Massachusetts Special Election – Democratic Persuasion Failure
Like many Americans, I watched the Massachusetts special election results this past week with great interest. But I was not just interested in the proposals and policies the winner might advocate, but more interested in the themes and messaging of each. And from the looks of things, only one of those campaigns seemed to get it right, as the Democrat’s support collapsed and the Republican campaign ascended to victory.
Much has been made from the left and from the right about what it all means. Clearly, the radical right has been energized by the election. Their spokesmodels (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and most the talking heads on Fox News in general) are inspired in their determination to scare the bejesus out of middle of the road Americans about the agenda of the radical left, which they claim is the driving force in every decision made by Obama. They have no trouble ignoring any evidence to the contrary (more troops to Afghanistan, shifting taxpayer money to the financial sector bailout) They have no trouble exaggerating facts into fantasy and then speaking that fantasy with a single voice.
They have convinced themselves that there’s a conservative freedom-loving tea bagging comeback that is well underway, and that their politics of obstruction and obfuscation are paying off. Upshot: We can expect more of the same from the right.
The radical left is equally certain that this election result happened because their agenda turned out not to be the President’s agenda. With popular support for single payer health insurance and universal coverage peaking at 70 some percent during the process, the removal of these from the hideous healthcare legislation that came out of the sausage making fest of the House and Senate left many of Obama’s biggest supporters defeated and angry. The hyperbole coming from the left’s media machine didn’t help. Instead, it created more cognitive dissonance.
My take on the election is that Democratic arrogance and inconsistency continues to plague that party, while Republican arrogance and obstinacy continues to plague that party. So neither party is persuasive, both are polarizing, and the electorate is getting sick and tired of all of them. Could be a real revolution brewing, which wouldn’t require much more than doing what many Americans have dared to dream about for years, throwing all the incumbents out and seeing if a bunch of newcomers can stay independent long enough to do better that these out of touch pandering politicians.
Though everyone in politics likes to talk about Massachusetts as the most liberal state in the nation, a guaranteed blue state with progressive ideas like universal healthcare (they’ve practically got it) as the norm, it’s not the first time their voters have chosen a Republican over a Democrat. And far as I can tell, this election clearly was not about Democrats or Republicans.
Seems to me that the voters rejected Coakley because she represented that congressional sense of entitlement associated with incumbents (why else would she have run such a pitiful campaign), and accepted Brown because he drove a pickup, is nice looking, has pretty daughters and a celebrity wife. And he promised to stand against the expensive and extensive healthcare bill mess made by congress. The symbolism of that pickup truck he drove, when people are out of work and out of money and hearing price tags on government programs that are completely out of line with our expectations of good government, cannot be underestimated. In persuasion, it’s not so much about how the candidate feels about this, that or the other. It’s how each candidate and campaign looks and sounds when trying to engage voter brains that are lost on the couch while emotion rules the decision making process.
The Republican media machine continues to paint Democrat leadership in the most negative terms. They are betting that the ‘ick’ factor will undermine and ultimately topple the Dem majorities now in place. And the Democratic leadership continues to help feed the ‘ick’ factor by fulfilling the typecasting at every turn. Ickiness aside, the larger issue here is that President Obama has failed to make his case to the American people that healthcare reform is our highest priority. He also failed to make any case that the Dems in Congress can be trusted to get it right. While his opponents spoke with a single verse, we got to watch a herd of cats, each running in his or her own direction, and no one apparently riding shotgun on the herd.
Worse, his promise of serious change in our governance does not appear to have been kept. The horse trading and backroom deals, and the tossing out of key planks of true reform (single payer, universal coverage) have cost him plenty of support amongst the very people who believed in ‘change we can believe in’ and got him elected. His appointment of Wall Street insiders directly tied to the crisis (Geitner, Summers, etc.) was an early predictor of trouble, and sending more troops to Afghanistan seemed like a betrayal to many of them. The impression, after a year, is that he is just another politician, he said all those wonderful things to get elected and either he didn’t mean any of them or he lacked the experience to make them happen.
None of that matters now. The fact is, our nation is mostly moderate voters, decent people with reasonable expectations regarding government. The President must now step up, raise his game, engage Congress in the task of governance by calling them out when they pander to special interests, and instead of gambling that time will fix everything, he should gamble on providing visible and consistent leadership to our troubled nation through his bully pulpit. There is no doubt that he can give a speech that changes his fortune. He must do so, now more than ever. And he has to create some rich symbolism to tell Americans that he knows where we’re going and how to get us there. He has to be seen as taking the cost of change into account, because that’s what we the people have to do every time we want to spend money in this economy.
Anything less, and American revulsion at congressional shenanigans combined with disappointment replacing hope is going to cost him plenty in the mid-term elections. And those elections are coming soon to a media buy near you. (With the recent Supreme Court decision that furthers the equation of corporation = person, we’ve not begun to see the influence that money will have on an election outcome.)
Obama needs to hold a strong focus in front of the nation, keep it meaningful by being consistent and congruent with what he said during his own campaign, and manage himself in such a way that all (reasonable) Americans can look to him and see through his use of symbols that he is truly committed to our success and happiness as a nation. He needs to demonstrate the intellectual prowess so many believed him capable of, not by dragging us through his thought process or exposing us to the finer details of his policy wishes, but by demonstrating a real ability to find new ways of solving old problems. Otherwise, he’ll be tagged as ‘more of the same’ by voters, and this Massachusetts blip will become a wave of undoing the electoral sweep that got him to office in the first place.
Your comments and feedback are welcome!