Dems have lost their way

I must first state the obvious: Almost any other Democrat with any other campaign team running with any other strategy would have held off Scott Brown’s Massachusetts momentum and saved that Senate seat for the Democrats. There is plenty of blame to be spread. It is not the first time the hubris of politicians has lulled them complacently into the minefields of defeat.

Nor is it the first time voters have expressed their frustration with Washington and politics as usual. In fact, Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 were largely a result of frustration with the George W. Bush administration and Republicans in general.

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But the real reason for Brown’s victory is much more fundamental. He had a message; Martha Coakley did not. More precisely — Brown had a narrative he spun into a compelling story. Coakley seemed simply to argue that she was the Democrat … when she bothered to make campaign appearances.

The irony in all this is that the authors of one of the most compelling political narratives in recent times were unable to help guide her message. In fact, the Obama White House, some of the best political communicators I’ve ever seen, lost control of their own narrative last summer and have not been able to find the thread again since. During the 2008 presidential campaign there was widespread support for sweeping healthcare reform. For example, the president seemed poised to accomplish what no one else had done before him: to reform America’s healthcare system.

There are two distinct characteristics to the president and his key advisers. They are brilliant communicators who understand how to tell a compelling story. They are also accomplished political tacticians. In the history of healthcare reform for this president, the White House first focused on the narrative, then spent far too much time on the tactics.

Obama had it right in the beginning. What Americans want in healthcare reform is pretty simple: They want insurance they can be assured they can get — that means no pre-existing conditions. They want insurance they can afford. They want insurance they can keep if they change or lose their job.

Those basic principles have been on voters’ wish list for two decades. President Bill Clinton made the mistake of trying to load up his healthcare proposal with too many additional bells and whistles that were important to various powerful interest groups on the left, creating handy targets for insurers to attack. President Obama tried to avoid that vulnerability by bringing all sides to the table — labor, drug companies, hospitals, device makers and insurers, among others.

About eight months ago, a lot of people thought that was a brilliant idea. I even recall writing a column praising Obama for avoiding Clinton’s secretive closed-door mistake that made enemies in the Congress and among important stakeholders.

It turns out, President Obama learned the lessons of ClintonCare all too well. Soon the narrative of bringing people the healthcare they wanted was replaced by the narrative of the deal. It seemed the president and congressional Democrats were willing to do something for everyone, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska being the most extreme example.

Which brings us to the special Senate election in Massachusetts. Coakley ran as the Democrat who would make sure things continued as usual. Scott Brown ran as the scrappy street kid who came up the hard way and wanted nothing to do with politics as usual. He didn’t run as a Republican, except when he wanted to tell the faithful he’d kill Obama healthcare; he ran as an outsider who’d had all the politics as usual he could take — Obama’s 2008 message, in other words. That is why independents flocked to his campaign.

Now, before the dust has settled, Democrats are squabbling over what tactics they will use to get healthcare passed. That is a prescription for defeat. Democrats need to go back to their core message: Insurance companies bad, healthcare reform good. They need to simplify the bill, not complicate it.

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They need to boil down their message to a few simple points: We’ll control insurance companies and make sure you can get coverage you can afford and that you can keep once you have it.

Then they need to set about the business of creating a simple, straightforward narrative about what their individual candidates will do to end the mess in Washington and make voters’ lives better. That’s the storyline Democrats have abandoned for the partisan infighting that cost them a Senate seat on Tuesday.

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