Democrats need a post-Trump message

The 2020 election is over (unless you think like President Trump). The 2022 election cycle begins, and with it the biannual Democratic debate over the party’s message. It is a tortured soul search for who we are, what we stand for and how we should say it. Democratic pundits and activists will fight to the last conjunctive adverb. Meanwhile, Republicans plan how to win the single-digit number of seats necessary to take the House majority.  

The Democrats have one immediate challenge: We just lost our most compelling messenger. Donald Trump was our great unifier, inciting our progressive base, mobilizing our moderates and persuading suburban voters who supported him in 2016 to oppose him in 2020. Every message needs glue that binds the disparate factions of a political party. Donald Trump was the Democrats’ Crazy Glue.

Now the message environment shifts. Stealing Richard Nixon’s line: The Democrats won’t have Donald Trump to kick around anymore. Sure, he’ll be holding his rallies, tweeting incessantly, appearing every hour on the hour on whatever cable news platform he acquires. But he won’t be the president. Joe Biden will. 

Over the years, I’ve talked to countless Democrats about messaging. We are a creative lot. We love the art of language, honed by years of sharpened pencils to the New York Times crossword puzzles. We are convinced that nothing gets a point across like a good 17-point plan. We know a good message when we hear one, particularly if it comes from our own lips. 

Meanwhile, the Republicans go for the gut with ruthless simplicity: Stop Socialism. Stop the Steal. Make America Great Again. They activate the primitive fight-or-flight impulse; we appeal to the better angels of our nature. 

Democrats fight among ourselves about what defines us; Republicans fill the message vacuum by, well, defining us.

It might be useful to suspend the debate and listen more. That is why I was interested in a recent report by the group Future Majority, which describes itself as a “strategy center dedicated to building Freedom, a Fair Shot and the Future for every American.” On the eve of the 2020 elections, it partnered with the data firm Change Research to research voter attitudes. They weren’t interested in which candidate people were supporting; they wanted to know what issues and framing move voters in competitive states and congressional districts in one of the most volatile elections in recent history. I don’t necessarily accept the findings as gospel, but they are based on solid research that is both recent and big-picture. Here is what they found:

There is deep and strong support for an agenda that focuses on “cleaning up corruption in Washington, lowering health care costs, raising wages and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure” — all under the rubric of a “For the People Agenda.” Maybe it’s a little longer than the Republican mantra “Lower taxes, less government,” but it offers guardrails to prevent meandering messaging.

Economic concerns predominate. Ninety-six percent of voters say the idea of economic freedom is important to them. Eighty-six percent support spending more money to improve physical infrastructure. Seventy-nine percent support federal investments in work retraining. Their analysis focuses on three imperatives: “Jobs. Jobs, Jobs.” It suggests that infrastructure and climate policies do best when paired with jobs.

But there are issues associated with Democrats that receive less enthusiastic responses in competitive states and districts: 49 percent oppose establishing a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan. Fifty-three percent oppose adding more justices to the Supreme Court to restore its balance. On the question of public financing for candidates through taxpayer dollars on a matching system, voters are deadlocked: 39 percent for, 39 percent against.

What is particularly useful here is not necessarily the numbers, but the market-driven branding research conducted by Future Majority.

Future Majority President Mark Riddle emailed me: “The For the People Agenda making the American worker the hero of the story is unifying and is more constructive than pitting people against each other.” 

The trick is: How do you craft a unifying message when voters are so polarized? What works in Brooklyn, New York, may fall flat in Brooklyn, Iowa, and vice versa.

Future Majority tested some themes. For example, “The Dignity of Work” – the idea that hard work should pay off and that “when our work has dignity, Americans have the economic security they need to start a family, pay for childcare and college, take time off when they are sick, and save for retirement” – scores consistently high across all groups in competitive House districts. A “Veterans Bill of Rights” receives overwhelming support. And framing policies within the narrative of “freedom” opens the door to voters. 

Most important, Future Majority asks Democrats to “stop tearing each other apart and avoid self-defeatist language and arguments.”

The report reminds readers that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election, and did so by expanding the map to states like Arizona and Georgia. “There are lessons to take into 2022 and 2024, but for gosh sake everyone needs to act like we actually won.” 

Good point.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags 2020 election Change Research Democratic Party Donald Trump Donald Trump Future Majority Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Political ideologies Political parties in the United States Republican Party Steve Israel

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