As recently as last month’s convention, Democrats were getting their narrative back. They were uniformly praised for their message discipline and for laying out an inspiring vision for the country, reflected in a string of rousing speeches that told a story and signaled (instead of concealed) their values. After last night’s debate, Dems risk falling back into the lost decades when the party could offer only a grab bag of policy goodies to its fragile coalition instead of a coherent governing philosophy. If Barack Obama’s debate performance is any indication, they seem poised to forget a key lesson from the last three elections: We’re all “values voters.”
Yes, we in the commentariat always clamor for more specifics. But policies mean little if they’re not communicated as part of a larger narrative that speaks to voters’ values. I don’t mean gay marriage and abortion, per se, but the belated understanding by Dems (decades after the GOP) that voters make choices based on whether a candidate shares their values more than whether she promises the best policies. Policies matter, but primarily insomuch as they express what a candidate values and telegraph that she can be trusted to represent values that voters hold dear.
That lesson went unapplied in the first presidential debate this week. Viewers were bombarded with wonkish talk, he-said-he-said assertions, and half-truths or outright falsehoods. In particular, President Obama seemed to get caught up in policy details without framing his positions as part of a digestible and resonant story about how he’d lead America.
To get their narrative back, Democrats should be making three main points over the next month. First, they should pledge that they will rebuild the middle class and do it by using the government effectively and responsibly, as they started to do with the stimulus. Sure, using “competence” as its primary message tanked the Dukakis campaign, but that was a quarter-century ago, and since then competence has become the central challenge for our government. Romney himself may be gaining traction running as a competent businessman. Even George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign recognized that Ronald Reagan’s 1981 declaration that “government is the problem” no longer resonated just 20 years later. Widespread economic insecurity has made Americans more open to government intervention. A trend has accelerated: Despite the general success of conservative think tanks in eroding trust in government through their “starve the beast” strategy, Americans are more—not less—supportive of government intervention in their lives today than they were in past years.
Second, Democrats should pledge to make sure America’s strength is sustainable into the future. Here, Democrats have the opportunity to tout public investment in education, research, and infrastructure as, again, the responsible thing to do—a long-term plan for sustainability instead of a short-sighted quick fix, like irresponsible tax cuts. The proposal appeals to the liberal base, which favors government spending on public goods, but also to higher-minded (true) conservatives who, by temperament, understand the importance of long-term investments. It’s also a chance to convince understandably skeptical swing voters that Democrats are serious about long-term deficit control and entitlement reform (which, by the way, badly needs a new name, as Obama gestured at in the debate when discussing his grandmother’s reliance on government protections). These are essential elements of sustainable American strength, but not things most liberals like to dwell on. They provide an opportunity to talk about shared sacrifice, stewardship of the Earth, and a smart foreign policy.
Finally, Democrats should stress that their values are voters’ values. In some cases, this frame involves explicit references to beliefs and positions that most Democrats—and many independents—share, such as support for reproductive, LGBT, and immigrant rights. It should also include a principled defense of the rights and needs of the 99 percent and the 47 percent: tax fairness, regulations that protect consumers and the environment, and a commitment to government protections. And finally it should, once again, signal conservative values where possible—that is, where they don’t conflict with liberal policies—by linking the above values to the greater good, and hence back to the first two points: growing the middle class and strengthening the nation in sustainable, responsible, and fair ways.
None of this is radical or new. I’m not expecting the Obama campaign to read it as revelation. But Democrats clearly need a reminder that, as much as people say they want policy specifics to vote on, they vote on values, in part because they can’t possibly follow the minutiae of things like supply-side economics or international law. Instead, they follow the contours of a grand story line and decide whom to trust with writing the next chapter as they’d like to see it. For a while, Democrats seemed to get this. If they want to win next month, they’d better remember it fast.