Branding the Democrats

Revenge can be sweet. Neuroscientists have discovered circuits in the brain that become active with the feelings of "sweet revenge," and it would take a saint or a stroke victim not to experience some pleasure watching Democrats regain the power of the subpoena after five long years. But with 18 months until the 2008 election, and with millions of voters swinging away from the GOP but unsure whom, exactly, they're swinging toward, the mantra of the left should be, in the inelegant language of advertising, branding.

Americans don't like what it means to be a Republican, but they don't know what it means to be a Democrat.

To build a coherent brand in politics -- a compelling perception of what your party stands for and why a voter would want to stand with you -- you have to do four things. The first is to use compelling language and imagery. If you want the average American to care about whether Karl Rove testifies under oath or just has a "chat" off the record, you can talk about the importance of having verbatim transcripts, and most voters will agree with your arguments. But if you want the electorate to feel why it matters, look straight into the camera and admonish the president, "Mr. Bush, just what it is about 'So help me God' that you find so offensive?"

The reality is that the only reason Bush wouldn't want to see Karl Rove with his left hand on the Bible and his right hand in the air is that he wouldn't want him to have to tell the truth. Invoking that image is worth a thousand arguments.

The second component of effective branding is telling a good story, both about yourself and the opposition. Our brains naturally search for story structures: an initial situation with a problem to be solved, protagonists trying to solve it, antagonists who get in the way, and a dénouement that leads to resolution of the problem. This structure, understood implicitly by every child, helped our ancestors transmit knowledge over generations for thousands of years before the rise of literacy. Conveying a message in a form the brain expects renders that message both understandable and memorable.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria spoke volumes about the failure of the president and the Secretary of State to do so themselves. But the best way to make sure voters pick up the right volume is to offer a simple narrative before embarking on the trip: "If the president isn't going to act like a grown-up and talk to people he doesn't like, we're going to have to do it for him. When grown-ups disagree, they talk with each other. We've seen what happens -- in Syria, Iran, and North Korea -- when you simply demand that other countries do what you say: They do exactly what you don't want them to do." Setting up the story line in advance renders the president's denunciation of Pelosi's visit much more difficult -- and makes his public tantrums in the new bipartisan world seem even more petulant.

The third key to branding reflects the way our minds associate one idea with another. Presuming Bush doesn't reap an unexpected public opinion windfall (say, from a terrorist attack), Republicans will do everything they can to portray their presidential ticket in 2008 as a "clean slate" and to minimize their association with a deeply unpopular administration. Every time Democrats criticize the Bush administration, they need to think in terms of associations: What will make this criticism stick to the Republican Party and its nominees in 2008 and beyond, not just to a failed administration? Virtually every sentence Democrats utter should be about "Bush and the Republican Party" or "Bush and his rubber-stamp Congress." Democrats should note at every turn that rubber-stamp Republicans have been accomplices to every mistake this administration has made.

The final component to effective branding is not what a party says but what it does. The way Democrats handle their confrontation with the White House on the firing of the U.S. attorneys is as important to the party's brand on national defense as the way they handle the confrontation on the funding of the Iraq War itself. Why? Because it sends a meta-message about how they handle confrontations. The willingness of Democratic leaders such as Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi to stare down the president has done far more to reassure the American people that Democrats know how to deal with aggression than all the efforts over the last five years to show that they, too, "support our troops."

The only other prerequisite to building a coherent brand is to know what you stand for. That may be the hardest one of all.