The New Message Machine

There has been something of a tectonic shift in attitude in the last couple weeks. I recently noticed that people aren’t writing about withholding donations from the DNC and DSCC in blog comments lately. The refrain for the first six months of the year has been that people refuse to donate until the DNC begins holding Democrats accountable for speaking out against the President in the Media. Ever since the disappointing 2010 election, Democrats have been complaining openly to the White House and the DNC and OFA that our messaging has been anemic at best, even downright counter-productive to our cause.

The President heard that outcry and agreed to do something about it. I believe that now we are finally beginning to reap the rewards of that agreement. Given a combination of events, personnel changes and brilliant maneuvering by the President I now believe we have a sea change in Democratic Messaging.

Behind The Scenes

In January of this year, Jay Carney was tapped to become the new Press Secretary and he has done a brilliant job of it. His loyalty to the President and professionalism in dealing with the Press Corps is unassailable. I have marveled at his tact, deftness and adherence to the message, especially during the debt ceiling negotiations. If you’ll permit me to gush a little more, I even like his lip curl when he’s disgusted with a question from the jackals. Not good for playing poker, but charming none-the-less.

More importantly in January, David Plouffe was appointed as Senior Advisor to the President to work alongside Valerie Jarrett. I am beyond grateful to this man for being willing to come back to work for the President. His presence is very reassuring to me not only because he’s so steady and the President trusts him so much, but because he understands voters and how to listen to what is being said by everyday Americans. His intense focus on the real intelligence from real people and utter lack of concern for what is being said inside the beltway and by the chattering class is a wonder to behold.

The other critical personnel change the President made was to offer the Congresswoman from Florida Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She was elected on May 4th 2011. I remember reading how excited everyone was when this happened. She was hailed as a pitbull when it came to messaging. Fearless, fiercely loyal to the Party and its goals, a gifted speaker and someone who has a real flair for sound bites, DWS is without question the right person for the job. And badly needed, I might add.

Fate Intervenes

Something else happened in January 2011 that I believe helped the Democrats. Keith Olberman resigned his gig on MSNBC for a higher paying one on Current TV. He went from being the most-watched political pundit on the third most-watched Cable News channel, to the headliner with full editorial control on a barely known channel in the cable hinterlands with a fraction of the audience, but with room to grow. That had the effect of turning the anti-Democrat volume down several notches, as did the cancellation of the Glenn Beck show on Fox in April 2011. Two of the loudest, most extreme voices on television were essentially silenced. I’m not very well-traveled in the ether-verse, but I have seen very little evidence that either voice is terribly missed. It appears that those who listen to political analysis simply lost their taste for on-air tantrums and extremist diatribes.

Then in June of 2011, another rogue entity imploded: Congressman Anthony Weiner. Known for his fiery but ineffective speeches, he was well on his way to making a name for himself as a ‘progressive’ hero. Not terribly effective as a legislator, prior to being (ahem) exposed, he had taken to the airwaves to vilify the President as a fund-raising gambit.

It was at the time of this classic example of self-sabotage of an addict that we first began to witness the coalescing of the Democratic Party. In unison, from voter on the street to every member of Congress, all support for the Congressman was unapologetically withdrawn and the Congressman was pushed into resigning his seat. The fanatic Left-wingers attempted to mount a protest, but that effort died on the vine and went nowhere. The Party itself not only turned a deaf ear on Representative Weiner’s pleas for clemency, but across the board ignored the factions calling for his forgiveness. The ‘hero’ fell and another obstacle to message discipline was eliminated.

