by Ben Mathis-Lilley · November 5, 2018
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector employees who are represented by unions in collective bargaining can’t be obligated to pay dues to those unions. Legal observers say that decision, in Janus v. AFSCME, could presage a similar ruling regarding private-sector unions. More broadly, Janus was a stark victory for the 1 percent, underlining a decades-long trend of working- and middle-class wage stagnation. It was the kind of development liable to outrage both politically engaged liberals and politics-averse but pocketbook-conscious swing voters. It was, in other words, a potentially catalyzing moment for the Democratic Party, a chance to make the case for the practical necessity of progressivism in clear and stirring terms during a crucial election year.
Presented with this opportunity, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi … did not rise to the occasion. “With this decision,” she said at a press conference, “the Supreme Court became the Supreme Corp.”
“That’s as in short for corporation,” she added helpfully. It’s a play on words! Woof.
“Supreme Corp.” is not the only egregious Democratic messaging swing-and-miss in recent memory. The most high-stakes such failure may have occurred in 2016’s first general-election presidential debate, when Hillary “Pokémon Go to the Polls” Clinton made laborious work of introducing a disparaging catchphrase for Donald Trump’s economic plan—“Trumped-up trickle-down”—that, suffice it to say, did not actually become a catchphrase. This foreshadowed Democratic efforts at Trump-related wordplay that continue to this day and have a collective batting average of .000. Senate Dems’ painfully awkward slogan during the Obamacare repeal battle, “Make America Sick Again,” was if anything a reminder of how Trump is way better at this stuff. (Relatedly, in May, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that the president’s tariff policies would “make China great again” and that they demonstrate “the art of a bad deal.”) Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, riffed on the repeal bill’s “Trumpcare” nickname by suggesting it should instead be called “Trump doesn’t care.” (Zing!) In June, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Patty Murray wrote that “as a candidate, President Trump talked a big game on lowering drug prices, but after 500 days in office the only health care ‘Price’ he has dropped is his former Secretary.” That would be ex-Trump administration Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Hey-o! Barf.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images.
Two years into the Trump presidency, the prominent Democrats who are called upon most frequently to speak on the party’s behalf about our many national crises—Pelosi, Schumer, other high-ranking legislators, the officials and surrogates of the Democratic National Committee—seem congenitally incapable of communicating in a way that is not beside the point and laden with clichés. This is in and of itself not totally crippling to the party’s electoral chances—there’s a lot that goes into messaging besides catchy sound bites. The toothlessness of establishment Dems is even somewhat understandable, given the way Pelosi, Schumer, and others came of age in an era in which the deployment of cautious, folksy rhetoric was a winning strategy. But it seems at least worth considering that, in 2018, being more direct, more aggressive, and more not-world-historically-lame—being, say, more like Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who concisely and virally said during a debate with his opponent Ron DeSantis that “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist”—could help the party rally supporters, establish a rapport with new voters, frame news coverage in advantageous ways, and, like, actually win elections for once.
While Donald Trump’s presidency has been the grotesque circus of crude behavior, practical incompetence, and artless corruption that many feared it would be, he has retained enough support in his own party and among independents to keep the bottom from falling out. Democrats are doing OK in the polls—they lead on the generic congressional ballot by more than 8 points—but not much better than opposition parties typically do during midterms. An April Reuters/Ipsos survey, meanwhile, found that support for the Democratic Party declined among 18-to-34-year-old voters by 9 percentage points in two years, and the Democrats are in danger of losing six Senate seats they currently hold. The party’s leaders, rather than riding a wave of opposition energy, are fighting to maintain their positions. Pundits and lower-level elected officials routinely call for Pelosi and Schumer to be replaced, while the 56-year-old New York congressman who was considered the top candidate to succeed Pelosi lost his primary campaign to 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It’s too simplistic to suggest that elite Democrats have failed to capitalize on the #resistance to Trump because their talking points are alarmingly witless. It’s not unfair, though, to argue that their rhetoric has failed to meet the moment. The horrifying wordplay is just one of many problems. Another recurring, futile trope is the theatrical performance of hope that Republicans are about to begin respecting civic ideals. (Narrator: They aren’t.) On the March day that Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via tweet and news broke that a woman who’d helped cover up torture would be nominated to run the CIA, Schumer announced that he hoped new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would “turn over a new leaf” in U.S. diplomacy. (He hasn’t.) Pelosi’s statement complained that Tillerson had been treated in “humiliating” fashion, as if the personal feelings of an oil executive who’d signed on to carry out the whimsical demands of an idiot president are of any concern to anyone. Both statements seemed more directed to imaginary sympathetic Republicans in the Trump administration than to the general public, much less to potential Democratic voters—and as Splinter’s Libby Watson noted, neither mentioned torture.
