Why must Democrats always act like such... well... Democrats?
Half a century ago, Will Rogers (who famously "never met a man he didn't like") summed it up best: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat."
Maybe they all really believed their own press releases. Maybe they thought that Republicans truly were going to offer up flowers and rainbows and play nice. Maybe everyone was so new on the job that the backlash caught them unawares. Maybe they thought "we've got the votes, we don't need to sell it." Maybe they thought "it's so popular and so obviously necessary we don't need to sell it to the people." Maybe they just didn't think.
Granted, while slow off the mark, President Obama has finally realized he needs to explain his agenda to the American people in order to galvanize support for it. Starting this week, he has tried to go on the offense. Unfortunately, then this year's version of "nanny-gate" began, and Obama nominees began sheepishly admitting that they "inadvertently" didn't pay a bunch of taxes. Thanks, guys! That's just what we needed this week -- more ammo for Republicans and late-night comics.
Now, Obama has tried to masterfully parry the whole problem, which was brought to a head by Tom Daschle on the very day Obama had invited the network news over to explain his stimulus package to America. Obama said (repeatedly) "I screwed up," and the storyline itself became: "A president who admits he made a mistake -- what an incredible breath of fresh air in the White House!" So, to a large extent, Obama came out of it mostly unscathed.
But it was a distraction -- at a time when he can ill afford such. Because Republicans have decided that the risks of a political downside for opposing Obama are acceptible, and they have been going at it full-bore since day one. Obama was late to respond to these arguments, and his initial response was pretty weakly made.
This is not to say he isn't getting better, but he certainly hasn't hit his stride yet. Today, the president penned an op-ed article for the Washington Post which defended his plan fairly strongly. And he has called for a prime-time press conference Monday, which will be the first time he has really used the "bully pulpit," and will be a crucial moment for the success of his agenda.
Obama's problem is twofold. He seems to have fired all his campaign speechwriters, and he's not getting very effective support from his own congressional leadership.
The first problem affects both Obama and Democrats in Congress -- the messaging has been horrible. You need to have two flavors of your message: a short version and a long version. I've heard neither from Democrats so far, or perhaps I've heard too many different ones for a clear theme to emerge. It's the old "herding cats" problem Democrats can't seem to shake -- their absolute and utter failure to create consistent message discipline across the entire party.
Think about it. What are the Republican soundbites? This is a "spending plan." Stimulus packages should be "timely, targeted, and temporary." I am no right-winger or Republican, and I know both of these off the top of my head. Because they keep to the message, they keep it short, and they repeat it in so many places that eventually I hear it.
So what is the Democratic response? I have no idea. I should, as I keep up on the news, but I really don't. Now, I know what it should be. That's easy. "Jobs, jobs, jobs." Or how about "infrastructure investment means good American jobs and means Americans building our own future."
This stuff is just not rocket science, folks. It's actually pretty easy to come up with soundbites Democrats should be using (but, for some inexplicable reason, aren't). And I can come up with these even though I really have no idea what's in the bill. I have no idea (other than to know about the programs Republicans are attacking, and one or two Democratic issues) because they haven't told me. There is a time for soundbites, and a time for laundry lists. And we've gotten neither from our party leaders -- from Obama on down.
Part of this is the fact that our Speaker of the House and our Senate Majority Leader just aren't very telegenic or charismatic. Nancy Pelosi generally does a better job, and has flashes of wit and brilliance on screen, but Harry Reid is such a massive disappointment it would take an entire separate article to deconstruct what's wrong with him leading the Senate Democrats. Overall, I'd give Pelosi about a C-plus and Reid a D-minus.
But we have some charisma and personality in the White House now, so he should be leading the effort. Instead, Obama has focused for too long on warning the country that bad times are still ahead, and that they're going to be with us for a while. OK, thanks, Mr. President. We get it. You've been warning us of this fact for months now. We understand. It's going to be a long, tough road. Got it. What we need now is some positive talk about what this bill is going to do to help us along that road.