The Dry Run and the Opening Move

Shortly after the messaging guru David Plouffe was appointed as an advisor, we started hearing the term Win the Future. In typical Plouffe fashion, we started seeing banners and backgrounds and signs that read Win the Future. The term was first introduced to us in the 2011 State of the Union speech, where the President outlined his vision for how this country could out-educate, out-innovate and out-build the rest of the world if only we’d take on the challenges we needed to move the country forward. In subsequent speeches, the term was repeated. Then the term started showing up in the speeches and presentations of Cabinet members from Chu and LaHood to Vilsack and Salazar. It was everywhere. The President hasn’t let it go either; I heard him say it in his most recent press briefing. It was like a mating dance of a pair of cranes where they learn to coordinate their rhythms…a bonding exercise. It was effective in illustrating how we need to focus on our future as a Nation, but it didn’t really resonate with the rank and file, even with months of OFA pounding that drum. I personally miss it because it was based on the hope and optimism that forms the prism I look through when I gaze upon our great Country. As dry runs go, it was fun while it lasted.

Little did we realize, the message machine was gearing up in earnest and it was playing for keeps. Long before anyone else realized what he was doing, the President began to execute a plan to expose the Republican agenda for all to see. I don’t know how he knew what was in the Ryan Budget, but he had the foresight to say it was “A serious plan,” to lull the Republicans into believing this boondoggle was going to be accepted by the public. Then, in April of 2011 he invited the Republicans to the White House, sat Paul Ryan in the first row and proceeded to dismantle that plan in front of Ryan and the Press and got volumes written about how bad the plan was, how it would force Seniors to pay $6400 more a year for their Medicare to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. My favorite line to describe this dressing down came from Stephen Goldstein of the Sun Sentinel
Squirming in the audience, Ryan, who naïvely expected the president to kowtow to him, was sandbagged by a pro.
It was off to the races after that. A flurry of ads from the DNC started airing relentlessly in several markets, pounding the message of Seniors being forced to finance tax cuts for the wealthy and pointing to the Republicans who voted to dismantle Medicare until the Republicans cried, “Uncle.” For the first time in my memory, the Democrats not only had a winning message in a non-election environment, but were using it correctly. This message wasn't just playing at the ad buy level, it was the talk of every rank and file Democrat from sea to shining sea. Honestly, it was a thing of beauty to watch Democrats seize this message and have it reinforced in print and on television to the point where it was internalized and energized. Anyone who attended any kind of gathering of Democrats could see the spark in their eyes, the knowing glances and nods of agreement. We were on to something and we all knew it. This was a winning strategy.

Same Tune, Different Verse

Now that the political focus has shifted to the Debt and Deficit debate and raising the Debt Ceiling, we’re seeing the messaging theme add another layer of depth to the narrative of tax cuts for the wealthy heaping a financial burden on the rest of the Country. The President has taken his cause to the people by forcing Congressional leaders to attend meetings at the White House while the Media breathlessly await updates on the looming crisis. They love crises, so they can’t help themselves. Consequently they devote significant television minutes and newspaper column inches to what the President says, allowing his message to be conveyed to the general public that he is willing to compromise but the Republicans aren’t. Day after day, the implication is that the Republicans are protecting thewealthy's tax cuts to the detriment of the fiscal well-being of the Nation. And the public is on the President's side and is willing to accept doing away with tax loopholes and subsidies to the wealthy and corporations and is looking askance at the stubbornness of the Republicans.

None of us know how this will play out, but what seems clear to me is that the Democrats have finally found their voice and are at long last in lockstep with the President on this issue. I’m inclined to give a large portion of credit to both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for this development. Somewhere along the line the President was able to communicate enough of his long term plan to the Democrats in Congress and they are willing to let this play out. They have been extraordinarily disciplined lately and I’m convinced that discipline is going to pay off.

This didn’t just happen overnight. David Plouffe and Jay Carney established a beachhead of discipline in the White House and Cabinet and in the Press Briefing Room. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has wielded a fiery grip of order and message control to the DNC, Democratic Congressional leadership has held firm to the design, and some of the more egregious impediments from the chattering class and grandstanders have been muzzled. It’s like a perfect storm of the command of politics that very well might prove to be the Republicans worst nightmare. Democrats with a winning message and all the right tools to use it properly.

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