The national party’s stale sloganeering seems closely linked to its strategic tendency toward borderline-comical caution and overestimation of Republican good faith. In April, when media reports indicated Trump may have been planning to fire Robert Mueller’s boss and protector, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, National Journal reported that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner—the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee—had told his fellow Democrats that, in the event Rosenstein were fired, the party should withhold comment until a “one- or two-day cooling-off period” had passed, during which they could organize bipartisan opposition. (Warner’s staff denies that he said this.) The DNC, for its part, suggested in distributed talking points that Democratic media surrogates respond to another Mueller-firing rumor by stating, “It is time for the GOP to draw a line in the sand and make clear that any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller would cross a red line.” (Yes—drawing one line, in the sand, to prevent Trump from crossing a different line.) Sen. Tim Kaine complained in the spring that Trump was “tanking” the “bipartisan congressional efforts” to protect DACA participants. Indeed, who besides anyone familiar with every single thing Donald Trump has done and said since 2015 could have foreseen that he would not look out for the best interests of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans?
It’s worth noting that national-level talking points are only one component of the broader political-messaging picture. Midterm elections are conducted in states and congressional districts, and quotes emanating from Washington aren’t necessarily of great concern to voters choosing between local candidates. Many voters intentionally tune out day-to-day political news, Lori Lodes of the Protect Our Care coalition of pro–Affordable Care Act groups told me, because “people don’t like politicians and they don’t like politics.” Campaign messaging thus relies heavily on paid media: television spots, Facebook ads, direct mail. This kind of direct-to-voter material needs to convey the totality of a candidate’s personality, qualifications, and beliefs to an audience that might not have heard their name before, and it’s not necessarily designed to traffic in pithiness.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
María Urbina, the national political director of the Indivisible grassroots organizing group, noted that a good campaign message comes from “having folks who look and feel more like ordinary neighbors,” who are demographically representative of their districts and who have earned credibility by participating in civic life at the local level. This election cycle’s two mega-viral Democratic ads, released by House candidates Amy McGrath in Kentucky and MJ Hegar in Texas, both pivot from red state–friendly stories of personal perseverance (both women overcame sexism and institutional barriers to become military pilots) to populist promises to persevere against big-money interests in Washington. And both McGrath and Hegar are now in competitive races despite challenging Republican incumbents in, you know, Kentucky and Texas.
Democrats have also won clear public-opinion majorities on issues like taxes and health care with the help of campaigns that privilege the stories of average voters over the charisma (or lack thereof) of party leaders. The Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, for instance, failed after an extended nationwide pushback in which people with disabilities and pre-existing conditions spoke to legislators at town halls, protested at the Capitol, and made their voices heard in (Democrat-abetted) television advertisements. Legislators like Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who reversed his position on Obamacare repeal and voted for the Trump-supported American Health Care Act, became the target of ads in which constituents described how repeal could’ve devastated their lives.
The point of highlighting nonprofessionals, said Lodes, an ex–Obama administration and Hillary Clinton campaign staffer who coordinated messaging for the anti-repeal movement, is that “real people aren’t scripted.” (To be clear, those Michigan ads are extremely scripted, but the broader point still stands.) A personal testimonial that voters can connect to their own lives—or that can be delivered to an undecided legislator in person—can have more impact than a catchy turn of phrase.
Democrats are not necessarily total losers, messaging-wise. But they succeed by working around, not with, their leaders. Consider the success of Crooked Media, the company created in 2017 by the three former Obama staffers who host the podcast Pod Save America. As documented by my colleague Isaac Butler, the Crooked formula is to use humor and outrage to articulate and validate its liberal audience’s Trump-era frustration, and then to channel that frustration by encouraging and helping readers and listeners to take action.
The company’s chief content officer, Tanya Somanader—a veteran of Nancy Pelosi’s office—told me that Crooked Media is “testing the theory” of whether old-fashioned grassroots mobilization can be triggered by new-fashioned, more forthright modes of political discourse. A case in point came in late October, when company co-founder Jon Lovett told Stephen Colbert, in reference to the right-wing theory that Democrats are coordinating the Central American immigrant caravan, that it’s ludicrous to think “Democrats are organizing voters in Honduras” when “we can’t even organize voters in Pennsylvania.” The podcast star then launched a #ProveLovettWrong campaign in which he solicited evidence that there are, in fact, an abundance of motivated and disciplined Dems in Pennsylvania.
