It’s the Media, Stupid

Have the Democrats learned the hard lessons of 2002?

Democrats don’t like being in the minority. But what happened in 2002—the Republican upsurge and control in the last weeks of the election—will happen again if Democrats don’t get their messages out. The problem is not that they don’t stand for anything; it’s that they are not using the media effectively in presenting their stance. Without a strong nationwide ad campaign for 2004, Democrats can forget about taking back Congress and the White House.

Democrats take pride in repeating Franklin Roosevelt’s mantra that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Yet in 2002, they succumbed to fear—the fear of offending Bush supporters. This nonaggression tactic blew up in their faces. To have tried and failed is bad; to have failed without trying is worse.

While Bush was campaigning across the country last year, nationalizing the Republican agenda around his leadership, Iraq, homeland security and tax cuts, Democrats refused to “interfere with local races.” They refused to say to voters that they stood for anything. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee didn’t even nationally air noncontroversial election-week ads—conducting a campaign of nonaction from the top.

They did take all the free approaches—news conferences and press releases. But those don’t get picked up much by the media, especially in the two weeks before the election, because they are perceived as political whining. Only paid ads get through—newspapers, magazines, TV, radio. And they can lead to huge percentage swings.

Despite advocacy from leading Democrats, no national ads were placed to promote a unified agenda. Bill Clinton—still the Democrats’ greatest political strategist—stated after the 2002 elections that “weak Democrats and Independents felt they had nowhere to go.” The party left itself unarmed.

When Ipsos-Reid/Cook asked Americans in June who they would rather see win control of Congress, the Democrats held a 7 percent lead (47 percent to 40 percent). Before the 2002 elections, they had a similar advantage, which dwindled to a 4 percent deficit as the election approached. The same thing will happen again if they make the same mistakes again.

In 2002, Democrats had a 10-15 percent advantage on domestic issues, while Bush and the Republicans had a 20 percent advantage on issues of patriotism, terrorism and security. Democrats had a similar advantage regarding the economy until the last two weeks before the election, when the Bush/Republican overall advantage consumed perceptions of the economy as well. However, in a Gallup poll in May, only 33 percent said they believed Bush’s tax-cut plan would strengthen the economy.

Using Clinton’s famous word, the Democrats need to “triangulate” Bush on patriotism. They need a harmless but accurate message—something like, “Democrats believe it is patriotic to protect Social Security against stock-market slides, to provide prescription drugs for seniors (not just money for drug companies), to protect pension plans from corporate greed and fraud, to restore jobs and assure voters that their ballots will not be reversed.” These are the American values that terrorists attacked and that Republicans are not protecting us from.

What George Stephanopoulos did for Clinton—rapid response and aggressive message outreach —made the difference. James Carville and Paul Begala make clear in their book Buck Up, Suck Up that aggressiveness is how you win. But Democrats decided to do nothing about advertising nationally in 2002. They paid the ultimate price.

None of the Democrats’ arguments will gel if Bush is still perceived as the only true patriot and Democrats refuse to advertise properly that their patriotism, shown by what they are fighting for, is as strong as his.

Robert Wiener, a public affairs consultant, has served as public affairs director for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and director of the general press room for the last four Democratic National Conventions.