Will Democrats Swipe Right Wing Sound-bite Magic?

Crushed for years in the framing/messaging wars, Democrats are finally joining the fray with populist, though cautious, election-year banners. Right, let’s defeat the take-no-prisoners, right wing war cries — dripping with life and death dramas — with safe, feel-good, happy faces. Appealingly, this modest strategy doesn’t depend on the besieged Obama, slow-footed on gay marriage, legal marijuana, upping the minimum wage, or reversing income inequality via serious tax reform.

Excluding a few soaring campaign slogans, this chief executive is a monumental sound-bite flop. What, besides those early come-ons, will go down in history — other than perhaps Obama’s grand gaffe this year about keeping the health insurance policy you like? And that deception landed him alongside infamous Palin “death panels” in the whopper face-off.

Nevertheless, Democrats will certainly ramp up facile headlines and well-trod placards, taking a page (though without the killer instinct) from Karl Rove’s “political junk food” (per clever Matt Taibbi). Certainly the vast right wing propaganda machine won’t abandon its demagoguery, nor caustic intellectual fascism. What else remains for demographically-challenged extremists with only coal to sell to the middle class? What else but cling to debased Rovisms no longer even working for Rove: taxes are theft, government hates freedom, trickle-down economics creates jobs, Obama the illegitimate is beyond inept — plus the concoction of drugs/abortion/early sex/birth control/gay rights/science/pop culture and church-aversion that poisons America’s purity of essence?

Hell, even the Pope has mastered the sound-bite punch, tossing off lines about the “tyranny of capitalism.” Whether as leverage against thuggery, or chance humanitarian spirit, Democrats will bang the headline drum this year: 1) to keep government open, 2) raise the minimum wage (with mid-term ballot propositions), 3) keep unemployment insurance going, however marginal, 4) defend to the death the sanctity of Medicare and Social Security, 5) urge drastically overdue immigration reform, and 6) take pot shots at the open Citizens United spigot. Most will more gingerly endorse climate change and gay rights. This campaign only has to be bold enough to dramatize the right wing contradiction of spending billions to get elected, then methodically gumming up the works to prove that government the enemy doesn’t work.

Sound Bites Are Easy

And yet, where are today’s label-grabbing Democratic catch phrases, the kind that rally the troops? Riveting phrases like “barrel-scraping wages guarantee the poor stay poor,” or “unemployment due to idiotic austerity is the disease, not the symptom,” or “taxing predatory thieves is not ‘theft.'” Likewise, where are lines destined for election sky-writing, like “gay marriage is about freedom, too, not a gift from straights,” or “who but deluded dopes criminalize dope,” even “legalizing marijuana is about freedom, too.” You get the drift.

Equally revealing will be trickier topics given short shrift. What about union busting and the attack on public workers, in pay and pensions? Or minority voting rights, comprehensive women’s rights, in procreation, family planning and employment? What about privacy abuse from the octopus NSA? Whither basic government research in science and technology and medicine, the default for progress in a profit-addicted business culture, or sagging infrastructure crying out for maintenance? So many problems, so few incentives to embrace controversy.

Two big problems remain when practicing sound-bite politics. First, loaded headlines serve a propaganda function, both by oversimplifying and/or deflecting systemic reform. Sound bites bury foundational dilemmas under rhetorical rubble. Second, who can resist stopping topflight sound bites from morphing into sharp wedges that divide “us from them,” sustaining division and fundraising clout?  But complex realities and ignored contradictions take their toll: either we have systemic reform or degradation further blights all our alleged exceptionalism.

Lifesaving Panels vs. ‘Death Panels’

Certainly, raising the minimum wage is beneficial family and economic policy, but moderate increases won’t impact income equality gaps. Extending federal unemployment insurance is humane and stimulative, but won’t inspire new industries or tons more jobs. Yes, taxing the rich delights the non-rich, but only if new revenues serve the middle-class from going over the brink. Having one hand tax Romney-Koch millions is pointless when the other hand, dispensing federal subsidies, tax breaks, and deregulation, circles back to the rich.

Talking of contradictions, will the Democratic Party ever effectively dramatize what’s good about the ACA? If not, and if young people spurn the program, rising insurance prices destabilize the entire experiment. The paucity of informative commentary on what the ACA does, and doesn’t do, leaves us instead with Rep. Grayson’s perverse joke: the Republican health care plan is “Don’t Get Sick. And if you do get sick, Die Quickly.” Has no Democrat realized golden lines at the tip of the tongue, like “For the first-time insured, life panels are alive and well and working”? Or “what’s so exceptional about letting the uninsured die under bridges from curable diseases?”  “Isn’t half-a-loaf better than medical neglect for sick children.”

I remain mystified that the White House from day one flubbed ACA marketing, thus leaving the field wide open to unending right wing flummery, about price gouging, forced abortions, or birth control pills handed out like candy. Did Obama figure a well-insured majority, many taught to hate government, would love an expensive program that helped the underprivileged? Why not more voices, like campaigning Elizabeth Warren, who exposed the right wing blindness — that its vaunted “self-reliance” stands on the shoulders of everyone else?

Overcoming the Obama Curse

I fear the convoluted ACA carries the legendary Obama Curse: anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed, compromised first by inadequate conception (without price controls), then wounded by inept execution. No wonder the ACA needed its own emergency-room heroics for liftoff. One wonders if the same party that can’t defend its greatest legislative advance this generation knows how to do easier tasks: raise the minimum wage or restart unemployment insurance.

Well, this election year we will learn whether Democrats can match right wing sound bite mastery, a key lever that allows this minority so much sway.  It matters whether a national party can capture and control the emotional and social values of its base with cogent headlines that get loyalists to vote, especially in primaries. Since the unpopular Republicans are committed either to no change or regression, Democrats in competitive races simply have to command the muddled center with modest populism. In close races, who delivers the winning sound bite is no trivial matter. Elections have been won or lost on the politics of sound bites. Like the last three, for starters. Let the games of ’14 begin.

Robert S. Becker was educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English). He left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92. "Writing for the public taught me how to communicate." From '92-02 he did marketing consulting, grant, and business writing. Since '02, he scribbles on politics, science and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows. Read other articles by Robert.