Home National Politics Steven Pearlstein Nails It on Democrats’ “failure of brand management”

Steven Pearlstein Nails It on Democrats’ “failure of brand management”


One of the articles that most resonated with me in reading this morning’s papers was Democrats only have themselves to blame for upcoming losses by Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post. Not because I would state it so definitively by using the word “only,” as I believe there are many factors at work in this mid-term election. For instance, it’s just a fact that the party holding the White House in the sixth year loses 48 seats in the House and seven (7) seats in the Senate. Actually, Democrats are likely to lose just a few seats in the House, and at WORST 7 seats in the Senate, so this will actually be better than the historical norm since World War II.

With all that having been said, however, I basically think that Pearlstein nails it when he writes: “What we have here is a failure of brand management – in this case, the Democratic brand.” If building a strong brand is about “telling a clear, credible and compelling story about what you’ve done and what you are going to do…come hell or high water, this is what we are going to be about” (that’s Pearlstein quoting  David Srere, “chief strategy officer at Siegel + Gale, another leading brand consultancy”), then it’s extremely hard these days to figure out what the Democratic “brand” is all about.

Is this the party that fights for the poor? working people? the middle class? the environment? civil liberties? economic fairness and social justice (to quote one of Jim Webb’s favorite phrases)? universal health care? If so, you’d barely know it the past couple decades, particularly starting in 1994, when Dick Morris, the “third way,” “triangulation,” and “the era of big government is over” became staples of the Clinton White House following the Gingrich/”Contract with America” landslide in 1994.

You’d certainly be hard-pressed to know what the Democratic “brand” was all about (let alone be inspired by it) in the 2014 election cycle. Instead, I’ve heard a lot more rhetoric from Democratic candidates in which they distance themselves not just from President Obama – wrong on substantive grounds, as well as self defeating politically – but also use Republican framing. For instance, Democratic candidates frequently repeat the unholy (and untrue) list of falsehoods, such as that: somehow it’s “Washington” or “Congress,” not the Tea Party Republicans, responsible for political “dysfunction”; that it’s actually Democrats who need to “reach across the aisle,” when of course President Obama tried that over and over and over and over again, only to have his hand rudely slapped away by Boehner, McConnell, etc. I’d also note that Democrats actually adopted Republican and conservative policy proposals, like the employer and individual mandates for health care reform and “cap and trade” for energy/environmental policy, but were viciously attacked regardless.

I further agree with Pearlstein that it’s harmful (I’d add the adjective “brain dead”) for Democratic candidates not to tout their major successes of 2009-2010 (when they controlled both Houses of Congress and the White House), such as saving the economy from Great Depression Part II, passing historic health care reform that expands coverage to tens of millions and does a bunch of other great stuff, encouraging rapid growth in clean energy, slashing the deficit, etc.

Then there’s the failure of Democratic candidates to clearly, powerfully call out Republicans for going off the right-wing deep end into John Birch Society, extremist la-la land. The fact is, it’s Republicans like Joni Ernst seriously talking about resorting to armed insurrection against the government (last I checked, that was known as “treason”); pushing insane theories about Africans infected with Ebola coming into the U.S. from Mexico, possibly with ISIS militants along for the ride; suppressing the right to vote; proposing economic policies that would be utterly ruinous; denying climate science (even as upwards of 99% of climate scientists agree that a) it’s happening; b) man’s causing it; and c) we’d better act immediately and forcefully to get off fossil fuels or we are screwed). So where’s the outrage from Democratic candidates, warning of the tremendous damage these know-nothings and extremists are doing and will do to our country? (Cue the sound of crickets quietly chirping)

And yes, wayyyy too much of Democratic campaign strategy is based on a “misunderstanding and misuse of public opinion polls, which as Pearlstein correctly argues is a huge mistake. The quote of the article, and of the day so far, comes from David Srere:

To say that there is an over-reliance on research is a gross understatement,” laments Srere at Siegel + Gale. “It’s asking people to tell you things they can’t possibly tell you. As Henry Ford put it, if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have told him they wanted a faster horse.”