Where is the talk of hope? Where is the talk of change for the better? Where is the list of why we need each part of the stimulus bill? Even the op-ed Obama just wrote doesn't exactly soar or even try to hit the ball out of the park. It's about a B-minus effort, if that. And again, it's not that hard to come up with something better.
"Here is what is in the bill, and here is why it must pass. The first part is infrastructure investment for the future of this country. And when I say 'infrastructure investment,' I mean good jobs for Americans. That's what we're investing in -- jobs for the future. The second part is tax breaks which we are targeting at the hardest-working Americans of all, those who are paid the least. They have seen tax cuts go to the wealthiest Americans over and over again, and we think it's time for them to get a tax break, too, even if they are poor enough that they don't pay income taxes. They still pay payroll taxes, and we are going to give them a break. This will allow their paychecks to go a little further. Thirdly, we are going to... blah blah blah... jobs jobs jobs. Oh, and jobs. Did I mention jobs? Those jobs are what the Republicans are against. They complain about sod for the National Mall -- it takes jobs to lay that sod. They complain about broadband expansion to rural communities -- who do they think is going to string that cable? They complain about X, Y, and Z, and every single one of them will create good American jobs. The only thing I can figure is that Republicans are against trying to get Americans back to work."
It's really not that tough to come up with language to sell this idea to the American people. Why Democrats refuse to do so is a mystery that is beyond my comprehension. President Obama entered office with sky-high approval ratings -- possibly the best numbers he will ever get. He is squandering this by allowing the opposition to frame the issue and beat him about the ears with nits they have picked. Obama could have kept the focus on the main parts of the agenda, but he ceded the field for over a week to Republican talking points. This week, he tried to catch up, but the tax problems of his appointees distracted him right from the start. But at least he now sees the danger in not supporting his own plan. He wrote an op-ed and will be live on prime time this coming Monday -- both giant leaps in the right direction.
Because most Americans know that we're in a pickle. And most Americans are actually pulling for Obama to do the right thing in trying to fix some of the problems. All Obama has to do is lead the way, and treat the public with respect. That means tapping in to that enormous reservoir of hope he built up during the campaign. He needs to talk to the American people, "going over the heads of the media" (as Ronald Reagan used to say) and climb up on Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" and tell us why his plan is a good idea. He needs to say "we considered a lot of options, and we rejected these options and chose these others. This is why we chose those options, and this is why it is imperative we pass my plan right now."
That's all we're asking for, Mr. President, and if you successfully deliver it, the public debate is going to change overnight. If you take the lead and show other Democrats "how it's done," then even the herding-cat problem might get better (since they can just repeat your words from that point on -- "well, as the president said...").
This isn't just about one stimulus plan. This isn't about shepherding one bill through Congress. These weeks are going to set the tone for a lot of what follows -- the entire rest of Obama's agenda. And the tone should be one of offense, not defense. Democrats are being shut out on television news 2-1 over Republicans? Start complaining about it loudly -- the media is hypersensitive to complaints of this nature, but you have to make them in the first place! Republicans want to filibuster? Make them filibuster -- and draw attention to it by demanding an "up or down" vote. Republicans whining they don't get as much input as they'd like to writing the bills? Remind them that when they were in charge, Democrats didn't get any input whatsoever, and that things are much better now that Democrats are running things -- but also that the word "minority" means "you are not in power here." Republicans nitpicking over tiny, tiny details? Force them to explain why they're going to torpedo millions of jobs just for one-tenth of one percent of the total bill. In other words, lead. No more of this timid defense, no more following the framing of the opposition, no more squabbling amongst yourselves -- get on the same page, and shout it from the rooftops.
The current congressional fracas is going to draw the limits for what comes after. And so far, I have not been impressed. Congressional Democrats have been having an extremely hard problem realizing that they are now the majority party in Congress with a president of the same party. This hasn't happened since 1994, in their defense, so it is slightly forgivable if most of them don't know how to act. But there are tougher battles ahead (the yearly budget, for instance). So Democrats had better shape up quickly, or we're in for a lot of disappointment in the coming months.
-- Chris Weigant