Crooked is essentially a heart-lung machine for Democratic messaging, performing the personality-driven, inspirational functions the party’s national leaders can’t seem to handle themselves. The media firm’s loose structure allows it to avoid the too-many-cooks phenomenon, in which all individuality and color get sanded off by the time a message is ready for broadcast. One Democratic communications consultant described being quagmired in just such a situation at the moment he got my email about this story: “I’m now on a conference call where eleven different consultants, several of whom I don’t even know what their actual jobs are, are nipping and tucking at a draft and rendering it completely inert and bloodless.” The same consultant later explained how developing a novel and humanlike message is a priority that can get lost in the other logistics of campaigning. “My experience is that the national party is very concerned with the blocking and tackling, budget and field plan, and is less concerned with elevating communications people,” he said. “If you’re a candidate and you’re running for Congress for the first time and you feel like if you make any mistake you’re not just going to blow your own career but you’re going to get some asshole Republican elected, or if you’re a campaign manager and you’ve got the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] calling you every day and the only thing they want to talk about is budget—there isn’t a lot of space to sit down and say, here’s my story. The incentive is to be risk averse and blend in and be cautious.”
Cautious is the key word there. The Democratic leadership class is reflexively timid on issues of policy, strategy, and style. As a recent piece in Dissent magazine by activist Mark Egerman and progressive data analyst Sean McElwee documented, party leaders attempted to intervene in multiple locations during the 2018 cycle to push out candidates who had sharp, left-leaning messages in favor of more wealthy, donor-connected, and moderate politicians. But polling compiled by McElwee’s group Data for Progress has found that Democratic voters are generally more progressive on issues like the $15 minimum wage and Medicare for all than the senators who represent them, while an oft-cited 2013 study found that Democratic politicians consistently overestimate the conservativism of their constituents.
For the Democrats’ two congressional leaders, the caution doesn’t just apply to nuts-and-bolts policy. Pelosi, asked during a CNN town hall about football players who protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, declined to say she supported their actions. A few weeks later, Schumer implicitly but pointedly chastised California Rep. Maxine Waters for encouraging protesters to “create a crowd” around Trump administration officials in public. The Senate minority leader called Waters’ suggestion “not American.”
Why are the 67-year-old Schumer and 78-year-old Pelosi so cautious? Probably because they got their starts at a time when Democratic presidential candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale were getting splattered against walls by conservative candidates who portrayed them as radical hippies who would raise taxes to finance the Black Panthers. As McElwee put it, “Democrats lost a series of very brutal elections with incredibly left progressive people on the ticket. People saw it as losing elections because they were the party of abortion, acid, and amnesty.” (Perfectly enough, the phrase “acid, amnesty, and abortion”—which was deployed as a pejorative summary of McGovern’s alleged agenda, the “amnesty” referring to his position on draft evasion—originated not with Richard Nixon’s henchmen but in an anonymous quote given during the 1972 primary by moderate Democrat Thomas Eagleton, who McGovern then chose, unawares, as his running mate.)
The McGovern-traumatized Democratic Party subsequently found great success under Bill Clinton, a president who “reformed” welfare, balanced the federal budget, signed a crime bill that’s become synonymous with mass incarceration, and even encouraged public schools to make their students wear uniforms. Rhetorically, Clinton branded these suburban-parent-safe compromise positions with common-sense formulations that conceded validity to opposing views: “mend it, don’t end it” for affirmative action; “don’t ask, don’t tell” for LGBTQ presence in the military; “safe, legal, and rare” for abortion. He campaigned to “end welfare as we know it,” a phrase notable for the way it could describe almost any position on the issue. Clinton won two national elections by wide margins, and the Democratic fetish for rhetoric that “reaches across the aisle” can in some ways be seen as a nostalgic lament—a desire, as 30 Rock put it, to make it 1997 again through science or magic.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images.
It’s not the ’90s anymore. Clinton’s cutesy phrases and reasonable-centrist fetish were appropriate, at least in a mercenary electoral sense, given the political terrain of the time. He ran for the presidency against George H.W. Bush, and while we shouldn’t overnostalgize the elder Bush’s record, he was a more personally dignified and less ideologically extreme Republican than Donald Trump, having signed a 1990 law that raised taxes and later quitting the NRA because he felt its rhetoric was too inflammatory. Crime rates are much lower now than they were then, and the danger of runaway deficits and economic stagnation are no longer top of mind for many voters. Clinton’s Electoral College path, moreover, involved winning over blue-collar Southern whites, which is not true for Democrats today. The terrain has changed, but leaders like Pelosi and Schumer seem unable to shake the urge to speak as if our two major parties still share the same set of concerns and civic beliefs. It’s likely not a coincidence that the members of Schumer and Pelosi’s generation who inspire the most enthusiasm among younger voters—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—did not make their careers within the Democratic Party apparatus.
