Getting the words right

Sitting in a dark, stuffy room in Kalamazoo, Mich. — looking through a one-way mirror and surrounded by bowls of M&Ms and stale Chinese food — I heard a familiar refrain: “I don’t want the government making those decisions for me.” The focus-group discussion was on an issue more prosaic than when the feeding tube should be removed or if a woman and her doctor should decide if it was best to end a pregnancy. But it was an opinion I’ve heard voiced in hundreds of focus groups over the past dozen years.

Sitting in a dark, stuffy room in Kalamazoo, Mich. — looking through a one-way mirror and surrounded by bowls of M&Ms and stale Chinese food — I heard a familiar refrain: “I don’t want the government making those decisions for me.”

The focus-group discussion was on an issue more prosaic than when the feeding tube should be removed or if a woman and her doctor should decide if it was best to end a pregnancy. But it was an opinion I’ve heard voiced in hundreds of focus groups over the past dozen years. The bottom line is, Americans think they are perfectly capable of making decisions about their families’ finances, medical care and just about any other personal matter you can think of.

My firm has won three dozen ballot-issue campaigns over the past decade by taking those opinions seriously. Whenever we’ve been able to position our opponents as government bureaucrats intruding in people’s lives, we’ve won.

For nearly 70 years, the Democratic Party has been saddled with the image of big-government advocates. Most Republican victories, especially in presidential campaigns, have made big-spending, big-program Democrats the central issue. In recent years only Bill Clinton was able to blunt those attacks by focusing on issues with personal appeal and using the overrated “triangulation” strategy championed by a passel of new Democrat consultants.

Enter George W. Bush, Karl Rove and the campaign team that created the Bush presidency. They attacked the Democrats not just for their big-government, big-spending liberal addiction but for their corrupt values as well. Not only did Democrats want to tax you into poverty, they wanted to destroy your family values.

Every time Democrats suffer a big loss, many in the party argue they just have not made their case with sufficient eloquence or with the right charismatic leader. There are suddenly signs that the perception is changing — signs that Democrats may be learning how to speak about their policies in terms that resonate with voters. Oddly enough, an outspoken, oftentimes inarticulate Howard Dean, who could not help imploding his own candidacy for president, is figuring out how to get the words right.

In a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, the former Vermont governor and new chairman of the Democratic National Committee continued to defend the values for which Democrats stand in words that resonate with the folks in that Kalamazoo focus group and hundreds of others I have sat through.

Dr. Dean did not back off from traditional Democratic values. He just spoke about them in terms that made sense. He made the enemy intrusive government, not big government. That is a critical difference.

“What do politicians know about practicing medicine?” he asked. Does government make life-or-death decisions for families? Should Tom DeLay or family members make life-or-death decisions traditionally determined by families? Dean challenged that the Republican leadership “are intrusive, and they invade people’s personal privacy.”

Dean is on a roll. If he can reposition this fight as being “for the soul of America,” he’s opened a route to the hearts and votes of millions of red-state residents and built a platform on which the Democratic Party can begin to swing purple states into the blue column. (It is amazing the political shorthand we develop — turning the nation into red, blue and purple states as though real people with real concerns and real issues didn’t live inside our artificial boundaries.)

When the Republican right turns on its own leadership for what seems like a very reasonable compromise “on the filibuster, whatever that is,” as I heard one voter say, and when DeLay wants to impeach the 14 judges who said Terri Schiavo’s husband should determine her future, Dr. Dean has a lot to talk about. When he positions the Bush Social Security plan as taking away a cherished safety net and handing out sweetheart contracts and big tax cuts to business friends, his words are falling on receptive ears.

Dean is positioning today’s Republican Party as being “intrusive and they invade people’s privacy.” He is positioning today’s Democrats as fighting to let “individuals decide personal questions in their life.”

That is the language the Democrats can build on to recapture the centrist voters who put the Republicans in power. It is not radical; it is reasonable. It is not the language of traditional liberalism; it is the language spoken in states such as Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and Tennessee — all states where Democrats could become competitive again if they get the words right.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com

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