, and on the rational self-interest of the
Finally, stay on message! Once again, the scholar’s inclination
is the politician’s undoing. Scholars love to search far and wide for
implications and connections. They point out complications behind apparent simplicity.
Theirs is a vocabulary of “and then what?” and “yes, but... ”
The voter craves simplicity. The successful politician knows this, and gives
the voter what he wants.
The Democrats have a rich assortment of issues, and that very variety could
prove to be counter-productive. So they must pick the hottest items, simplify
the message, and repeat and repeat and repeat. About the time that the
candidates get sick and tired of repeating “the same-old-same-old,” is the
time the public may begin to “get it.”
The GOP has profited mightily from “The Big Lie:” repeated constantly until it
is widely believed to be true. Witness FOX TV's claim to be “fair and balanced,” Bill
O’Reilly’s “no-spin zone,” Rush Limbaugh’s inventions followed by “folks, I’m not making this up.”
But most notorious of all: the lies about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass
destruction, and the alleged Saddam/Al Qaeda connection. The latter Big Lie
has led two-thirds of the American public to believe that Saddam Hussein was
involved with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And yet, on September 17, Bush
himself said: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with
In response, the Democrats would be wise to consider the efficacy of “The Big
Truth.” Just as lies can, with constant unrefuted repetition, be widely
believed to be true, so too can significant truths come to be widely believed if they
are constantly repeated. So the Democrats must abandon the “laundry
lists” of issues, and instead repeatedly pound on the “hot button issues.” Bush is a liar. He is an international outlaw. He and his gang are robbing you
of your wealth, your future, and the future of your children. He has brought
our beloved country into disrepute the world over. And he is sending our
kids abroad to fight and die for Cheney's Halliburton and his Daddy's Carlisle
Say it, over and over and over again, simply and starkly – until it begins to
These few simple rules, I am convinced, can lead the Democrats to victory –
not only to the White House, but also in the Congress and the state houses.
But if they repeat the same mistakes and lose, so shall we all.
Copyright 2003 by Ernest Partridge
Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications
Conscience of a Progressive:
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at
the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online
Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers".