Dems advised to leave their ‘wonk’ at home to help win at voting booth

Dems advised to leave their ‘wonk’ at home to help win at voting booth

House Democrats need to drop their wonky policy talk if they want to capture voters this fall.

The party should emphasize what it stands for, and ensure its argument for remaining in power is not lost in the weeds of policy, political consultant Drew Westen told the caucus this week, according to people who attended his briefing.


“His message, essentially, was to stop being so wonky and to start talking to people about our values,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Democrats face a challenging electoral environment this fall that could see them lose dozens of House seats. It’s possible they could lose their majority given the public’s mood with Congress.

Westin told House Democrats in the House to start talking more about what they stand for and less about the intricate details of the bills they’ve passed and the laws they’ve enacted.

Slides from his presentation listed over a dozen phrases of “What we [Democrats] stand for,” each one designed to resonate in voters’ consciences without bogging them down with figures.

He advised the party to pepper their language with phrases such as “people who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own” and “good American jobs, wages, and benefits for a hard day’s work.”

Westen also recommended using what he called “language of the kitchen table.”

Instead of talking about the uninsured, lawmakers should discuss “people who used to have insurance.”

Instead of “the environment,” lawmakers should talk of “the air we breathe and the water we drink.’”

Westen, a professor of clinical psychology who authored the influential book, “The Political Brain,” gave a similar seminar to Senate Democrats earlier in the Spring.

In a way, Westen’s advice amounts to nothing more than a set of tweaks and some polish to what Democrats are already doing.

At the same time, it’s somewhat counterintuitive for a Democratic Caucus that has passed major legislation designed to tackle enormous challenges, and that loves nothing more than quantifying the changes they say they’ve been able to make.

From the 2009 stimulus bill to the healthcare law signed last month, Democratic leaders have sought to prove the effectiveness of their measures primarily though a barrage of statistics, both as a way to sell these legislative initiatives to their own members ahead of votes, and to have their members sell the merits of the bills to their constituents afterwards.

In December, just before sending her Caucus home for the Christmas recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had pocket-sized “accomplishment cards” made for each House Democrat.  Each card contained a district-specific list of statistics – from jobs saved or created to the number of residents set to receive healthcare under their bill – that she implored her members to tout whenever possible.

This was the same week that Pelosi declared herself “in campaign mode.”

But Westen seemed to be making the case against such a tool.

“Instead of: ‘46.5 million Americans are… ;’ try ‘Over 40 million Americans are…,’” he urged in the presentation.

At the same time, Westen’s pitch was quite a hit, even with members of leadership, aides said.

“The members seemed really understand appreciate his advice,” one leadership aide said.  “He got probably the best reception of any of the messaging gurus that's come before the Caucus.”

But even if top Democrats take Westen’s values-instead-of-numbers-based messaging to heart, it’s unlikely to completely take over the way in which Democrats plan to communicate their accomplishments to voters.

“He gave a lot of good advice on how to talk about complicated and difficult issues… and that helps us provide a menu of options,” another Democratic leadership aide said.  “We need to be open to having a bunch of different options so everyone can figure out what works best for each of them.”