Conventional wisdom is congealing. Too many Democrats are becoming locked in a defensive crouch, fearing that a 2010-style monsoon season is upon us because Obamacare is unpopular, Republicans will be fired up to vote and Democrats won't. And they could be right, although if they are, it will mainly be because of their own fears. But it doesn't have to be this way.
There is still plenty of time to change the dynamics in the 2014 race, to make this election exciting for Democratic base voters and to put the Republicans on the defensive. It's been done before - in fact it was done the last time a Democratic president was in the 6th year of his presidency, and all the pundits said it was impossible then. We will have a number of chances to change the 2014 dynamics, and one of our very biggest is happening this week with the release of Elizabeth Warren's new book, A Fighting Chance. This week, and in the next few weeks to come, progressives can help make Warren's book a central part of the political and economic conversation in this country. The book's populist progressive economic message - about how the economic game is rigged for most Americans, and how wealthy and powerful special interests have taken over our government and are squeezing the middle class and the working poor - is exactly the kind of message Democrats need to be pushing in the 2014 elections, and if her book's narrative becomes a major part of the year's political dialogue, that will help most Democrats.
But before I tell you more about this golden opportunity, let me take a trip down memory lane to that 6th year of the Clinton presidency, Although there are certainly some important differences (including the fact that 2014 is a far more populist moment politically because of how tough things have been for most people economically over the last decade), this cycle reminds me a great deal of 1998 in terms of the fearful way most Democrats are approaching the election. In 1998, the Lewinsky scandal was dominating the headlines, and Clinton's personal popularity was dropping sharply. Most Democratic strategists for the fall Senate, House, and Governors' races were sure that the Republican base would be fired up to vote; that Democrats would not be motivated; and that swing voters would move the Republicans' way because they didn't like Clinton. Fearing another 1994-level disaster, many party leaders were advising Democratic candidates across the nation to distance themselves from the president; avoid mentioning him or how they would vote on impeachment; and run on local issues or modest-sized popular parts of the Democratic agenda. The pundits were predicting that the Democrats would lose at least 30 seats in the House, several in the Senate, and be swept in the competitive statehouse races.
But cautious, reactive strategies that avoid mentioning the elephant in the room, especially one that was featured in the paper every day and that Republicans were talking about every day - in other words, strategies that keep your candidates in a defensive crouch - are destined to lose. If the conventional wisdom had been followed, 1998 might well have been another 1994 sort of Republican landslide. But a coalition of people and groups willing to go against the conventional wisdom was willing to create a different, more aggressive strategy that was built around the idea of punching back on the impeachment issue and pivoting to the broader economic issues that really mattered to people. Our case was that, rather than obsessing about Clinton's sex scandal and rehashing it over and over, the country needed to move on and talk about the economic issues that mattered to voters' lives. Stan Greenberg and James Carville did polling to shape that message; People For the American Way (where I worked) did TV ads and grassroots organizing to push the idea; Wes Boyd and Joan Blades started an online petition for the country to move on that garnered 500,000 signatures in a matter of a couple of weeks (a stunning number in those early days of email), and got thousands of those people to volunteer to go to meetings with members of Congress and volunteer for candidates. By the fall it became clearer and clearer that where candidates and organizations were using our message, Democrats were doing better. More and more candidates started running ads focusing on the 'let's move on' idea. We changed the political conversation, changed the dynamics in that election, and we shattered the conventional wisdom in the elections that year, picking up 5 Democratic seats in the House rather than losing the 30 that had been predicted by the pundits, and winning many of the competitive Governor and Senate races.
What Democrats need this year is a similar group of organizations and leaders who will create a strategy to turn conventional wisdom on its head; help get Democrats out of their defensive crouch; and turn fear into courage. We will lose the Senate; fall deeper into a hole in the House; and lose all the competitive Statehouse races if we don't have a message that fires up Democratic base voters to get to the polls and appeals to swing voters who are unhappy with the establishment of both parties. In the modern era, for at least the last generation, even off-year elections have been nationalized, with turnout and swing voter performance following a national pattern. It will be the same in 2014, and Democrats in tough races will not survive if our party doesn't win the national narrative battle.
The national message narrative on the kind of campaign I am proposing will have to continue to be refined, but there are some things that seem certain. The first is that we can't avoid or play defense on health care, just as we couldn't avoid the topic of impeachment in 1998. We are going to be frontally, brutally assaulted with attack ads on the health care issue from now until election day, just as candidates in big Senate races already have been for months. We can't survive by trying to change the subject or being apologetic and mealy-mouthed in defense. If candidates in individual races want to propose changes in the ACA, that is fine, but they shouldn't lead with their chin by being so defensive in their language. The attack on the ACA is an attack on the Democratic party's brand, its philosophy, its core. While certain individual races in very red states may need to play out differently, for our national party to fail to make a strong and impassioned case for the ACA and health care reform makes a positive national narrative about this election impossible to sustain, and causes our party look weak and defensive.