Exactly. Last but not least, Pearlstein comes back to the Democrats’ failure to articulate a strong, positive, inspirational message that resonates with voters — working class, middle class, white, black, Latino, male, female, you name it. Pearlstein’s suggestion for a Democratic core message/mission statement is as good a place as any to begin:

“I’m a Democrat. In economic terms, that means I believe we need an active, competent government to ensure that prosperity is broadly shared by protecting ordinary people from the occasional excesses of markets and the undue power of businesses. That’s why Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, closing down corporate tax scams, putting tighter regulation on Wall Street and providing adequate funding for a world-class public education system from pre-K through college. And it’s why we are proud to have passed legislation to ensure that all Americans finally have a basic health insurance plan regardless of income or health or which company they work for. With oil and gas prices falling, it means I’m even willing to raise energy taxes by a few pennies per gallon so we can reinvest in the infrastructure – highways, ports, airports, subway systems, the electric grid, the Internet – on which all of us and the economy depend. Republicans are uninterested in, or unwilling to do, any of these things or in making any of these investments. Are you with them, or are you with us Democrats?

That about sums it up. But when was the last time you actually heard a Democratic candidate (not including those in super-blue districts, like Virginia’s 3rd CD) talk like that? Uhhhh.

Finally, I’m going to borrow Karen “Anonymous is a Woman” Duncan’s comments on this one, as she sums up my feelings as well.

Excellent thought provoking article. In a nutshell, when Democrats fully embrace our core values and run as proud Democrats, we win. When we avoid those issues, run only on attacking our opponents but never say what we will do to improve voters’ lives, we lose.

Yes, we should defend ourselves from attack ads, but we need to do much more. We need to give voters a real reason to vote for us and we need to run proud on our accomplishments, not run scared of baseless attacks.

So why aren’t we doing this? And more to the point, why are the political consultants who advise our candidates NOT to do this still employed?

  • Dan Sullivan

    … not enough time celebrating accomplishments. Or, in the case of campaigns across the country, even recognizing them or the issues that affect people in their districts.

    This actually has been a cancer in Virginia Democratic circles for some time, particularly emanating from the House Caucus. One former delegate I know bitterly believes he was driven into the ditch and out of the House by this strategy.

    It also makes one wonder if there are any members of the House with a clue as to what to do to properly govern; in much the way Creigh Deeds’ metaphorical dog would have no idea what to do if he ever caught that bus he’s chasing.  

  • ir003436

    I was born and spent the first 15 years of my life in Wilkinson County, MS.  My ol’ granddaddy (born 1896, died 1972) owned a small grocery store in MS.  A few miles away, across the state line in the village of Norwood, LA, he owned an old general store and a cotton gin.

    My maternal grandparents had four children — my mother was the second.  They lived in rural East Feliciana Parish, LA.  When my mother was born, Granddad was a buyer and clerk in the same general store that he later would own (he bought it from the original owners in the late 1950’s).  In the 1920’s and ’30’s, in addition to his income from his clerk-buyer job, Grandad owned four cows.  Twice a day, my mother, her older sister and younger brother would milk these cows, hand-crank on old cream separator to separate the milk from the cream, put the cream and milk in bottles, then ride their one horse to neighbors’ homes where they would sell the milk and cream.

    The Great Depression hit them hard.  Granddad lost his job with the general store.  After barely surviving for two years, Granddad took out a loan from the National Recovery Administration (part of FDR’s “New Deal”), moved the family to Wilkinson County, MS, and used the proceeds of the loan to open his grocery, which provided enough income for the family to survive.

    When they moved to MS, they took the four cows with them.  Another New Deal program was the Rural Electrification Administration.  Shortly after the family moved to MS, a local electric cooperative was formed with REA assistance.  When the electric lines came down their road, the first thing Granddad did was run electricity into his cattle barn — not the house — the BARN.  

    He then purchased — with another REA loan — an electric cream separator and a refrigerator, both of which went into the barn.  He then expanded his herd from four to ten cows and hired a man to care for the cattle.  The children still milked the cows while the hired man operated the cream separator, bottled the milk and cream, stored the product in the refrigerator, and delivered it to customers and to Granddad’s store where it was sold.

    Hanging on the wall in the small office in Granddad’s MS grocery store were two framed pictures:  Jesus and FDR.  When Granddad prayed, I often couldn’t tell if he was praying to Jesus or to FDR.

    The NRA and REA were denounced an opposed by the Republicans as “socialism.”  To Granddad and his family and community, they were — literally — life-savers.  

    Democrats need to tell these stories.