We continue to hear a rather pointless argument over the reason Democrats had their clocks cleaned on November 2nd. Was it lack of effective messaging about their policy agenda, as President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders maintain, or was it a complete rejection of the policies themselves, as Republican leaders insist?
The argument is pointless because both sides are correct. Voters expressed a total rejection of everything Democrats had accomplished over the last two years because nearly all the information they soaked up about the stimulus package, healthcare reform and financial industry reform came from Republican messaging. Once again, the GOP defined the issues, and as usual, the side that defined the issues won the debate.
Early last year, the White House and Congressional Democrats fought among themselves over what, where and how much a stimulus package should try to stimulate. And Republicans were in there haggling for every dollar too. In fact, Democrat leaders threw a lot of money at Republicans trying to win their support.
The Democratic message was about funding ‘shovel-ready projects’ and infrastructure and how much was going to each state. Meanwhile, Republican talking points described a corrupt process of buying votes for a ‘job-killing waste of a trillion dollars.’ Guess which message most people heard.
In the spring and summer of 2009, the great debate raged about what a national healthcare reform package ought to contain. There were at least five significantly different versions being thrown around in Congress, some with mandates and some without; some with insurance exchanges and some without. Yet, long before Democrats reached agreement on the final legislative package, the Republican message about ‘Obamacare’ was already focused: Government control of one sixth of the U.S. economy, major cuts in Medicare and huge tax increases.
And, while they were at it, the GOP scared a lot of senior citizens with claims about ‘Death Panels,’ mandatory government access to seniors’ personal checking accounts and sending people without health insurance to jail.
Democrats finally got around to explaining that the new healthcare reform legislation would provide medical insurance coverage for 31-million people who couldn’t previously afford it, that young people up to age 26 could stay on their parents’ health insurance policy, that people could no longer have their medical coverage cancelled if they suffered from catastrophic or long-term illness, and that conditions such as breast cancer or spousal abuse could no longer be classified as pre-existing conditions and grounds for denial of coverage.
But it was too late. Most people had already heard the Republican message and made up their minds.
Financial industry reform should have been a huge winner for the Democratic majority; cracking down on greedy, out of control Wall St. financial firms and the sleazy practices that took the United States, and in fact, the world’s economy to the brink of collapse. Who in the world could be against that?
Democratic Congressional leaders argued and fought for months about which practices should be outlawed and what steps should be taken to prevent such a collapse from ever again happening, and they desperately tried to cut deals to win Republican votes.
At the same time, GOP message guru Frank Luntz conducted a series of focus groups and determined that the more a Democratic reform package could be associated with ‘bailouts,’ the more the public would react negatively. So even when Democrats got around to explaining that the final legislation specifically prohibited the use of public funds to bail out financial firms, Republican talking points had already characterized the bill as ‘bailout’ legislation. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell used the term “bailout’ eleven times in one floor speech. What did the voters remember?
What does all this tell us?
1. Republicans are far superior at developing and delivering an effective policy message than Democrats. That’s not exactly news. They’ve been “outcommunicating” Democrats for more than 15 years.
2. A terse, well-researched and well-crafted phrase that tells people how the most complex, arcane government policy will affect them, their family, their future or their community, even if it’s not true, will be heard and remembered much more than the most statistically accurate, fact-filled recitation, especially when the phrase contains an appeal to emotion, and especially when people hear the factual version last.
3. If Democratic leaders don’t learn these lessons — if they don’t get the message —they better get used to being the minority party in Congress and forget about being invited to state dinners at the White House for a long time.
Dave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.