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How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message

Part 2: Progressives Need Both Offense and Defense

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin – January 2, 2017


These days our in-boxes are filled with pleas to “Join the Resistance.”  Progressive advocacy groups are promising to fight Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, and policies, and fight to preserve Obama’s legacy and accomplishments.  This is important work and worthy of our support.  But this is playing defense.  To get back into a position to lead America forward, Progressives and Democrats also need to retool their offense.

The Clinton Campaign lost largely due to an imbalance of defense over offense.  Political campaigns are communicating a lot of messages all of the time but if you want to know what the *message* is, look at the ads they make.  This is where they are spending the vast share of the money they are constantly raising, and this is most of what voters are seeing on television during regular broadcasting, as well as, being discussed all day on the political talk shows, and shared on social media.

The New Republic has attempted to collect all the ads that were produced by the 2016 presidential candidates and you can see them here.  Clicking through the Hillary Campaign spots you will mostly see ads like this, this, this, this and this that used clips of Donald Trump to make the case that he was too crass, angry, profane, sexist, racist, or reckless to be elected president.  They are very good ads that make the case well, but the repetition of a handful of clips of the candidate using bleeped expletives, threats, and mocking the handicapped speech patterns of journalist, Serge Kovaleski in August and September may have desensitized voters to the same images repeated again in late October. 


Worse, for many voters, these Clinton ads may have helped carry Trump’s message.  The Trump campaign cultivated the outrage-driven media coverage they received to deliver the message that Trump was the candidate most outside the mainstream.  The unacceptability of his alfa-male bully persona may be self-evident to elites in metropolitan centers like Washington, New York, San Francisco and Hollywood, but clearly it was not unacceptable, and perhaps even an important part of his appeal, for other segments of voters. 


But beyond a few content-free feel-good ads like this one set to Katy Perry's “Roar,” and this election eve closing message, there were very few ads like this one, made way back in April, painting a vision for how America would be different, better, with Hillary Clinton in the White House.  All of this leads us to wonder if the outcome would have been different if only the Clinton Campaign closed with an ad like this one, titled “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” from her 2008 primary campaign.


This ad is structured around the typical formula for Democratic economic messages: a promise of more jobs followed by three popular policy proposals.  In upcoming posts in this series, we will explain how this formula is missing a key element, but even the old formula is better than the near silence on the economy coming from the top of the Democratic ticket in paid media during the 2016 campaign.


So, if you feel a need to answer the call, join “the Resistance.”  We need our army of dot.orgs, issue, and interest groups to fight battles on Capitol Hill.  It is important for progressives to be diligent, smart, and effective in battling back the worst examples of Trump corruption and his potentially disastrous policies.  But to win back power in Washington and, at least as importantly, at the state and local level in as many states as possible, Democrats and progressives need to offer a far clearer vision of how we will make people’s lives better when we return to power.  


In politics, as in warfare and sports, you have to have both offense and defense.  Since he descended the escalator and announced his candidacy by denouncing Mexican immigrants, Trump has shown an ability to attract nearly all of the attention and so the media will focus on his actions and the efforts of progressives to block them.  But away from the spotlights it is critical that we also invest the time, talent, and resources needed to replace our economic message with something more coherent, complete, and compelling, than the message that has seen us lose three out of the last four elections while trailing Republicans on poll questions of which party voters trust to get the economy moving and create good jobs.  This is a weakness that must be addressed in time to regain the initiative in the 2018 election.    


How to Fix the Democratic Economic Message, Part 1: What Happened in 2016 – is here.


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