When I was a Program Officer at the Kettering Foundation, we hosted summer interns from universities and think tanks to contribute to our research on democracy. One summer, we had an intern from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in DC. I don’t recall his name, but I will never forget his comment, “Democrats are rhetorically challenged.” I paid attention, not only because he was writing his doctoral dissertation on political rhetoric, but also because his remark hit home.
Almost twenty years have passed since then, but James Carville says Democrats are still in a “defensive crouch.” Rachel Bitecofer, my favorite new prognosticator, writes that Democratic candidates often fail to embrace their party’s positive history and imply that “I am not one of them.” The motivation behind this posture is a focus on winning a sliver of swing voters, rather than expanding turnout by giving people reasons to vote.
Is it possible to offer fearless talk about real issues and yet avoid the toxic behavior of the other side? Admittedly, it is a kind of tightrope, walked by both “moderates” and “progressives” in the Democratic Party. Moderates often fail to choose their own ground, preferring instead to respond to Republican arguments, appear more “mainstream” and accept the idea of smaller rather than better governance. Progressives often miss the complexities and serious research done on policy issues by others, such as journalists and academics, and come across as ideological and often simplistic.
What do moderates miss? The currents street protests provide a stunning example. Radical reform of police departments is essential, but “Defund the Police” is perfect for right-wing push back and leads to confusion among supporters. Another example: minimum wage referenda have been appearing on state ballots for several years. There is ample evidence they increase turnout and enjoy support among independents as well as Democrats of all kinds. A Democratic candidate who focused on this issue, avoided by Republicans, could do well. Early childhood education is another widely popular issue that could attract new voters, especially young parents.
Progressives, for their part, could focus very specifically on the huge economic potential of alternative energy. Somehow, the “Green New Deal” as a virtuous slogan, has not done that.
But there is more to this rhetorical challenge than finding your own policy ground. Even in an era of polarized, rigid political division, the massive failure of the Trump Administration to confront the coronavirus has affected ordinary voters of all kinds. Some of them are persuadable if Democrats can make the case and get them to vote.
Ironically, it is a group of Never Trump Republicans who have made this case most forcefully. “Mourning in America” is brilliant rhetoric. Democrats, please watch! https://lincolnproject.us/news/mourning-america/
What are Democrats afraid of? Nothing they can imagine could be worse than what we now confront.