Democrats’ problem isn’t messaging; it’s attitude
Some people insist the Democratic Party has a messaging problem — that they’re unable to articulate a unifying vision for the country or that they’re struggling to sell the country on their successes.
Others insist Democrats’ problems lie with the policies they’re advancing. Are they appealing too much to the fringes, and not enough to moderates? Or, conversely, are they doing enough to satiate their base?
Reasonable people can say both are true. But there is an overarching problem that must be addressed first: Democrats have an attitude problem. Not the petulant kind. I’m talking about pride.
Build Back Better might help our country, but it won’t help Democrats much on Election Day. How often have we witnessed Democratic policy victories lead to electoral disasters? President Bill Clinton’s balanced-budget initiatives in 1993. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act of 2009. Both were lauded for advancing national interests, both condemned in the short term at the ballot box — because Democrats were too frightened or too defensive to rally support.
It’s not about policy or messaging. It’s about swagger.
When I was growing up, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird were the three NBA pillars. They had a lot in common, including fearlessness. They seized on opportunities to attack the rim. They wanted to take the last shot. They inspired anxiety in opponents — because they were winners. And even before they’d won their first NBA titles, they behaved like winners.
That is the swagger missing from today’s Democratic Party.
We are approaching the anniversary of one of the most frightening afternoons in modern American history, when one party attacked the U.S. Capitol — and then defended the attack as entirely justifiable. More than half the country shook their heads in disbelief. “How could this happen? … What can we do to prevent this from happening again?”
If Democrats were winners, they would have already sewn division within the Republican Party. They would have galvanized support from 60 percent of the country and demanded voice votes on the expulsion of any U.S. Representative or U.S. Senator who publicly endorsed the terrorists. They would have forced Republicans to adapt to their game plan, rather than falling into the trap of reacting to the GOP’s game plan.
Americans root for those who root for themselves. For decades, Democrats have been fighting for underdogs. But too often they act like underdogs, lacking confidence while choosing measured justifications over brazen absoluteness. They are cautious — and as a result, they are mistake-prone.
Most left-leaning and moderate voters are frightened of the Republican Party. They understand that if the Jan. 6 attack had succeeded, our country never would have been the same. Yet Democrats are on the verge of throwing it away.
Yes, it’s policies and messaging — but more than that, it’s attitude.
It’s how Democrats define themselves as Americans versus how Republicans define themselves as rebels. Only one party continues to support the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats are not merely policy makers. They are protectors of our democracy. They are the final guardrails separating America from anarchy. They are the clutch performers who play big in the biggest moments. Americans believe in them, because elected Democrats believe in themselves.
The Democratic Party has a lot to be proud of. They are the only major political party in the last 150 years not to endorse an insurrection against the United States to undo the results of an election.
But if they can’t figure out how to parlay their patriotic advantage into victory, then they don’t deserve to lead.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.
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