The second thing that could not be clearer is that in an era with an economy still tough for most people, and voters increasingly grumpy about a political system that caters mostly to the rich and powerful, Democrats are not going to win the national message narrative with careful, cautious centrist messages written by the DC establishment. The only way we are going to defeat the onslaught of ugly big money ads being run against our candidates is to run against the big money power that is polluting the airwaves and our very democracy. Our answer to the frontal assault facing our party's candidates and values is our own attack on the wealthy powers that be that are using their economic and political power to squeeze the middle class and the working poor. We have to take on Wall Street, Big Oil, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson fearlessly. We need to tell voters that when they see all those attack ads, they should think about the motivations of the people paying for them: they are billionaires who want to avoid paying taxes so that you have to pay more; they are Too-Big-To-Fail Wall Street bankers who want no oversight when they manipulate markets, and want bailouts when they get into trouble; they are big oil tycoons who want to be able to pollute and jack up prices at will; they are Walmart and McDonald's executives who don't want to raise their workers' low wages; they are government lobbyists and contractors who want insider sweetheart deals; they are casino owners who want no oversight whatsoever on all the cash running through their operations. This is why the Harry Reid strategy of taking the Koch brothers and their money head on makes an enormous amount of sense, and why Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats championing a public financing of campaigns bill is a big winner. But we need this message to be more than a Washington talk point or piece of legislation mentioned by party leaders, we need a to build a real campaign around it.
The third key thing to understand is that changing the electorate is critical to changing the electoral dynamic. The people who didn't turn out in 2010, to our party's great detriment, were African-Americans, Latinos, younger people, and most especially unmarried women, the biggest single demographic group. We have to have messages and messengers who appeal to those Democratic base voters. Off-year elections are mostly about turnout, and younger, more economically stretched Democratic base groups are harder to motivate - they are not going to go to the polls without excitement in the air and passion on the stump. The argument some Democrats are having about whether good GOTV mechanics or a strong message is more important to turning people out is silly: we need both. There's no way to turn out tough-to-get voters without a strong GOTV operation, but there is also no way to get a good field operation without fired-up volunteers and activists, and without a message that moves the less likely voters.
Which brings me full circle to our incredibly important and valuable opportunity with Elizabeth Warren's book. The timing is perfect, as we need something right now to excite Democratic activists and change the conversation from fear to fire. Warren will be doing talk shows and speeches and book events all over the country, and progressive organizations and bloggers and journalists should, and will, be helping to promote her book. It is the perfect moment to launch a campaign to define the terms of the debate about what the 2014 election is all about: will our government serve the big money special interests or serve all the rest of us? If progressive Democrats take on the promotion of this book with everything they have, if we can turn it into a major bestseller for months and get the media talking about Warren and her message, if we can get everyone debating why Warren is getting such a strong reaction from people all over the country, we can change the conversation about this election.
And then we need to build a campaign around those kinds of populist ideas. Progressives should create a high-impact speaker's bureau of political leaders, organization leaders, thought leaders, authors, and celebrities willing to go out on the road and carry a passionate message about building an economy for the rest of us and fighting the powers that be. When these kinds of public figures do events in their home areas or in their usual venues, it generally isn't as big a deal, but "taking the show on the road"generates much more news coverage and bigger crowds. When the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Change to Win organized grassroots hearings around the country to draw attention to the jobs issue, for example, even though none of the emcees were famous outside their district, some of their events drew hundreds of people. For speakers more well-known, we can draw big crowds - when we organized an event with Elizabeth Warren in NYC, we easily sold out a 1,000 person event, and had to turn away at least another 1,000 more, just by having a few groups send out an email about the event, all without any formal publicity. The combination of the excitement and publicity leading up to these kinds of events, the publicity around the events themselves, and the sustained buzz from the activists who attend will be a huge boost to Democratic/progressive organizing efforts.
We should also produce a series of ads, videos, and graphics that carry the overall message. In the 1998 cycle, PFAW raised a few million dollars to run a series of ads in 9 targeted markets around the country; the ads did not advocate for any particular candidate but carried the message that it was time to move on from the Clinton scandal and focus instead on jobs and economic issues. Candidates in highly competitive races won elections they weren't favored to win in 8 of the 9 media markets. In 2004, at the very end of a long, ugly campaign cycle, American Family Voices raised enough money to run a similarly broadly messaged ad in a couple of markets promoting a positive message promoting Democratic ideas on the economy. In both elections, careful analysis of voting patterns after election day showed a clear uptick in votes for Democratic candidates above what immediate pre-election showed. To change the 2014 conversation in a way that actually impacts the real voters we need to reach will take a big effort and some real resources. Without those, our candidates may well become mired in a defensive, low enthusiasm fight most of them can't win.
We can do all these things and more. We can create a campaign that will wake Democratic activists and voters out of their doldrums, and get them excited about participating in the 2014 election. But we need Democrats to stop ringing their hands, and we need some key organizations and opinion leaders to step up to the plate and help change the conversation. Otherwise we will find ourselves stuck in a vicious cycle as bad as 2010, where defensiveness breeds more defensiveness and we keep backpedaling our way to a bad defeat. We still have it very much within our power to turn the tide, but we need to step up and make it happen. We can start with Elizabeth Warren's book, and then build from there. If we do, the pundits will be just as astonished as they were in 1998.