There is ample contemporary evidence that when it comes to messaging, “business-friendly and compromise-y” is not as necessary as it once might have been. Gillum won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida and is now the favorite to win the general election, while saying that the “stand your ground” gun law made famous after Trayvon Martin’s killing “has no place in civilized society.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Pelosi’s presumed successor, Rep. Joe Crowley, while embracing the term “socialist.” Beto O’Rourke is putting a scare into Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas while defending protesting NFL players as civil rights heroes.
Democrats like Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, meanwhile, helped make the Trump family-separation policy into an urgent crisis by simply visiting detention sites and speaking about what they saw—effective political theater that conveyed the stomach-churning impact of the Trump administration without much in the way of “messaging” mediation.
Merkley’s video, and the Trump walk-back that followed, demonstrated the possibility of meaningful action in an era of formal Democratic powerlessness. The Democratic consultant mentioned above praised it as the kind of messaging that shifts attention to an issue on which Democrats have a public-opinion advantage, also citing Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy’s 2016 gun-control filibuster and Warren’s hearing-room depositions of shady financial-world CEOs.
Then there’s Sanders, who won 43 percent of the Democratic primary vote despite having started his campaign with minimal name recognition or donor and institutional support compared with the more “electable” Hillary Clinton (who then lost the general election). Sanders spoke about both problems and potential solutions in no-nonsense, moralistic terms. Here’s how he addressed the hollowing of the middle class: “It is a rigged economy, an economy in which we have today a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, which is unsustainable and un-American.” Sanders on health care: “We should not be paying by far the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs at a time—listen to this—when the top three drug companies in this country made $45 billion dollars in profit last year. That is an obscenity.” Sanders on wages: “The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised.”
Senior Democrats are still afraid to speak with that kind of directness, despite the general American situation being even more dire, for Trump-related reasons, than it was during Sanders’ campaign. They also don’t seem to have internalized how forceful, social media–friendly rhetoric has built brand loyalty among Republicans. See, for instance, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s sudden surge in popularity among conservatives after angrily denouncing the alleged Democratic smear campaign against Brett Kavanaugh. Voters are frustrated, and not just those who are progressive news junkies. As my colleague William Saletan has documented, there’s polling evidence that a significant majority of voters are “embarrassed” by Trump and would like to see a Congress that “stands up to” the president rather than finding common ground with him.
That disconnect is where Sanders and Crooked Media were born. It’s a vacuum that has also abetted the rise of Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti, who has hung on to relevance with two clawing hands by creating a recurring series of dramas on social media. Elected Democrats complain that Avenatti has no grassroots activist credibility and is basically running a presidential campaign out of cable news greenrooms. But what those complaints miss, even after Donald Trump won the presidency, is that that’s the way politics works now. To repurpose an oft-cited analogy, it’s like complaining that a dog shouldn’t be allowed to play basketball instead of figuring out how to guard the dog that keeps dunking on you.
In Florida, Andrew Gillum, his other issues aside, understands how to guard the dog:
As my grandmother used to say — a hit dog will holler. pic.twitter.com/kC34Ldd0is
— Andrew Gillum (@AndrewGillum) October 25, 2018
Unlike a lot of the rhetoric that comes out of Democratic D.C., Gillum’s viral debate sound bite was aggressive, memorable, and reminiscent of the way human beings actually talk. Like other prominent progressive counterattacks during the Trump presidency—from the Women’s March to the activism that followed the Parkland, Florida, shooting to the responses to family separation—it felt like an appropriately urgent rejoinder in an urgent moment. None of those progressive high points involved the ostensible leaders of the Democratic Party.
Schumer, Pelosi, and the party’s other senior figures haven’t articulated what it means to be a Democrat in 2018, and there’s no indication they ever will. What might it mean if voters were able to hear from Democratic leaders who weren’t hostile to ambitious ideas and who didn’t respond to crises with embarrassing wordplay and platitudinous statements about bipartisanship? God willing, someday we’ll find out.
2018 Midterms Chuck Schumer Democrats Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi
Ben Mathis-Lilley is Slate’s chief news blogger. Follow the Slatest on Twitter.
Slate · by Ben Mathis-Lilley · November 5, 2018