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Between results and realism

Last week, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine told reporters that he will sell Democrats as the “results party” in 2010, trumpeting our party’s myriad accomplishments.

Kaine articulated his message forcefully: “We have more accomplishments to run on than any party in a long time. We’ve gone from recession to recovery … Two million people or more have jobs today who wouldn’t have without the bold action taken by this president and Democrats in Congress.

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… And we’ve taken healthcare from crisis to reform … Americans want results, and that’s what we’ve given them.”

Kaine’s message is vitally important — improved perceptions of the economy will help Democrats, as I argued here last week — and someone has to narrate the story of Democratic accomplishments.

I just hope my clients aren’t out there seconding Kaine’s emotion.

Again, it is not that my chairman is wrong on the facts — he is 100 percent correct. And it is not that Democrats won’t make gains if voters understand our accomplishments more clearly — they will.

The problem is that when a candidate tries to convince voters they are really better off than they feel, voters do not end up feeling better. Instead, they just conclude the candidate is out of touch.

Using somewhat familiar language, Ronald Reagan, always the cheerful optimist, tried it in his 1982 recession-year State of the Union. “The situation at this time last year was truly ominous,” President Reagan told the nation. “Late in 1981, we sank into the present recession … This time, however, things are different. We have an economic program in place … Already interest rates are down to 15.75 percent, but they must still go lower. Inflation is down from 12.4 percent to 8.9, and for the month of December it was running at an annualized rate of 5.2 percent … If we had not acted as we did, things would be far worse for all Americans than they are today.”

How did voters respond to the Great Communicator’s importuning? Over time, the number who thought he understood their problems was cut in half, while the number who thought he did not more than doubled.

More recently, our own polling asked voters to choose between a candidate who was optimistic about an improving economic future and one who knew problems were serious and wouldn’t be solved for a long time. By a 20-point margin voters chose the realist over the sunny prognosticator.

Telling audiences in most states that your efforts put 2 million people to work who would otherwise be unemployed is more likely to elicit jeers than cheers in a country where only 21 percent are positive about the economy, just 25 percent think it has gotten better and less than a third think the president’s polices have been a boon. Claiming the recession is over when less than one in five Americans agree is more likely to earn a wag of the finger than a nod of the head.

And head-nods are what politicians want to see when they address an audience — it means people are at least open to their message. When listeners start to argue with the message, you are not making progress.

So please, gather the credible third parties — economists, business leaders, financial analysts, even presidents and party chairmen — and let them proclaim the advent of good times.

But candidates, keep your eyes — and your claims — focused clearly on the future. Tell voters that what you have done will create jobs, will improve their standard of living, will create an economic rebound. But don’t claim you have already accomplished the goal; don’t suggest you believe the battle has been won when voters are still deeply mired in the fight.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.