A message muddled
Democrats, discipline thyselves!
By Lauren Stiller Rikleen
Massachusetts Democrats should remember this cold winter for more than the loss of a Senate seat long held by their beloved liberal lion. Martha Coakley did not lose because she was a flawed candidate, and voters should not simply accept the weaving of that narrative. Nearly a century after Will Rogers said “I am not a member of any organized party - I am a Democrat,” it is time to make the words obsolete.
Democrats should take a page from the Republican playbook on the topics of party discipline and the ability to connect with the way people think and feel. In major races that the Democrats in this state have lost, the Republicans had a message, stuck with that message and made sure its themes related to how people view their own circumstances. Their actual positions mattered less because they connected to voter emotions at a deeper level. Democrats stood solid on their issues; the Republicans went right for the gut.
Many years ago, as an idealistic student, I threw myself into the statewide campaign of a Democrat who was a passionate advocate for everything that I believed government could help accomplish. She, too, was a sure frontrunner. When I expressed concern to a party operative about another candidate’s ability to connect with the voters, I was excoriated for even suggesting that an opponent had strengths. I stayed quiet the rest of the campaign. My candidate lost.
Decades later, I was speaking with a former colleague who was joining the Clinton administration. During a discussion about my involvement in local charities addressing hunger and domestic violence, she wondered why I worked on such grassroots efforts instead of having greater engagement in party politics. Why spend all that time helping individuals, she asked, when you could have a greater reach focusing on broader policy changes? Her response was a puzzling failure to understand why it could be more emotionally satisfying to offer immediate help to people, rather than labor for years on policy before the human impact is realized. The fact is both matter.
How many races will Democrats lose to the candidate whom voters would prefer to have a beer with - the one who seems to understand their concerns more than the candidate whose agenda is to fix those concerns? In how many races will they allow others to define the agenda, as the GOP and Scott Brown just did?
Last spring, I appeared on a Boston TV program to discuss Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, along with a Republican. While waiting for our segment, he referred to his GOP talking points. I thought he was joking until he showed me his paper with the list of points that he - and every other Republican in the country speaking on this topic - were uniformly addressing. The party discipline astounded me.
Democrats believe they should win because they stand for issues that matter. But to prevail, they also need more of a united front and a better connection to those same people whose causes they hold so dear.
The lesson to be learned from this race is that the Democratic Party should stick with its principles, but it must also learn to compete with the Republicans on party loyalty and cohesion, interpersonal connections, and defining the agenda. They should also get comfortable having that beer with the voters, perhaps one named for a revolutionary founding father.