On Friday, May 15, House Democrats passed “the Heroes Act.” It’s a $3 trillion pandemic-relief bill, providing assistance to state and local governments, hazard pay for frontline health care workers, election protection, and many other benefits. Dems concocted a list so long that political pundits asked: “What’s the message that Democrats are trying to send?”
“The Heroes Act” is a symptom of a larger problem: in the face of Donald Trump ranting “Covid-19 is nothing to be afraid of; it’s safe to come out now,” Democrats don’t have a coordinated response.
1. Bad Donald: Many observers have suggested that Democrats adopt a variation of “Trump is a lunatic who is ruining our country” as the Party’s mantra. This approach is tempting because Donald keeps doing all the wrong things, in prime time. Nonetheless, I recommend that Democrats do not make “Donald bad, Joe good” their primary message.
While such an approach might stir up the deep-blue base, it’s unlikely to attract thoughtful voters who want to understand what the Democratic Party stands for. And this message won’t sway Republicans who already know Donald is “bad” and don’t care — in fact, seem to love him more the badder he gets.
Besides, the “Trump is a lunatic” channel is already occupied by groups such as The Lincoln Project. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/campaign-ads-2020/the-lincoln-project-mourning-in-america–campaign-2020/2020/05/05/2f99f36a-9761-4011-9b20-9258d3429f1a_video.html)) That is, by former Republicans, such as George Conway and Rick Wilson, who seem fully committed to running weekly “bad Donald” hit pieces for the next six months.
Setting aside this option leaves three obvious messaging choices: leadership AKA “Joe good;” we can do better; and (sigh) the all-too-familiar “blue marshmallow.”
2. Leadership: From here, the best Biden-oriented thrust would be to emphasize his leadership qualities. That is, build on the fact that Joe is widely perceived as a nice guy with 50 years of experience getting things done — mostly good things, such as the 2009 economic recovery. A Biden message example: In these difficult times, the United States needs calm seasoned leadership. A leader to bring us together, not drive us apart. Let’s restore decency to the White House. Vote Joe…
In other words, the Democratic leadership should not have Joe go negative, but instead let others do that. (Specifically, they should not have Joe respond to mean Trump tweets, but let others do that. Dems should set up a “President Tweety” war room.) Over the next six months, Joe should be calm, positive, and presidential. If Trump’s dominant persona is vindictive narcissist, Joe’s should be healer-in-chief.
(This message logic suggests that Biden’s VP pick should be someone who can “lay the wood” to Donald. Something that Amy, Elizabeth, and Kamala (and others) are very capable of doing.)
3. We can do better: As a perennial optimist, I believe the U.S. pandemic-depression is an opportunity for a seismic positive change in American society. For example, the pandemic has made clear the horrific problems with America’s healthcare system; the 2020 election is a good time to begin to fix these — for example, with Medicare for all.
While Joe Biden projects an image of empathic leadership, the Democratic team should broadcast a message of “the United States has to do better; we can do better.” (I.e., “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”)
Democrats should emphasize a handful of appealing programs. For example, Dems want healthcare for everyone — Medicare for all. Further, Democrats should promise meaningful employment for everyone — a massive effort to rebuild America. And, Dems will deal with climate change — the green new deal.
I’m emphasizing a handful of Democratic program proposals because the campaign emphasis should be restricted two or three. In 2020, Democrats need to keep the message simple. The American public is hungry for problem solutions but, in these difficult times, is easily overwhelmed. Democrats should pick two or three program initiatives and hammer away at them: Americans need better healthcare and Democrats know how to do it… (By the way: since the Trump campaign is all about Trump, they won’t be providing any real problem solutions.)
4. What’s the message? Sadly, there’s a real possibility that Dems will not develop a coherent message in 2020. There’s a real chance that Democrats will repeat the mistakes made in the 2016 Clinton campaign — go all-out wonk, promise something for everyone, and lose message contact with persuadable voters. We can’t let this happen.
All of us, who think another four years of Trump would be disastrous, should do everything we can to ensure that the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign has a straightforward message: In these difficult times, the United States needs the calm seasoned leadership of Joe Biden. If we work together, America’s best days are yet to come.