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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 mistakes.

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, 2004.

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 associates.

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 Rosenfeld and Holhut).

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 are not.

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 policies.

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 gruesome.

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 questioned.

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 news networks.

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 especially effective.

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 public.

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 Sept. 11."

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 Group.

Say it, over and over and over again, simply and starkly – until it begins to get through.

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:  A book in progress. 

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".



Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances