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Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't laugh: saying the same old thing works

The Repulican Party released a new campaign document this week called 'A Pledge to America'. It is nothing more than the usual boilerplate Republican rhetoric, as demonstrated by John Stewart's cleverly edited segment showing House Republicans using the exact same words in years past. That repetitiveness is what makes it an effective propaganda tool.

The last time the Congressional Republicans made such a fuss about a document rollout was in 1994, when they launched their 'Contract with America' en route to taking over both houses of Congress for the first time in decades. Like the Pledge, the Contract also parroted earlier material, specifically President Ronald Reagan's 1985 State of the Union Address, its main source. The joke, unfortunately, is on the Democrats, who, year after year, fail to articulate a consistent message.

It is easy to make fun of the Republicans' rhetorical recycling, but nothing wins campaigns like memorable catchphrases and the appearance of consistency. The content of that consistency is almost irrelevant. Many people will vote for the candidate about whom they can say 'I know what he stands for' even if what that candidate stands for is inimical to a voter's self-interests. That was one big reason that people found it hard to pull the lever in 2004 for John Kerry, the presidential candidate who had trouble getting a consistent message out: people went with the known rather than the unknown, even if they knew that the known was quite bad. It also worked for the guy who said little more than 'Hope' and 'Change' in 2008.

The Democrats' biggest problem is not that they think too much but that they do their thinking in public. Yes, the problems we face are complicated, but most voters don't want to be reminded that their leaders are full of doubt and circumspection. I, for one, am a big fan of doubt and circumspection, but it doesn't sell well on the national stage.

Self-fashioned thoughtful types can go on laughing at the Republicans' same-old, same-old tactics, but they work. If ever the Democrats started using Republican tactics to sell Democratic policies, the Republicans would be finished.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Update: the upcoming Congressional elections

I stand by the spirit of my blog posting of June 30: the Democrats will not face disaster in the 2010 Congressional elections in part because the Republicans are running a pack of clowns. After last week's final round of primaries, now is when predictions can be based more on data and less on speculation. What have we learned so far this year?

1. The Teabaggers did indeed cost the Republicans potential opportunities to pick up seats in the Senate or securely hold them. In Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, and Nevada, RNC-backed candidates, including some incumbents, lost to Teabaggers with lower electoral prospects. (And Republican Senator Bob Bennett lost his primary to a Teabagger in safely red Utah.) Democratic interim-appointed Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado could still lose his seat, but the Democrats could also make otherwise unlikely gains in Alaska and Kentucky.)

2. Generic Congressional polls are worth a lot less than polls about specific candidates. Because most Americans have weak-to-non-existent party identification, one would think that professional commentators would disregard generic polls and that there would not be much of a market for such polls. One would be wrong. Some people seem to be discovering this fact fairly late in the game.

3. No one knows what is happening in Florida. Despite early hopes that Governor Charlie Crist's independent, Lieberman-esque campaign would overtake Republican Marco Rubio's, the worst possible scenario is emerging: Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek are splitting the left-of-center vote. Someone will have to step down or Rubio will step over both of them on election day.

4. Expected Democratic strengths in North Carolina and Ohio have dissipated. I expected Ohio to follow the Northeast in its regional red-to-blue purge, a long-term trend matching the South's earlier blue-to-red purge. That no longer seems likely. Nor can we count on North Carolina's oddly cursed Senate seat to flip for the sixth consecutive election.

5. The so-called Democratic enthusiasm gap remains to be demonstrated. The states with competitive Democratic primaries that I checked had respectable turnout. In Kentucky's primaries, for instance, 514,173 Democrats voted, compared to 350,783 Republicans.

I remain optimistic, despite the polls, that Pennsylvania will not go red, let alone to a candidate, Pat Toomey, who could not beat Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary. Likewise, I expect New Hampshire's Democratic transformation to continue. As Wikipedia reminds us, the 2006 New Hampshire state legislative elections 'gave Democrats majority control of both chambers for the first time since 1874, 14-10 in the Senate and 239-161 in the House'. After the 2008 elections, New Hampshire's State Senate became the first state legislative house in the U.S. to have a female majority. New Hampshire is set to take its proper place in the coming all-blue New England, preferably sooner rather than later.

I don't take seriously concerns about California and Illinois, although I confess to being bewildered and worried by the suddenly declining poll position of Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Let's hope the most recent poll proves to be just a blip.

The race to watch: Lousiana, where Republican Senator David Vitter's sordid past looks like it might be ready to catch up to him at long last.

What really matters in the end is not predictions but actions and dollars. I will be contributing money to Senate campaigns in the closest states, as should you. Here are some suggestions:

Wisconsin, Russ Feingold

New Hampshire, Paul Hodes

Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak

Kentucky, Jack Conway

Colorado, Michael Bennet

American elections are all about money. If a better Congress is worth paying for, then let's have the best Congress our money can buy.

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