Dems can win on message

Writing in these pages yesterday, Markos Moulitsas said Wisconsin’s GOP leaders were out to prove “they truly deserve to get thrown to the curb.” National Republicans, led by Tea Party stalwarts, could well be on the same path, with their double-talk on a government shutdown/slowdown and sweeping proposals for budget cuts. While the difference between a shutdown and a slowdown is likely too esoteric for voters out in the real world to grasp, it does continue to add to the “noise” surrounding Republican messaging that has been driving support for their budget proposals lower and lower. 

Since the first of the year, Republicans have lost the clarity of their waste-cutting message. Voters generally agree with the position that we must cut government spending, and while they remained on that high ground the Republican congressional leadership built a broad base of support — over 60 percent in some polls early in the year. But the more voters hear about just what cuts Republicans propose making, the less they like their proposals. This increased knowledge seems to have most influence with independent voters — a critical constituency in battleground districts in the upcoming elections. 

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The latest Democracy Corps poll of the 50 most competitive Republican-held congressional districts makes that point clearly. Proposed GOP budget cuts in those districts three months ago garnered 60 percent support from all voters. It has now dropped to 46 percent, with a like number opposed to the cuts. 

The difference? More awareness of what would be cut and what wouldn’t. It all seems to come down to a question of priorities — and voters are not in sync with those of GOP incumbents in their districts. Some 53 percent of those polled said the more they heard about proposed Republican cuts, the less they liked. They were especially opposed to cuts for education, Medicare and Social Security. They had likewise begun to balk at the idea that Republican budget plans would protect special-interest subsidies for oil companies and tax breaks for millionaires.

There is a message here for Democrats looking at the 2012 election cycle. They do well within their own party, win independents and make inroads in the soft-Republican vote by making the debate over priorities. It is not a question of whether we cut — pretty much everyone agrees that job needs to be done — it is what we cut and when that can drive the vote to Dems. The message in district after district should be that the incumbent is making the wrong choice — now is not the time to give tax breaks to oil companies and CEOs or to spend money on wasteful special-interest projects. We shouldn’t be cutting education, hurting the middle class and working families or slashing education, Social Security and Medicare funding. 

Rather, Democrats should argue, we need to eliminate subsidies for oil-and-gas companies and impose a surtax on families making more than a million dollars a year. When it comes to the budget, Republicans will make the wrong choices and go too far in cutting important programs.

That is safe and productive ground for Democrats to work. The party leadership needs to understand that — given the head-to-head choice — most voters will trust Republicans over Democrats on fiscal matters, including the budget. Independent voters especially want greater fiscal discipline in Washington. Candidates with a “D” behind their name need to just accept that fact and repeat the one message that works for them — that you can’t trust Republicans to make sensible cuts that don’t hurt real people. 

If the budget impasse continues and the government must “shut down” — or “slow down,” as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) would have it — the message of Republicans going too far will be reinforced moving toward the 2012 elections. Democrats must endorse the goal of cutting spending, even if it causes some pain with some of those on the left. But they can do that with a “right problem — wrong solution” characterization of a Republican Party responding to the demands of its right wing. It’s all about priorities.

When you have a message that works — use it. The Democrats have a message now, and if they just stick with it they might, indeed, be able to throw Republicans to the curb in some of the most competitive reelection districts on the map.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com