What Is Our “Alternative Vision of Governing”?

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    (Nice job! Anyone in the party establishment care to take bob up on his offer?   – promoted by lowkell)

    Lowell invited me to contribute a post after I expressed frustration about one of his posts earlier this month. I agreed with what he had to say, which was that GOP ideas lack specificity and impact. My frustration was with the lack of a positive message from Democrats. We progressives spend too much time, in my opinion, denigrating GOP talking points when we could better use the time developing our own compelling message.

    I was chagrined by a recent Washington Post article that had the temerity to point out the truth: Our leaders in Richmond have no message and seemingly no strategy. Perhaps it’s there. But I don’t see it.

    Prior to strategy, of course, is an objective. And to have an objective (besides winning elections) in politics, it seems, you need a clear set of principles that drive your efforts. We’ve all heard this in various forums.  

    This point was made during my first MoveOn meeting, which is likely to be my last. Most of the folks, who are certainly well meaning, spent the time ridiculing GOP ideas. That’s easy to do, but in the long run not helpful. However, they recognized the need for unifying principles. Their solution? Hire a marketing firm to come up with them!

    It doesn’t seem we can rely on our Richmond leaders to articulate principles, but we certainly shouldn’t outsource them to a marketing firm.

    The GOP has successfully articulated its principles. We all know them: limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, family values, etc. And for many voters that is all they know of the GOP, and it’s enough for them to vote Republican.

    How voters make their choices is not the way Democrats seem to want them to. We want to lay out policies and programs. We love to wallow in the weeds. But why do we espouse those policies and programs? In what direction do we believe it will take this country and the Commonwealth? I suspect few voters know. I don’t. And voters don’t make their choices by dissecting policy pronouncements.

    Perhaps progressives feel that we shouldn’t reduce our programs to a simple, pithy set of principles. We have long operated under the assumption that if only people understood our legislation they would love it-and us. So we soldier on as policy wonks and eschew a defining set of principles. We see them as pandering.

    And we lose 63 seats in one election. We lose half dozen seats in Richmond after an overwhelming victory across the country a year earlier. A poor candidate in 2009? Perhaps. But after months of procrastinating, he talked about raising taxes for transportation then rhetorically buried himself in contradiction and confusion. No one knew his principles.

    And now The Washington Post reports about the current legislative session in Richmond:

    [T]he governor’s agenda could earn [Democrats] the same criticism that Democrats have been lobbing at Republicans in Washington – that they are obstructionists who have not advanced an alternative vision for governing.

    While individual Democratic lawmakers have submitted bills they say they will prioritize, the caucus has not announced plans to roll out a unified legislative package.

    “The dilemma will be if McDonnell maneuvers them into a position where they are vulnerable to the same attack that’s been made against Republicans for a decade – that they’re the ‘party of no,’ ” said Robert D. Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor who writes a blog on state politics. “I think it’s very clear they’re going to be feistier. Whether the Democratic Party puts forward a very clear alternative on issues beyond social issues is their challenge.”

    Nowhere is the dilemma likely to be more pronounced than on transportation, a perpetual dividing line between the parties that has bedeviled state politicians for a decade. Most experts agree that fixing Virginia’s overburdened road network and crumbling bridges would cost more than $1 billion a year over the next 20 years.

    Democrats have long maintained that the problem requires finding a new stream of revenue, such as a tax increase. But Republicans have said they will not raise taxes.

    …Although Democrats agree the top priority should be job creation, they do not have a cohesive response to McDonnell’s economic development proposals.

    Democratic leaders in Richmond are nice enough folks. But the party organization is designed more for function than inspiration. More details than vision. Our house caucus is led by a man who must reflect his very conservative district, so he is unable to articulate progressive principles. Our new party chair is a great back slapper, but does not possess the communication ability we need. Our Senate leaders have a long history of promoting progressive causes, but their ability to communicate was developed in the pre-internet era.

    Several years ago, I outlined a plan to develop a cohesive communication strategy and discussed it with many of our Richmond leaders at the time. It is not something that can be done in a press release. In fact, it is at least one to two-year strategy of not only carrying the message to the grassroots but engaging Virginians in that conversation. We need to articulate how we believe our view of government can make a better world, whereas now we are simply seen as the opposite of the GOP, i.e., more government and higher taxes. Remember that it took years for the GOP to find its legs after 1964. They did it methodically by developing the message infrastructure and enlisting a lot of voices.

    Needless to say, when I talked to party leaders they listened politely and declined, citing in part costs, which they suggested was needed for more pressing items-like more direct mail pieces. I sensed then and I do now, that Democrats are all tactics and no strategy-and certainly no underlying principles to frame our arguments.

    I’m tired of waiting for Democrats officials to develop the strategy. Maybe it falls to us who write blogs or comment on them regularly to at least begin the process of outlining our principles as clearly and succinctly as the GOP does. And once we do, we need to convince our leaders to aggressively fight for them and reframe the debate.

    I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I’m willing to start the conversation by listing what I think those principles may be:

    • Middle class opportunity

    • Free & fair enterprise

    • Civic responsibility

    • Fair taxes

    • Promote the general welfare

    • Government “by the people”

    • College for all who’ve earned it

    • Strong, smart foreign policy

    • Energy independence

    All of these sound bites need substance behind them. That’s where the extended conversation with the electorate comes in. Keep in mind that unless the GOP had articulated what it meant by “family values” no one would know.

    Again, principles are only a start. We need to act strategically and develop a united message, so that the narrative isn’t determined by a reporter who sees a party without “an alternative vision for governing.”

    What are your governing principles? How would you work to reframe the debate? How can we get that message out to those Virginians open to an alternative set of principles?

    Bob Griendling

    Commonwealth Commonsense